From broken legs to broken hearts, my mother believed there were few human ailments that could not be cured by a cool cloth laid across the forehead. She was, in her own modest way, a master of this motherly art form, making the cloth neither too cold nor too warm, wringing it out to a perfect degree, and folding it in exact thirds. Laid across a fevered brow with a delicate touch, that cloth brought instant comfort of the kind that only a mother can provide.
My days of being tended to are long gone now. I’m the Cool Cloth Applicator in Chief for my own children, and I hope to live up to the high standards set by Katherine Clifford Kendrick. This time of year, I stay pretty busy. If I can ever find a copy of my kids’ union contracts, I’m sure I will discover a subclause that stipulates that one of them must always be ill, between the months of October and June, on an alternating schedule, major holidays always included (see Appendix A, paragraph iii). I’ve spent the past several weeks getting one young woman back on the road to recovery, only to have the other one succumb just hours later. (Hugo the exchange student, may God protect his upper sinus cavity, has been blessedly well, but the girls have been, well, a bit bronchial.)
Here are some things that I do on an average workday: conduct interviews, write, talk with colleagues, develop plans, do invoicing, and dial in on conference calls. Here are some other things I also do: walk the dog, eat lunch, look out the window at the runners trudging up the Parkway hill, and think two consecutive thoughts in a row. It is, no surprise, the latter category that tends to get shoved aside when one of the Precious Blossoms is ailing. Instead, I juggle conference calls with cups of tea, deadlines with Tylenol dispensing … and many, many cool cloths.
They each have their own personal sickness style. Mary Katherine always adds a heap of self-flagellation to her symptoms, creating her own little version of Adelaide’s Lament: “I don’t know why I let this happen. I have too much homework for this to happen. I have to get better Right Now.” Poor Mary Katherine. Her birth mother must have been some sort of guilt-ridden Irish Catholic, because that kid’s DNA seems to have be soaked in Jameson Irish Whiskey and set on fire.
Emma, on the other hand, always finds opportunity for delight during the process of falling, succumbing and recovering from a major illness. She savors the ample time for self-examination, accompanied by minute-by-minute symptom reports, live from the Emma Newsroom: “My left ear hurts a little more than my right, no wait, I think it’s my throat that hurts a little bit more, but more in the front, not in the back ... ooh! Now my head hurts!”
I can remember the first time I realized that this kid must have an ancenstral link to a major Chinese dynasty. She was about five years old, bedridden and lying against several recently fluffed pillows. I was scurrying around her bedroom, clearing away the tray of lunch, which had included homemade broth that she’d insisted I feed to her, spoonful by spoonful.
I looked up from my labors and saw a look cross her face that could only be described as Utter Joy. “You like being waited on, don’t you?” I asked, just realizing it myself. She nodded happily, leaned back against the pillows, and began her Symptom Report. This kid would have liked to have her feet bound, I found myself thinking, as long as there was a nice retinue around to carry her around the Forbidden City.
Back around that time, I gave Emma a little bell my mother had let me use when I was sick, and told her to ring it whenever she needed me and felt too weak to call out. The bell got quite a workout one sad, sick weekend, and then Leah arrived for nanny duty on Monday morning. We stood over Emma’s bed, Symptom Report droning in the background, while I explained the details of her condition. “Show her the bell,” Emma croaked. I did. I will never forget what Leah said next: “No.” Calmly, clearly and professionally, she explained that no bell would be used to summon her. Ever. Emma shrugged, realizing that she was no match for a well-developed psyche and a healthy display of self-esteem, and continued to use the bell to summon me, as soon as Leah had left for the day.
As old as my children are, I am starting to see the end of my engagement in the Cool Cloth business. It can’t last forever, I tell myself. And not that any parent ever gives in expectation of receiving the same sort of affection back, but I do have a pretty good idea that neither of these tootsies will ever be wringing out the cloth to lay across my ancient forehead as I gasp my last lungful on earth.
I got my confirmation of that suspicion this spring. Fifty percent of the family was in China, visiting Emma’s birth city. Of the contingent remaining at home, one was staying busy with the last days of eighth grade and nightly rehearsals for a play in which she’d been cast, happy as a clam with the lovely spring that was unfolding before her sparkling eyes.
The other 25 percent of the family was lying in bed, moaning, and wishing for a swift death. Mary Katherine popped her head into my bedroom every now and then, seeming a little puzzled: “Mom? Not working? Hmmm … oops, there’s my ride to rehearsal.” One night, I felt so bad that I began debating with myself about the wisdom of calling an ambulance. It is some measure of how much motherhood has taken over my last bits of personhood that I decided against this plan, thinking that it would upset Mary Katherine if she came home from her rehearsal and saw the flashing lights in the driveway, or discovered that I was no longer at home. I imagined the story being replayed at bitter holiday retellings: “The time Mom called an ambulance for herself and I was so upset.” I decided to roll over and just die in my sleep.
Sadly, I woke up the next morning, feeling just as bad. The phone rang at noon and I found it in among the covers. It was Julie Brown-Price. I already knew that she was my friend. I was about to discover that she was even more so. “I’m sitting here at Q. Cumbers. You’re never late. Are you okay?” she asked. I groaned. We’d had lunch plans. I told her what was happening. She asked me two questions: 1) When was the last time you ate? (24 hours ago, as best I could make out, but I’d been drinking tap water from the little cup in the bathroom, I assured her) and 2) Is your back door unlocked? I said that it was and fell back on the hot, mushy pillows. Oh, for some fluffing.
Forty-five minutes later, there she was, steaming into my kitchen like the deli angel, arms laden with hot chicken soup from Whole Foods, flowers and Throat-Coat tea. She talked to me. She felt my forehead. When I took that first spoonful of chicken soup, I knew I would live, for whatever that was worth, and that I had her to thank for it.
Sometimes the cool cloth does arrive, just not from the place you expect it to. I hope that every person who reads these words has a friend as true and good as my friend Julie, who understands when it's time to stop standing around and get over to someone's back door. And if any of you mothers out there have a bell that you let your kids use when they’re sick, go throw it in the trash right now, I mean it.