A sound like scraping sandpaper comes through the crackly monitor of my three-year-old shortly after midnight. Jumping out of bed (which these days is more of a slow creak), I open his bedroom door. The unmistakable smell makes the hairs in my nostrils stiff.
A tummy bug has hit.
He sits in middle of his bed, dazed, half awake from that lovely deep sleep children seem to enjoy.
I call for back-up. As we strip him down and set to work, I curse my lack of hotpress organisation, which for some reason isn’t top of my hobby list. I rifle through piles of random textiles, akin to a department store bargain basement bin, before I finally emerge victorious with a duvet and a pillow and I exchange the now-stained robot covers for woodland animals.
I kiss him goodnight, it being far too late to avoid tummy bug germs. Placing a little basin by his bed, I hope that this was a one-off.
We leave armed with bundles of bedding to be scraped and soaked. But that thankless tedious housework in the middle of the night instead feels strangely satisfying, like a warm, caring, expression of love, albeit a stomach-churning one.
We also have two casualties, bunny and brown bear. As favourites since birth, it’s not their first visit to the washing machine A&E. As happens many of us at a certain age, brown bear’s neck is getting a bit stretched and wrinkled. I turn off the spin on the machine for fear this illness could knock the stuffing out of him (literally).
An hour later, drifting into dreams, I hear it again. This time the service from Mammy is slower and less consistent, the replacement bedding is a guest pillow and duvet that dwarfs his little body.
We snuggle. “It will end soon,” I tell my pale and shocked little boy. I sit on his bed and rub his forehead. As my foot hits the creaking board on the way out, he faintly says “will you stay Mammy”. It’s 2am. I settle into the armchair. I sing him a gentle song as he falls to sleep. I feel oddly happy and content.
And so the night goes almost every hour. By 4.30am we’re down to old cushions for a pillow “Why is not over yet Mammy,” he croaks as the bug keeps battling in his now-empty stomach. He clings to me. My oldest boy daily tries to show his independence, to distinguish himself from his baby brother and has even taken to calling me Genevieve. Not tonight.
I’d rather be in bed. I’d prefer he wasn’t sick. But there’s a strange closeness in being his comforter. Being allowed to be his Mammy. Being allowed to baby my boy who is growing up too fast. I rub his hair, from which the smell of the night sticks. I tell him he’s nearly there, over and over again.
And so it is. But unlike previous sicknesses, he doesn’t bounce back in the morning. When you’re 3½, everything has drama. Happy or sad, rested or tired. Drama. Not this morning. There is no light inside.
The noise of a reversing truck on the street doesn’t make him jump to the window. The sight of his teddies sunbathing dry in the garden barely gets a nod. His brother pulling his small cars out of the cupboard doesn’t cause an annoyed squeal.
He doesn’t complain when I offer him toast cut on an orange plate.
I long for a tired, hungry, shouting tantrum on the floor.
We settle into his slow recovery and enjoy a guilt-free idleness (bar the constant whirr of the washing machine). It’s an anything-goes day where we break the rules and eat snacks on the couch instead of at the table and watch a movie without feeling we should be playing.
That evening, he grabs a toy from his little brother and insists I change his bagel to a blue plate and cut it in three. I breathe with relief but sigh with foreboding as I await the bug’s inevitable spread.