A few weeks ago, weeding through my books trying to free up some shelf space, I found a large dusty paperback with a tattered spine: “Taking Care of Your Child.” We hadn’t looked at it in years, but there was a time when my husband and I referred to it almost daily, with all our questions about teething and nutrition and unexplained fevers and rashes and when to call the pediatrician. I sat for a moment, remembering — fondly but with some condescension — the anxious parents we used to be, and then I threw the book out. We’d read it to shreds, so we couldn’t give it away, and our kids are now 25 and 19 and they take care of themselves, pretty much.
But then last Friday, we were in the emergency room at Boston Children’s Hospital with our 19-year-old. He’d been sick for a week with nausea and a fever and chills, which we and his doctor had ascribed to a virus until the results of a blood culture came back positive for bacteria. Suddenly we were back in the world of taking care of our child. Well, we were and we weren’t. Our child is almost six feet tall, wears size 10½ shoes, and shaved off a week’s worth of beard before we took him over to Children’s. As he lay on the almost-too-small examining table beneath a bright painting of kites and daisies and frolicking animals, I looked over at him and noticed a few gray hairs. The doctor mentioned that the bacteria had gram-negative rods; when he left the room my husband and I asked our son, who has taken a lot more biology than we ever did, what this meant and he told us it had to do with the cell membrane.
He was in the hospital for three days, and we spent the time hanging out with him, trying to gauge how much parental attention he wanted and how much privacy he needed. “Doin’ the lap, huh?” a nurse said, when she noticed me circling the hallways. Other parents were doing the lap, too, some making eye contact, some not. There was a sign on one of the bulletin boards, tallying how many laps made up a mile, and how many made up a marathon. Other bulletin boards offered resources on seizure disorders, how to talk to a child about pain, what to say to the sibling of a hospitalized child, relaxation techniques for parents.
The more you do the lap, the more you see. A man pushed his baby in a stroller; a tube ran from her nostrils to an oxygen canister in the stroller’s basket. A toddler with a jaunty hair ribbon and an IV bag smiled at everyone in the elevator (“oh, we’re just riding up and down,” said her mother); when I walked past their room later I heard the doctor say the words “cardiac surgery.” In the lounge a family sat praying, eyes closed, heads bowed. Next door to my son a tiny baby cried and cried; often when I walked by I saw a nurse sitting in his darkened room, holding him. There was a sign on his door with his photo and a message in a language I didn’t recognize. Other signs, on other doors, listed precautions for caregivers and visitors — gowns, gloves, hand hygiene. On one closed door a yellow sign read, “PLEASE REMEMBER TO HANDLE MY BONES WITH CARE.”
A day after our son was discharged, his infection under control, I kept thinking about what I saw in the hospital: the children in beds and in cribs and in miniscule infant seats mounted sideways in cribs; the parents sitting with them and getting them apple juice and circling the halls; the doctors, nurses, and assistants, who were so skilled, energetic, and gentle. I’ve never been in a place that was more nakedly about the love we have for our children.
Our family is lucky enough today to be outside again, back in the world of watching our son pack for college, arguing with him a little. We think he’s pushing too hard. He thinks we’re hovering. He thinks he can take care of himself, and he can. We think we’ll never be done taking care of our child, and we’re right.
Joan Wickersham’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Her latest book is “The News From Spain: Seven Variations on a Love Story.’’