Piper spiked an inexplicable fever on Saturday. Nothing else, no complaints about hurting ears or throat, just a restless night followed by a temp that started at 100.6 and climbed to 102.5 by lunchtime. I let her drink about 5 of the tiny, watered-down apple juice boxes she loves so much, in quick succession. We bought a box of popsicles and let her go to town. I pressed water on her, and, once the fever climbed, gave her medicine and packed her off for a nap.
We made calls, of course, to the pediatrician's office that wasn't open at 12:30 on Saturday afternoon. To the Urgent Care centers in our area, asking for hours and procedures for getting seen. To the insurance company, trying to get authorization to take her to an Urgent Care center or, failing that, the ER. We were advised that we could do that, but since our ped "doesn't do" the sort of referrals we needed, we'd be paying out of pocket. That is, if any place would see us without the referral in the first place. The very nice nurse on the help-line at the pediatrician's office told us that we were doing all the right things and that, unless the fever didn't respond to the medicine or got to 104, it probably wouldn't help to take her in anyway.
As I sat there pouring out cups of water and apple juice, unwrapping popsicles, and making our temporal-artery thermometer work overtime, I stewed in my feelings of fear and rage and helplessness. Once we'd determined that there was nothing to do but wait it out, and Piper was snoozing away in her room, I snuck in to feel her forehead again. This symbolic gesture, not capable of easing her illness or of providing any accurate information about it, served only to comfort myself. I looked at her sweet little face, curls spilling over her forehead and her cheeks flushed. I sat down on the floor beside her bed and watched her for a moment, taking in the steady rise and fall of her breathing.
I thought of all the other mothers who have sat beside the bed of a sick child. Women who held small hands and willed that tiny form to keep breathing, keep breathing, please just be okay. Thirty minutes before I had been cursing the few options available to get my child to a doctor, raging at this ridiculous healthcare system that would make us choose between health and poverty, drowning in bitter resentment of all the circumstances in my life that had brought me to a point where I could not just truck off to the ER with my insurance card. Now I thought all we have to do is get to Monday. The pediatrician's phones would turn on at 8:00 Monday morning; all we had to do was keep the fever at bay until then. Then there would be an office visit, antibiotics, an explanation. This will end, and she will be okay.
I thought of so many other women before me, my ancestors. Women who journeyed with their families from the interior of Germany, to the Volga plains of Russia, and then on across an ocean to America. Women who came from England and Ireland and Wales, who left everything they knew and bore children in a strange and wild country. Women who watched those children sicken and die, who lost them to accidents or coal mines or farm equipment or the filth of cities, and could not do a damned thing about it. These women held the hands of their children in tenement apartments, in sod houses, on crowded passenger ships. They prayed and sobbed under cover of temporary shelters, the canvas of wagon-hoods or in farm houses surrounded by rolling acres of wheat. They prayed and sobbed and hoped, because that was all they could do.
As much as I joke about moving into a mud hut and leaving civilization behind, as much chatter as there always is about "the good old days" and going "back to basics," I don't envy those women. I wouldn't want to live in a time where an ear infection or a broken arm could kill my child. I live here, now, in this turbulent and fearful world, where there is so much to be angry about and so much to inspire despair. But it's also a time where I can soothe a fever with popsicles and apple juice, where a $4.99 bottle of bubblegum-flavored ibuprofen can knock out symptoms, and where the promise of a waiting room and white coats means that everything will be okay, and for that I am grateful.