February 25, 2003

Par for the Parental Course

That sound.

I am driving my daughter to school. We have been on the road for almost an hour, twice as long as it should take us to get downtown. And we are almost there. She sits in her backseat booster and if I angle the rearview mirror just so, I can see her forehead and right eye. Snow banks continue to trespass on city streets, chocking our commute to a crawl. It is a long cold ride. As I listen to the news, the winds of winter fight the winds of the Iraqi War. The heat is blasting. And that sound is undeniable and clear.

My youngest has just thrown up in the back seat of my car. I am stuck in traffic and immediately look for a snow-free space along the road. In the few minutes it takes me to inch over I am imagining how bad this is going to be. I’m calling to her, trying to see her entire face: “What’s the matter? What happened [even though I know]? Are you ok?” Complete silence. Finally: “I threw up, Daddy.” I park and get ready to survey this disaster.

It is all over her coat and pants. This is the part of parenthood they rarely talk about. It’s not for the fainthearted nor squeamish. I have been preparing for a Code Red disaster, stocking up on water, can goods, and duct tape. But suddenly, I find I am totally unprepared for this more personal, familial variety.

All I have are a few tissues in my backpack. I go into triage mode. The scene looks toxic but she seems to be ok, as ok as a little girl can be immediately following a hurl. I feel her forehead. It’s cool. I wipe her clothes as best as I can, remove her coat and hat, and stuff the remains in a plastic bag. The snow becomes my friend, offering me some water to wipe up her dress and the car seat.

I hear myself thinking in stereo: “My poor little girl/will this smell ever go away?” I hang my head in shame. How can I be thinking about my car when my poor baby is sick? I open a crack in the sunroof. I make a U-turn as I silently complain about the odor. What if it never goes away? It’s practically a new car. My poor sweetheart. My daughter I mean.

I had just called my wife to ask her to notify the school we’d be late because of the traffic. Now I place a second call to her: “New game plan,” I announce as I describe the accident behind me. “We’re coming home.”

As I am driving I begin to wonder. She seemed perfectly healthy when we left the house. But you know kids. One minute they’re fine, the next, well, I don’t have to imagine. Was she just overheated? Ordinarily, she rides with winter gear on in the car. But I didn’t expect we’d be riding for so long. And I did have the heat pretty high. I should have taken her coat off before we started. All of this is my fault!

By the time we get home my daughter is on the road to recovery. As we walk through the door, she can’t decide whether to first wrap herself in my wife’s warm and comforting motherhood or recount the events of the last hour in minute detail. It’s a toss up.

• • •

An editorial in today’s Washington Post is now warning us about Pakistan: “[Former Taliban and Al Queda militant concentrations just inside the Pakistani border] confirm the steady unraveling of commitments by Pakistan’s president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, to support the United States in the war on terrorism.”

This Wednesday, February 26 is the Virtual March on Washington. Sign up to call or fax your Congressperson to let them know how you feel about America going to war.

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