Once, when my oldest child was a baby, I watched a show about missing children. Experts provided tips for protecting your child, such as not putting your child’s first name on his or her shirt, teaching your child about “stranger danger”, carrying a recent photo of your child to provide to the authorities - just in case - to name a few. After telling stories about well-known child abduction mysteries like the Adam Walsh kidnapping, the narrator went on to give statistics stating that the vast majority of child abductions are committed by family members, most specifically, estranged parents.
A week or two later I had a conversation with my brother-in-law about the show. I told him how scared I was for my daughter’s safety and how often my worry over all the bad things that could happen to her kept me up at night.
“You never know fear until you have a child,” Steve told me.
Well, crap. He was right.
It’s a scary thing when your child gets sick. First you wonder whether you should call the pediatrician’s office or just run him over to the emergency room. Or maybe just a little ibuprofen will do the trick? If the fever or headache lasts more than twenty-four hours you find yourself googling his symptoms on the internet. Instead of finding the reassurance you need, you learn about the many different illnesses your child MAY be experiencing.
Somehow you talk yourself down off the ledge long enough to gather the courage (and presence of mind) to finally call the doctor and find out if your child’s symptoms warrant a visit for a look-over. You drive yourself and your child - who may or may not still be exhibiting his symptoms by this time - over to the pediatrician’s office and wait your turn among two or three, or fifteen, other families who also finally bit the bullet and brought their sick kid in for that antibiotic prescription that will return him or her to good health in short order. And then you realize that even if your child was on the mend when he first entered the doctor’s office, chances are he picked up some new germ once he walked through those doors. All was not in vain, after all.
They finally call your child’s name and the two of you follow the nurse down the hall and into the private exam room, where you tell your story to the nurse, watch as she checks your child’s vitals, and then wait some more. The good doctor eventually stops by to have a look-see, and you discuss symptoms once again, expecting the typical head nod as you describe the illness’s course and await the inevitable prescription that you know will serve as your ticket back to a healthy household (and, hopefully, school).
But things take a sudden and unexpected twist when the afore-mentioned fine doctor tells you to take your child for more tests. Or, you lose your ability to think clearly when he tells you to go ahead on over to the emergency room because he’s just not quite sure what’s going on with your kid.
That stuff will make you lose your appetite for a day or two. Or a couple of weeks, depending on how long you end up staying at the hospital.
As frightening as it is to watch your child lose his ability to stand, walk, or even roll over in bed on his own, you develop a sense of gratitude when you learn his illness is not life-threatening.
Because you realize that other parents are not so lucky. You watch them enter the elevator on the fourth floor - oncology. Their bloodshot eyes reveal their stress and sorrow as your hearts break for them over and over again. Instead of stepping over to them and wrapping them up in your arms, you stand in your little corner of the stark elevator reading - for the one thousandth time - the notice about the free flu shots being offered next week. And, again for the one thousandth time, you wonder how they will make it through the night, week, month, year. You hope and pray that they have the support group you have. And, every time, you offer a silent prayer that maybe, just maybe, a cure will come along and help increase their child’s odds of survival.
Because, now that you’re a parent, you know and understand fear as you’ve never known or understood it before.