It’s like The Walking Dead. But worse. There are maybe eight tiny kids scattered around Charlie’s childhood center classroom when we walk in on this blustery Monday morning, and they all look up at us as we come through the door. My first reaction is that I want to gag. And I’m not going to lie to you here, I do. I gag. I have to. Otherwise, I’ll puke.
Every little face peers up from a plastic firetruck or a smattering of puzzle pieces and all I can see is snot. Not a wee stream of snot here and there either. Not the slight trickle of the first early autumn head cold. Oh hell no. This is the real deal. This is mid-winter and by mid-winter, parents are hurled into this whole other vortex of grotesque illness when it comes to their kids. And everybody else’s kids.
This is January, people. And you walk into any preschool or daycare classroom anywhere in the country and you are bombarded with the hacking coughs and endless supply of noses leaking out their brains. I’m talking bayous of snot smeared across smiling heads.
I hold back my urge to cry out. I bite my tongue against my better nature. I want to scream, “For the love of God, somebody shove 10 tissues up this little girl’s nose!”
But I don’t.
I simply smile down at the this sweet young lady and, ever so slightly, I shake my head firmly. NO! No, sweet girl! DO NOT COME ANY CLOSER PLEASE! I’M BEGGING YOU! PLEASE DO NOT WIPE YOUR HORRIFIC LITTLE FACE ON MY PANTS!!
I’m rattled by the infirmary I’m dropping my kids off at. In a flash of comedy, I’m struck by the very notion that I’m paying pretty decent money for the privilege of leaving my two young sons in a room shellacked with minor league disease. Parenting is so funny, huh?
I look at my Charlie, who will be 2 in a month, and he’s smiling back at his crusty friends.
A kid over in the corner by the Golden Books hacks a Keith Richards greeting at my boy. He means to say hello, I can see it in his eyes, but poor child: what comes out of his mouth is the deep frightening bark of a man who has smoked a million Marlboros.
A 1-year-old cutie with a dinosaur in his arms stumbles over to us beaming. I set Charlie down to greet his friend and in the instant that I do, Dinosaur Boy sneezes a whopping free-range sneeze, no hand over his mouth or even a distant glimmer that that might be a good idea. Instead, he simply blows half of his insides out on Charlie’s jacket.
Charlie giggles and gives his buddy a warm bear hug. They don’t care who’s contagious. They don’t care who the zombies are! I see the kid’s nose bury itself in Charlie’s jacket shoulder. I want to cry. Dinosaur Boy’s Mach 9 flu symptoms will probably be all up in my house by dinnertime tonight.
You know, we deserve medals, us parents do. Day in, day out we deal with the very bottom dregs of the humanity barrel. Tantrums, magic marker on the wall, brothers and sisters biting each other with malice of intent. We survive and somehow persevere in some kind of mind-blowing true crime story where 2-year-olds and 5-year-olds fling themselves off of dangerous household cliffs — oftentimes, it would seem, just to piss us off. Or give us tiny heart attacks.
But that’s the way this parenthood thing goes, and I get that. We don’t deserve special awards for all of that everyday stuff we have to deal with. It’s part of the bargain. It’s what we signed up for when we signed up for the so-called “magic” of being moms and dads.
No, no. The real reason, and perhaps the ONLY reason, we truly do deserve medals of valor, and maybe a week-long cruise down the Mexican coast — ALONE — every year is because, year after year, for what seems like an eternity, we have to trudge across the frozen tundra of this season called winter. We have to put on our bravest face and pretend that for like six months a damn year, we are unstoppable war medics whose sole destiny in this world is to nurse and transport and cuddle with these precious barrels of phlegm and snot we call our kids.
It’s winter, you know. And every child is gross and contagious. It’s winter, you see. And all the little kids are laughing as they spread the latest plague.
In a couple of very distant months, every mom and dad survivor will be limping out into the weak cool sunshine of early spring. We will have made it. We will have survived the snot wars once again. But right now it seems so far away. And that’s because it is.