The three scariest things that can happen to a childless man:
Looking in the mirror and seeing your father’s face staring back at you.
Hearing the mechanic suck in his breath through his teeth when you ask how much it’ll cost.
Your girlfriend turning to you and saying, “I know we’ve never talked about having children, but I’ve got some news…’
The three scariest things that can happen to a parent:
Answering the door to a stranger who says, “Hello, I’m from Child Services.”
Discovering a rash that looks strangely like those meningitis pictures you keep Googling.
When your child stops breathing.
So this afternoon I was driving along with my wife and youngest daughter in the car when suddenly 17-month-old Rosie’s breathing started to sound a bit raspy, like there was something lodged in her throat and she was struggling to breathe. I looked round and she was staring vacantly off to one side.
‘Rosie?’ I said.
‘Can you check on her?’ I asked my wife.
She turned round in her seat and said, with increasing panic, ‘Rosie? Rosie? Rosie!’
I looked round again and Rosie was still staring off to the side, eyes still blank, but now her lips were blue, her face was violet, and she looked like a porcelain doll.
‘I’m pulling in!’ I shouted, spun the wheel and stopped the car on someone’s driveway. Leaping out, I scattered the contents of the door pocket all across the road, rushed round the back of the car, ripped open Rosie’s door and dragged her from the seat.
She had this glazed look in her eyes and she was trying to breathe but there was nothing but this horrible gurgling rattle, and she was totally unresponsive.
I turned her upside down, lay her over my forearm and slapped her hard between the shoulder blades, whereupon two old ladies, thinking I was assaulting her, asked if she was okay.
I checked her and she wasn’t, so I shook her, turned her over, slapped her again a few times. When I turned her back the right way she was still struggling to breathe, but there was a bit more life in her eyes.
Cuddling her and bouncing her up and down, gradually the colour returned to her lips and she started breathing, if not normally then at least no longer sounding like she was dying. She didn’t react to me, just stared away and kept yawning and closing her eyes, everything sluggish and drained, her eyelids pink and lurid.
Luckily we were only a few minutes from the local surgery, so I rushed her there and they put me straight in to see a doctor. She was so sleepy, she didn’t react to the thermometer in her ear or the stick in her mouth, but she did start to cry when the doctor listened to her chest.
The long and the short of it, she has a fever but her chest sounds clear and her throat isn’t swollen. The doctor thinks it’s one of three things:
A fit, though with no other symptoms or a repeat performance, it’s difficult to say any more at this time.
She choked on a foreign body or even her own saliva.
She is ill, and sometimes children hold their breath when they’re feeling rotten, even to the point of turning blue.
Reassured, I took her home and she has been asleep on me the last ninety minutes while I listen to her breathing. But oh my gosh, if you’ve ever known fear before becoming a parent, it’s a thousand times worse after. It was probably three minutes between seeing her lips were blue and the colour returning to them, but those three minutes have kicked the living crap out of me.
A night with a couple of hours of broken sleep is normal when you’re a parent, and while unpleasant, more than bearable.
What’s slightly harder is when that night of broken sleep is followed by a day of doctors and hospitals, a night with no sleep, a day helping prepare for the wedding, another night of no sleep, and another day preparing for the wedding, and then a wedding rehearsal.
This evening, after bathing the baby at Lizzie’s dad’s farm, I had to get someone to take the baby off me before I collapsed. Possibly because, looking after Izzie around the clock for four days, trying to get her to eat, keep her fluids up and soothe her, I was not only in desperate need of sleep, I had neglected eating or drinking myself.
Lizzie, of course, has been understandably preoccupied with arrangements for Saturday, leaving the brunt to unfortunately fall upon me. Izzie is very grizzly, has a fluctuating temperature, and chronic diarrhoea – all a result of her gastroenteritis. Worse, since Wednesday’s stint in the Children’s Unit, she has developed a phobia of syringes. Every dose of Calpol or Ibuprofen or gripe water is met with stubborn resistance and followed by two hours of misery.
As a result of the experience of hospitals, she has become remarkably clingy. I have never been hugged so hard. If I so much as lean forward an inch, this vice-like grip tightens around my shoulders and she starts to scream.
So she will only sleep on me.
That’s great if you’re able to sleep with a baby snoring on your chest. If you can’t, after a few days it seems to result in a spinning head, pink eyes, trembling hands, a stiff neck, an aching back, a sore chest, intermittent breathlessness, and a face that twitches as though attached to a whole mesh of electrical wire. All I need now is a rash that doesn’t disappear when a glass is pressed over it, and I’ll be really worried!
Tonight, for the second night in a year, I am sans baby. The night before my wedding. I was always meant to spend it alone, but after my near-fainting episode, they sent me home early. And instead of luxuriating in my aloneness or living it up, or at the very least working on my speech, I can’t open my left eye, my head feels like someone is sawing through it with a spoon, and no matter how hard I try, I’m too tired to fall asleep!
In all honesty, I’m a tad worried about my little one. But there are fifteen people there, including her mum, aunt, great-aunt, grandmother and grandfather. It’s an important lesson to learn: I’m not invincible and I can’t do it all alone, despite how much I think I can. I guess that’s what marriage is all about.
And on that note, I’d better at least try to get some sleep, or they’ll have to Photoshop my eyes open in the pictures!
They say that life is what happens while you’re making other plans, and they’re definitely not wrong. I had this week planned out in fine detail. I have to: I’m getting married on Saturday. So there is an awful lot to do and I couldn’t afford any hiccups.
You can guess where this is going.
When you’re a dad, hiccups go with the territory. I expected a few things to crop up. I hadn’t imagined that life, death, birth, suicide and viral gastroenteritis would feature quite so prominently, however.
It started Monday. I was already up against it as I had my stag-do that night, when, driving home along a country lane, I saw a ball of white fluff wandering down the middle of the road. Since it’s a busy road and people drive like maniacs, I stopped to move it out of traffic, when I realised it was something I really couldn’t leave to get run over.
There were no trees about – just bushes – and those on the other side of a ditch, and if I left it in a random hedge there was no way it’d survive. Now I know you’re supposed to leave balls of fluff alone, but these were extenuating circumstances. So I did what I thought was best – I picked it up and I put it in my car.
I had no clue what it was, but given it had a hooked beak and long, sharp talons, I had a fairly good guess.
Since the last bird of prey I tried to rescue didn’t make it, I was determined that this one would. Luckily a few miles down the road is an owl, raptor and reptile sanctuary, so I took it there. Turns out it was a barn owl chick, far too young to be out of the nest. They’re going to get him well and then find a nest with similar aged chicks and slip him in, to be raised by a surrogate mother back in the wild.
My good deed for Monday was done – but it ate up a massive chunk of the day.
On Tuesday, I did a few wedding-related things like writing my groom’s speech, but I have to confess to being distracted all day by the wrens nesting two feet outside the back door. Every three or four minutes they return to the box with an insect, whereuopon three very hungry chicks lean chirping out of the hole. I guess I don’t have to watch them, but it’s hard not to when they’re so busy from sun up – around half-four in the morning – right the way through to after sunset – gone nine-thirty at night.
Part of the reason I couldn’t look away was this whole parenting thing. I couldn’t help feeling a kinship with these tiny little birds looking after their kids, sacrificing their time and energy to care for their young ones around the clock. I admired them their energy, and felt it needed to be acknowledged, if only through my observation. And if I’m honest, I wondered if I’d be able to cope if I had to expend so much effort on my child as they did on theirs.
The answer wasn’t long in coming.
I put the baby to bed as usual around seven Tuesday night. At ten came the most horrible sound, and when I rushed in there I found little Izzie soaked in vomit. I picked her up and, my god, she was burning up! With a temperature of 38.6, I gave her some Calpol, two hours of TLC, got her to bed shortly after midnight, and checked on her every two hours.
By six o’clock this morning she was 39.1 degrees and very unhappy. It’s awful, knowing she’s unwell but unable to do much about it. So many thoughts and possibilities run through your mind, and after so few hours sleep, you jump to worst case scenarios.
I spoke to a doctor at 8.30, saw her at 11, when Izzie was 39.3, and was sent straight to the hospital so she could be assessed. And that was just the start of six hours of shenanigans.
Izzie was the most distressed I’ve ever seen her, and Lizzie almost as bad. As the stable presence in their lives, I have to take it in my stride, act confident and calm, reassure them that everything’s okay and we’ll deal with whatever happens, even though inside I’m just as churned up. Watching Izzie get poked and prodded and howl like a banshee must rank up there as one of the least comfortable experiences of my life.
Well, worse was to come. They needed a urine sample to test, and despite this being 2016, guess how you get a urine sample from a baby? You sit the over-hot, kicking, squirming, screaming sweetie on your partner’s lap on a waterproof sheet, crouch between their legs with a plastic tub, and get ready to catch whatever comes out.
I always figured that since they’re incontinent, babies drip-drip-dripped, little and often. Nope. They pee just like normal people – when they need to.
So we waited.
For an hour and three-quarters. Crouched, ready to jump into action in a split second to catch that pee! And true to form, Izzie waited for the doctor to arrive and the precise moment I looked away to make her entrance to the stage. In the event, I got it all over my hands, but managed to salvage enough to test.
Meanwhile, doctors and nurses and mothers and boyfriends came to visit the girl in the bed next to us, a teenager who took an overdose this morning, and, by dint of still being classed as a child, was placed in a bay surrounded by screaming babies.
It’s impossible not to overhear things in a hospital – the curtains aren’t exactly soundproof, after all.
‘Did you intend to kill yourself?’
‘Are you happy you’re still here?’
She gave her mother a pretty hard time, lots of effing and blinding. And as a dad, I thought how odd it was that fourteen years earlier, she’d have been like Izzie, a little girl, an innocent, unsullied, perfect creature. I can’t comprehend how I would feel if in fourteen years time it’s Izzie in that bed following a suicide attempt, telling me to ‘shut up, I just don’t care, leave me alone, I don’t give a f**k.’
The stark contrast really struck me, two girls in two beds, separated by nothing more than a curtain and a few years; one so simple and dependent and full of the joys of spring, the other so complex and cynical and utterly jaded. And I want to cling to Izzie and stop her growing up, retain her innocence at any cost, arrest the passage of time.
But I can’t.
In one bed, we’re planning our futures together; in the other, she could have been dead. She might still be – it was paracetamol and they were waiting to see how much damage she’d done to her organs.
The thing is, in my life I’ve been suicidal. I’ve self-harmed. I’ve always been a little bit crazy. My teens are a blur of high emotions and antidepressants, hidden knives and hidden scars. I’m not always rational. People tell me I’ve said things, done things, and I have no recollection whatsoever. At times of high stress I become paranoid that people can hear my thoughts. I am the girl in the bed beyond the curtain – at least, I was. But I got through it. Saved, as it were, by the love of my family, a stubborn unwillingness to give in, and by the miracle that is my daughter.
I don’t ever want her to grow up like me. Stay this side of the curtain, sweetheart.
Long story short, after I wiped the piss off my hands, we discovered she didn’t have a UTI, and they diagnosed it as viral gastroenteritis. Eventually we were allowed to go home, after eight hours away.
Things have calmed a little this evening – Lizzie and Izzie are both snoring, but the latter wakes up every ten minutes, has a little cry, and drops back off. I’m monitoring temperatures, wiping up diarrhoea, and preparing for another night of broken sleep. In the test of whether I’m as good a parent as a wren, I think I’ve passed.
All day I’ve acted tough. Now the world has gone to sleep I can be honest. I feel tearful. Seeing Izzie going through all that, not knowing what was wrong – I was more scared than anyone can imagine. Because Izzie is my world.
So much has happened this week and it’s only Wednesday! If tomorrow is anything like today, I don’t know what I’ll do. Did I mention I’m getting married in three days?
[EDIT: I have just discovered from the Barn Owl Trust that I did exactly the right thing. It says finding barn owl chicks out of the nest before they can fly is not normal, they are only fed in the nest and parents will ignore one on the ground and leave it to starve to death, they have very little sense of smell and will not reject it if you handle it, and leaving it well alone is usually not the appropriate course of action. On the other hand, if it was a tawny owl chick, you should leave it as it is normal for chicks to be out of the nest before they can fly and parents will feed them anywhere – even on the ground. Barn owl chick = intervene. Tawny owl chick = leave alone. Yay me.]
Paint a red cross on our door and may the Lord have mercy on our souls!
Yes, the dreaded lurgy has come as an uninvited houseguest, like that uncle who always turns up and hangs around in his underwear and refuses to leave. The kind of houseguest who robs you of sleep, disrupts your steady routine, and gets snot on your clothes, and doesn’t even have the common decency to look embarrassed about the shit he’s causing.
Friday night during the power cut, Izzie developed a bit of a cough and sneezed a few times during the night. She woke Saturday morning with a chesty cough and a sniffle and she didn’t want her formula. By mid-afternoon this had developed into a temperature and a full-blown cold.
I say full-blown because she’s definitely acting like it’s the end of the world. But then, for her, it is. She hasn’t had a cold before and it must be terrifying to have litres of yellow-green snot pouring out of every orifice, slipping ceaselessly down your throat, and choking you every time you so much as move your head an inch. And the cough is awful – it sounds like she’s hacking up razor blades, the poor thing!
And so it has been, every minute, every hour, since Saturday. Unfortunately, Lizzie came down with it Friday morning, so she’s a sneezing, coughing, congested wreck who spends most of the time in the bath, drinking Lemsip or sleeping, leaving yours truly to press on solo. Really, this is a one-parent family right now.
The worst thing about all this is the total lack of sleep. The little ‘un panics and starts to scream and choke the second you put her on her back in the cot. Any position involving lying down provokes coughing and spluttering as she starts to drown in her own snot. She will fall into an exhausted stupor, but only on her front on you, leaking from mouth and nose onto your chest or arms or neck, so if you want her to sleep, you have to stay awake.
Thanks to the power cut, I got three hours sleep Friday night. Saturday night, thanks to Izzie’s cold, I got an hour. Last night, Lizzie decided she should free me of the burden of disturbing her sleep and moved into the spare room, so I dosed myself up on caffeine and set to it and I have no idea how much sleep I got – a few minutes here and there, I think, but I’m not sure as it’s all a bit of a blur. Tonight looks to be the same.
The new routine involves me getting Izzie settled on me for half an hour, then gently easing her into the cot in the exact same position, where she stays anything from a few seconds to fifteen minutes before starting to scream again. I honestly don’t know what’s best – to go back to bed for a couple of minutes, which leaves me feeling rough as hell, or resign myself to staying up all night, which leaves me super tired.
There are other horrors too. She has a temperature and she spits out the Calpol and won’t drink the formula if I try to sneak it in. She chokes on the cough syrup and after a while the vapour rub I put on her chest starts to smell like death. Even that’s preferable to her breath at the moment. And she farts with every cough, meaning it’s a never-ending concerto of trumping, scented with cauliflower, for some reason. And there’s not enough in her belly to poop, so every guff brings out a tiny little liquidy smear, so you keep thinking she’s done a poo, start to change her only to discover there’s nothing but a skid mark in there. But it smells so bad you might as well change it so I’m going through nappies like there’s no tomorrow.
Because she can’t breathe through her nose and has a sore throat, not to mention that she’s swallowing gallons of mucus, I’m struggling to get fluids into her. A lot of what does go in she brings back up with interest anyway. It was very disheartening Saturday afternoon when, despite my trying to stop her, she put her fingers down her throat and brought up everything I’d fed her all day. Worse was when she threw up earlier – an endless outpouring of water, milk and phlegm, mixed together like amniotic fluid. Pretty darned gross.
And I’m gross too. I’m sleeping in my clothes which I’ve worn since Friday – there’s no point changing them because they’re crusty with snot and worse, and whatever else I put on will get dirty just as quick. I haven’t had a chance to bath or shave, so I look like a pink-eyed homeless junkie, and smell the same.
Right now, Lizzie is in the spare room getting another good night’s sleep – hopefully she’ll feel a little better tomorrow and help out a bit. Izzie is lying asleep on my chest. My shirt is a soaking puddle of drool and baby snot. Given my almost total lack of sleep since Friday, my eyes feel gritty and my brain wants to leap out of my forehead. And I have a sore throat, a sure fire sign that whatever has infected Izzie and Lizzie is making its way into my system and trying to take me down from the inside. But for now, I’m hanging in there. Someone needs to look after the baby. If not me, then who?