The Grace of Illness in a Fast-paced World by Jane Sustar

“A mighty creature is the germ,

Though smaller than a pachyderm.

His customary dwelling place

Is deep within the human race.

His childish pride he often pleases

By giving people strange diseases.

Do you, my poppet, feel infirm?

You probably contain a germ.”

-Ogden Nash

As a young mother, I was very lucky. My grandmother was a nurse, my grandfather was a doctor and my aunt was a nurse, so when my children were sick I had people to call. They were old-school country medicine people. They were pragmatic, practical, no-nonsense kind of people.  When Jennifer was born, Peter and I were living with my parents, saving up to buy a house. In the middle of the night I would come down to my parents’ bedroom cradling a sick Jennifer in my arms. My mother would come out, look at her and say, “She’ll be fine. Go back to bed; we will call Aunt Betty in the morning.” And that was that. I went back to bed, we called Aunt Betty in the morning, she told me what to look out for and Jennifer was fine. We did lots of home remedies, things my mother taught me or things that I picked up from friends. We instinctively stayed away from antibiotics, preferring homeopathic remedies, time and rest. My oldest three never went to the emergency room because when I was frightened enough to consider it, there was always someone to ask. By the fourth, fifth and sixth I was pretty confident in my ability to take care of my sick children and I never needed to until, of course, each one of them broke a bone!

What made me really lucky, however, was the fact that I was at home with my children when they were young .  They had time to be sick and they had time to get better.  When Irene and Jennifer brought home chicken pox, it was almost three weeks before we were up and running as a household again, Peter taking up carpool and shopping while I administered oatmeal baths to the current patient and cooked batches of chicken soup.  It swept through all five children, one after the other.  All outside activities went on hold. I had the time and freedom to wait and watch until they were bright eyed before I allowed them back to school. It was a joke between my mother and me:  she would call up to see how one of the children was doing in their recovery and I would reply, “Just sick enough to be crabby today! Back to school tomorrow.”

I find it is no different at LifeWays. Often the children come and the twinkle in their eyes is missing and the bounce in their step is bounce-less. On those days I try to slow down the day as much as possible and give the child time and space to fully recover, however that might look to that particular child. This fall has been particularly hard on one little boy in my suite. One day he threw up after lunch. The next day he told his parents he could not come back to LifeWays anymore because LifeWays made him sick and he did not want to be sick anymore!

He still comes and his sparkle has returned, but I have noticed something interesting in his play. He has been Iron Man every morning for a while now. He comes in and uses train tunnels and blocks as armor and goes through LifeWays blasting all the” bad guys.”  When I have convinced him that all the bad guys have been destroyed that morning, he is ready to put Iron Man away in his drawer for the rest of the day.  I believe he is playing out the physical reality of his health. I know, given time, he will be ready to leave Iron Man at home completely, but not now, not yet.

As my children got older, it got harder to know how much my children needed me when they were sick.  When Ian was a senior in high school, he was well into his second week of mono before my alarm bells started going off and I realized he may not just have the flu.  He still teases me about it. I still feel guilty. Elinore hobbled around for a week before I was convinced she really just might have a broken bone in her foot. A particularly bad call came when I got a call from Gustav’s teacher. Instinctively, when I saw his ashen face, I knew he was in a lot of pain. He had twisted his foot as he was playing football. I was supposed to go to a teacher’s conference in Detroit that night. We went to the emergency room and we were told that it was just a bad sprain. I knew I should cancel the trip and stay home but Gustav, Jenny and the doctor all convinced me to go, so I went. We got a call the next day from the radiologist. His leg was broken after all.

I know each one of them wanted me to notice. Even when they are young men and women they still want you to notice, and to be there when they are sick and hurt.

Recently I was given a beautiful picture of the difference between the “doing” of illness and the “being” of illness. I spent six nights with my son, Carl, who was recovering from bronchitis. It had been a long time since I had last seen Carl so sick. Jennifer is graduated from college now and living at home to pay off loans. She mostly works nights so she was home with Carl while I was at work.  It was nice to know that he could be home resting until his health was completely back.  I would go straight home from work to be with him, to fluff his pillow and make tea. While I sat at the end of Carl’s bed reading to him, I would think of my friend Erik. His wife had had a stroke and while she was recuperating, he would rush home from work, grab a bite to eat and then go to sit with Laura, sometimes just holding her hand while she slept. He would stay at the hospital until visiting hours were over. When a friend suggested to Erik that those nights must be difficult because everything else had to be put on hold, he had responded, “When was the last time you got three hours to just sit and hold the hand of the woman you love? The nights are easy.”  

Not long ago, I was sick. Carl and Elinore brought me water and tea. Then they set up the stereo so that we could all listen to a reading of “The Hunger Games” on CD. There we were the five of us: Carl, Elinore, Gustav and Jenny spread out like cats, doing nothing but listening to a good book. Sometimes that is the opportunity of illness. It gives you the excuse to just be with the people you love most in all the world.

Jane Sustar is a caregiver at LifeWays Milwaukee and teaches with the Wisconsin LifeWays Training program. She is also a busy mother to six. This article first appeared in the center’s Winter 2014 Newsletter.