“Hey Dad, get a picture of me with the football!”
I raised the camera and aimed it at Collie. He held back the football as if he were prepared to throw it to me. I crouched, bringing into the frame the backdrop of skyscrapers over the verdant tree line. We were lucky. The annual fourth grade class picnic was blessed by a beautiful summer afternoon. It was hot, but breezy in the shade.
“Okay—smile, handsome man!” Collie grinned. “Ooh, nice one,” I admired. “Take a look; we can put this one on a bubble-gum card, dude.”
Collie giggled. “Hey, can I take some pictures of the soccer game?”
“Yes, if I can take a picture of you and your teacher.”
“No way,” he said. He had no reason to refuse me, really, other than his immaculate control over the use of his image.
“Fine,” I said, beginning to put away the camera.
“Oh, fine, you can do it,” Collie said, throwing back his shoulders. He turned on his heels and marched to the side of Mrs. Ferenzi.
“Oh, hello Collie, what’s up?” she asked.
“Just look at my Dad,” he replied, staring straight ahead.
“Your Dad . . . oh, hello, Henry.”
“Hey, mind if I take a picture of you two? Collie is only doing it to appease me—he says he doesn’t want a picture with you.”
“Oh, he doesn’t, does he?” she smiled. “Well, we’ll see about that.”
Mrs. Ferenzi bent forward, taking Collie into a hug. He was giggling as the shutter snapped. “Oh, that looks sweet,” Mrs. Ferenzi said as we reviewed the photograph.
“Whatever,” Collie said in his toughest roughest tone. “Now, give me the camera, old man.”
“’Old man, please,’” I corrected.
“Whatever,” he laughed, taking the camera and running off.
“I really deserve better children,” I sighed.
Mrs. Ferenzi laughed. “He’s too much. I’m going to miss him.”
“So keep him,” I offered. “He can lead your new baby astray. How many more weeks?”
She rested a hand on her belly. “She’s due in mid-July.”
We fell to talking about childbirth, and the way teachers plan to have babies in summer. It makes for a memorable Thanksgiving, if you get my drift.
As we walked back to school, we passed a park worker watering flowers. He offered to mist the students. The kids squealed as the water rained down over them, washing away the sweat and heat. They were covered in dew as we returned to the school for dismissal.
In the yard, I found Lillie standing still in the sun. She didn’t run to me as usual. As I approached, I could see she was crying. I picked up my pace. “Sweetie, what’s wrong?” I asked.
“My head hurts,” she sobbed. Her sob gave way to deep coughs. She gagged and vomited at my feet.
“Baby, you are burning up! Let’s get you in the shade.”
A nearby mother asked another, “Oh God, where is her teacher? Someone should get her teacher!” I ignored the mother’s panic, and put aside my annoyance about the presumed ineptitude of fathers. I overhear this kind of thing fairly often, actually, as if a man alone with children were the most appalling aberration of social norms.
Thanks lady, but I can take care of my sick child without the assistance of a teacher.
In the school, I put a cold compress on Lillie’s forehead and gave her a water bottle from my picnic bag.
She cooled down and her stomach settled.
Collie carried her backpack as we left the school. We hailed a cab.
Once we got home, Lillie stripped to her panties and crawled into bed. I cranked the air conditioning and retrieved Children’s Tylenol to bring down her fever. She soon felt much better. She told me that she had felt bad during gym, her last class of the day, then worse at dismissal. “Must be the heat,” I said knowingly, exuding parental confidence in the diagnosis. “So you are going to drink water and take medicine. And no school tomorrow.”
Lillie giggled. “I have to get a sick day?”
I nodded. “That’s right. And I want you to watch a lot of television, young lady.”
A grin took over her face. “And we can play Uno?”
“Yes. And Sorry.”
Lillie was delighted to be sick.
That evening, her mother called to check on the kids. She wanted the details on Lillie’s illness, so she spoke at length with the co-parent she most trusts.
My twelve-year-old son Jason.
“Yeah, Mom, what’s up?” Jason spoke into his cell phone. His eyes watched the television as Collie battled against Obi Wan. Collie generally prefers to play for the Dark Side.
“Uh yeah Mom, she threw up, but she’s fine now . . . watching television . . . yeah, Dad gave her something . . . no, I don’t guess she’s going to school tomorrow . . . I dunno, soup, I guess . . . no, Collie, behind the cantina, behind the cantina!”
“Beast!” Collie shouted. “I’m a beast! Oh yeah, oh yeah.”
“Yeah Mom . . . so, you want to talk to Dad? Okay . . . one sec.” Jason came to the kitchen and handed over his cell phone.
“Mom,” he reported. He walked back to his game.
“Henry? How is Lillie?”
“She’s much better. I gave her Tylenol for the fever, so it may be back, but . . .”
“What was her temperature?”
“Well, unfortunately, we broke our thermometer, so I don’t know the exact temperature. She was warm to the touch, though—not broiling.”
“You don’t have a thermometer.”
I readied myself. “No, it’s broken. But as I said, her fever is down, and . . .”
“Henry, you have to have a thermometer. It’s important to know the exact temperature. You can get one delivered. Or call the pharmacy and have it put aside—maybe Jason can go pick it up. That’s faster. You can have it put aside, and give him the money. He can go get it and bring it back.”
“Uh huh.” I rested the phone against my shoulder and continued chopping mushrooms.
“Don’t get one of those digital ones, you know, like the one we used to have that goes in the ear? Those aren’t accurate. You want one of those that goes under the arm. You know the ones I mean?”
“Uh huh, under the arm.” I lowered the heat on the chicken stock.
“Henry, it’s very important to do this.”
“Okay. So anyway, I’m keeping her home tomorrow. I think she’s improving, but she can’t be in school if the fever returns.”
“Right.” Lucy sighed. “So can I talk to her?”
“Sure, one sec.” I put down the knife and took Jason’s cell to Lillie. I returned to the kitchen and dropped mushrooms into the soup.
Of course, I wasn’t calling the pharmacy.
When the kids are sick, Lucy’s anxiety disorder takes over her maternal instinct. She wants desperately to be in control of the situation, which forces her to go the extraordinary length of speaking directly to me.
In these moments of familial crisis, she most regrets that she is required to share parenting. As her father once said, Lucy forgets that she is not a single parent.
She’s a co-parent. Her children have a father.
Unfortunately, Lucy sees me not as a partner, but as a delinquent subordinate who cannot be relied upon to do as instructed. If only I would follow her directions, she could be sure that responsible decisions are made and acted upon. Otherwise, she has no alternative but to trust me—and that is an untenable option.
I just don’t get it, she tells me. I will never understand how a mother worries.
Of course I won’t. How could I possibly understand a parent’s concerns?
Around midnight, Lillie woke up crying. She was burning up. I gave her more Tylenol and a glass of water. I rubbed her back as she returned to sleep, holding her blanket and sucking her thumb.
The next morning, she woke feeling fine. She wasn’t going to school at any rate, but she was in good spirits. She felt very “big girl.” She wanted to stay home as I got the boys to school.
I knocked on the door of my neighbor, Trish. It was just after seven, but I knew she would be up: she has two young children as her alarm clock. We put into action the plan we had devised the night before.
“Sorry to bother you,” I said, “But sure enough, Lillie wants to stay here while I’m gone. She’s okay, and I won’t be long . . .”
Trish waved her hand. “It’s fine, we’ll keep an ear out.”
“I’ll leave my door unlocked,” I said.
“Me too,” Trish said, “Now go!”
Lillie knew that she was staying in our apartment so she wouldn’t expose Trish’s kids to germs. But if she felt bad, or got scared, she should go to Trish immediately. “I know, Dad,” she smiled. I gave her the phone and made sure could call my cell. “I know, Dad. But I won’t call unless I throw up.”
I tucked her in bed and turned on the television. I made sure I had cab fare. I did what one has to do with one sick child, two healthy children, and no other adult in the home. I relied on my support network.
The boys were at school and I was on my way home when my cell rang. It was Lucy. “Henry, where are you?”
“I’m in the park, heading home. So, Lillie woke up last night . . .”
“And where are the boys?”
“At school, Lucy.”
“At home. She woke up last night with a fever and . . .”
“You left her at home? Henry, she’s six years old. You can not leave her home alone!”
“Trish is across the hall and Lillie knows that . . .”
“Trish is home? You swear to God?”
“Yes, God knows, Trish is home. So, yeah, Lillie woke up around midnight . . . “
“So if I go to the apartment right now and bang on the door, Trish will be home?”
I sighed. “If you are going over there, want to swing by and pick me up?”
“This is serious, Henry. I swear to God, if you ever leave that little girl home alone, even for a minute, I swear to God I’m calling Child Services and hauling your ass to jail so fast, you won’t believe it. You have to be responsible, Henry, you just don’t get . . .”
I closed the phone and put it in my pocket. If she wants to talk about Lillie’s fever, I’m here. If her priority is to act on her anxieties by chewing me out, I have other concerns.
“Dad?” Lillie called as I closed the door. “You’re home!”
“Yes, dear.” I went to her room. She was watching Nick, Jr. “How are you feeling, big girl?”
“Fine. You were fast!”
I kissed her forehead. It was cool. “Yeah baby, it just took a minute. You want some oatmeal?”
Lillie improved throughout the day.
That evening, I phoned her mother to give Lucy an update on her condition. When Lucy answered, I could hear birds in the background. I assumed she was sitting on the wrought iron furniture in the backyard of the home we bought together, where she now lives. I pictured the azaleas in full bloom. The grass probably needed its first cutting. I told Lucy that Lillie was much better, and would be back at school the next morning.
“That’s good,” Lucy said. She sounded tired. “Hey, Henry, about this morning . . . I’m sorry. You know how I get.”
“I do,” I said, surprised that she had brought this up. “But you have to know, it doesn’t help. I didn’t make Lillie sick, so there’s no need to blame me.”
“I know, I’m sorry.”
We paused. “Don’t worry about it,” I said. “You want to talk to Lillie?”
“Yes, please.” I took the phone to Lillie. I stood at the door, listening as she told her mom that she was not sick any more. She didn’t even throwed up, not even once.
Imagine that, I thought. Entirely of her own volition, Lucy had apologized.