"Daddy, my tummy hurts."
It is Saturday morning, a little after nine o'clock, and we are hurtling southwards on I-95 when my daughter makes this announcement from the back seat of our car. As any parent of a toddler well knows, the tummyache is hardly cause for serious concern ninety-nine times out of hundred, but I am unsettled nonetheless. Yesterday, when picking up Andriana from daycare, I couldn't help but overhear one of the teachers telling a parent that one of the two-year-olds went home with a virus earlier in the afternoon; compound that with a seemingly innocuous if somewhat embarassing gagging episode in a local Portuguese eatery in the evening and the fact that our little one felt a little warm when we put her to bed, and all of a sudden I'm feeling slightly more worried than normal by Andriana's complaint.
We are just an hour into a long-distance drive from our home on Cape Ann to my mother's house in New Jersey, where we plan to celebrate our daughter's third birthday with my brother and his not-quite-yet fiancee before heading across the Delaware to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania for Orthodox Easter festivities with some of my wife's rowdier relatives. Greek Easter is a big thing compared to its American counterpart -- like Easter, Christmas, and New Year's rolled together, with a little bit of Fourth of July barbeque in the form of a lamb (or sometimes a goat) on a spit and more Mediterranean culinary delights than you can shake a stick at.
My wife's relatives in the Lehigh Valley are infamous for their Easter festivities, which have in past included Slurpee-sized vodka tonics at dawn and generous helpings of lamb tripe soup and boiled dandelion greens slathered with olive oil and squeezes of lemon. As friends and family rove from household to household, much lamb is consumed, suspicious homebrewed alcohol is quaffed out of plastic gas cans, and grown men dance with basil plants. It's a good time, and we're excited to be able to join in the fun after missing it last year, when burned out from our recent move from Peabody we opted to stay in New England. Moreoever, it will be the first Greek Easter my mom will be in attendance, her curiosity about how the in-laws celebrate this holiday finally having gotten the best of her after all of these years. So when my daughter was clutching her stomach earlier in the morning and wincing, I chalked her aches and pains up to bolting her breakfast (as she is wont to do) and overexcitement at the prospect of seeing her grandmother on Saturday and half of Greece the following morning.
But now I'm not so sure.
"My tummy hurts, Daddy!"
This is not Andriana's customary tone of voice when complaining about her minor discomforts. I instinctively slow down and crane my neck around to check on my daughter -- a completely pointless and unsafe thing to do, as my wife is already sitting in the back seat -- when she begins to retch. Fortunately Maria is quick to produce a Dunkin' Donuts bag to prevent Andriana from either throwing up all over herself or the floor of the car, and I take the nearest exit off the highway so that we can at least deal with the situation while not moving at seventy miles per hour. We pull over onto a dirt parking lot in front of a landscaping company and attend to our daughter, who is now crying.
I feel her forehead -- she's burning up. Why didn't we take her temperature before leaving the house? Now I'm angry with myself for letting my enthusiasm for our road trip get in the way of taking Andriana's symptoms more seriously.
What now? Our thermometers are back at the house, and suddenly the six to seven hours of driving ahead of us feel more like sixty or seventy. Driving across state lines with a healthy child can be an epic journey in and of itself; the prospect of pressing on with Andriana feverish and absolutely miserable is not a pleasant one. Still, the momentum of already being on our way is seductive. Putting off a day's activity on account of sickness is one thing, whereas turning around and heading home when you're packed and sixty-odd miles down the road is quite another. But I look at my daughter and her expression is glassy. She's clearly not going to make it to Rhode Island, much less New Jersey.
"Shit. We have to turn around."
My wife, to my surprise, does not fight me on this. I know how much Easter means to her, and I also know that she can count the amount of times she's celebrated the holiday without her parents on her thumbs. But she's worried about Andriana, too. Neither of us wants to drag our poor daughter back and forth over three days of driving, no matter how much it'll disappoint both the grandmothers and the rest of the family.
As if on cue, my mother-in-law calls on Maria's cell phone. She relays the bad news as I make a u-turn on the local road and get back on to I-95, only this time heading back northbound in the direction of home. I feel strangely leaden as I merge into oncoming traffic, the fact that we are doubling back weighing me down as much as my concern for Andriana. What if it's a false alarm, I think, and we decide that she's well enough to travel after all? Every mile traversed seems like a taunt, as I prepare myself for the fact that we may very well be covering the same stretch of road some three times before this day is out.
Maria calls the pediatrician's office, and while we wait for them to get back to us I call my mother to give her the heads-up. She suspects the worst even before I tell her anything, and already being an emotional individual to begin with is in tears by the time I do so. I do feel bad for her -- not only was she looking forward to celebrating a late birthday for Andriana (with a cake and all, no less), but she really did want to join the Greeks for Easter.
In a way I'm gratified by this, as my family has been rather hesitant to attend any functions on my wife's side. Even though Maria and I have both made it abundantly clear that the Greek sense of immediate family being much broader than the nuclear ideal of American suburbia, my folks would have been more than welcome at the numerous weddings, baptisms, and holiday parties which have been thrown over the years, they've always managed to find an excuse not to go until this Easter. Of course, this makes it all the more difficult to inform my mother that we will not in fact be coming down as planned.
Andriana, although sick, is also upset when she realizes what's going on. "I don't want to go home," she cries. "I want to go to Babci's house!" (Babci is the Polish word for grandmother)
This is the point at which being a parent absolutely sucks. While turning around is clearly the right thing to do, it will make no one happy. Fortunately -- or is it mercifully? -- my daughter succeeds in crying herself to sleep, so that the heartbreak is not too much to bear. We take advantage of the fact that she's out cold to duck into the nearest pharmacy and buy some Pedialyte and an instant-read thermometer. Her temperature comes up at over 103 degrees. We relay this fact to the pediatrician's office, who tell us to keep Andriana hydrated and not to give her any children's Tylenol on an empty stomach.
The last few miles seem to go on forever, and as we turn onto our street I reflect on how perfectly miserable this weekend has turned out to be. The funny thing is that less than twenty-four hours ago Maria and I were thinking the exact opposite was true -- having skipped out of work an hour early, we had managed to go and get the oil changed on the car without even having to wait in line, a remarkable bit of good fortune which should have had us on high alert for the correction in Karma which would inevitably ensue. Now not only would we not be able to enjoy the Easter holiday with our loved ones, but suddenly an empty long weekend loomed before us.
While there's nothing like an unexpected free evening (or even a whole day every now and then) materialize out of the blue, the reality of having a weekend of planning fall through on you is always a bit of a shock; and the fact that we were going to be nursing a potentially very sick three-year-old through it wasn't exactly helping the situation. Already as I pulled the car up in front of the house, I began to second-guess our decision. Were we too rash? After all, it was only a fever -- couldn't we have kept on driving and hope it broke in time for Easter, rather than jettisoning the whole thing right there and then. What if she was fine by midafternoon?
But then again, what if she wasn't? What if on the way down she became worse? It was relatively easy, if somewhat a pain in the ass, to turn around halfway through Massachusetts -- what if she became violently ill in the middle of Connecticut, or worse, what if she had to be taken to the hospital while we were down in New Jersey? Andriana's special medical considerations always made me leery of entrusting her health to anyone but the pediatricians and specialists who've known her since birth, though I suppose this is probably true of any parents and their children. Who wants to deal with foreign hospitals and strange doctors when your child is suffering?
In the end, being a parent means you have to make the call and live with the result. False alarm? Well, then you're going to feel like a total moron for a few months. Press on and make your child even worse? Well, you know that that isn't going to feel too great, either. The reality of the situation, however, is that most of the time you're just not going to know one way or the other whether you did the right thing or not. If the fever breaks on Sunday morning, is that due to the fact that you went straight home and put your daughter to bed, or would the fever have gone away in less than twenty-four hours no matter what you did; same thing if she got worse -- was it because you didn't let her rest, or was the bug simply that strong?
As it turned out, Andriana woke up on Sunday morning with a normal temperature and a hearty appetite. I'd like to think it was a direct result of our careful ministrations and a good deal of bed rest, but that's probably so much ex post facto rationalization on my part. All I know is that my baby was not well and I had to make a decision right there on the spot. Was it the right one? Maybe. Am I happy with making the call the way I did? Not really. But would I make the same decision over again, if given the chance? Without a doubt. We may have missed out on the whole roasted lamb, the 32-ounce vodka tonics, and seeing the extended family, but there will always be other opportunies to eat, drink, and be merry. In the meantime my wife and I would eat lamb chops on the broiler, split a bottle of retsina, and celebrate the holiday reveling in the simple joy of seeing our sick daughter become well again.