The first smile, the first tooth, the first steps, the first word. As a new parent, these are the wonderful, magical moments you anticipate and cherish as your first child grows—forever etched in your memory like a frozen slice of time and place.
But there’s one “first”, I’m sure you will agree, that you would just as soon avoid and forget. The one that brings terror to the heart of every new mom and dad: your child’s first significant illness.
Ours came to pass when our one and only, our son Elliot, was fifteen months old. And (bummer!) it happened to coincide with my husband Jim and I both being ill as well. I got sick first, with a mean bug that was going around, and by Day Two it was really nasty. You know—that I-can’t-even-lift-my-head-from-the-pillow/don’t-touch-me kind of sick. This variety, along with the awful body ache, fever, and chills, featured a wracking cough, made worse by the fact that I am asthmatic.
On the brink of being sick himself, Jim stayed home from work to be with Elliot and care for me. He was feeling progressively worse as the day wore on. That afternoon, Elliot started to run a fever. By evening, his temperature had risen to an alarming 103 degrees, and the usual fever reducer medicine wasn’t bringing it down.
I could feel the proverbial icy fingers of fear beginning to creep up the back of my neck.
Jim paged our doctor and when she called she instructed him on the tepid water baths and the Motrin/Tylenol alternate dosing, and warned him that a trip to the ER would be in order should the fever rise to 105.
By ten o’clock that night, the thermometer registered 104.
The icy fear fingers were now around my neck.
Devoted Nurse Jim, now officially sick himself, gave Elliot another dose of the medicine and, because the doctor said it would be the best place for him, put him to sleep in his crib. Jim was in an exhausted, moaning, coughing heap on the other side of our king-sized bed.
Our house had the master bedroom on the first floor. The nursery was on the second floor, so we had one of those great little video monitors in the sitting area of our bedroom, its camera upstairs trained on Elliot’s crib (the blurry image of his stuffed sun, moon and stars mobile floating cheerfully above him). So it was possible for me to see and hear his every move.
I cannot explain how torn I was in my heart. I wanted to feel his forehead, to hold him. I wanted to be there to watch him breathe. But I knew that even if I could have made it up the steps without collapsing, the best place for Elliot was sleeping in his own bed, with me and my hacking cough downstairs in mine. The monitor not withstanding, being unable to stay right there beside my fevered child had me nearly overcome with worry.
As a little girl, I was a relatively brave child. My only real recurrent fear was when anyone in my family would get sick. I was certain that they would die. When someone came down with anything more than the common cold, I remember secretly hiding under the basement stairs, where I could pray to Jesus, visualizing him taking care of my loved one himself, or sending one of his haloed servants to do it for him, and I would feel somewhat comforted under the canopy of safety and protection that small, dark space provided. All those childhood feelings of dread came back to me now.
Tears fell as I wrapped myself in our warmest comforter, and, because breathing seemed easier sitting up, I settled into the big overstuffed club chair next to that monitor screen and began to pray with a mother’s heart. “Oh, Lord,” I cried, “I can’t be close to Elliot right now, but you can. You understand my fear. I know you love him even more than I do. Please protect my baby. Help his fever to break. Send a guardian angel to watch over him.”
It was going to be a long three hours before his next dose of medicine.
I wish I could say the time passed quickly, and that those new and improved fear fingers relaxed their grip. But the reality is that I was terrified. I was that little girl again, alone, back in the darkness under the basement stairs. My eyes barely left the bluish glow of the monitor image, with that little blanketed, breathing bundle seemingly so far away from my arms.
Each minute seemed like a day.
As I intently watched, waited and prayed, I kept telling myself to imagine that I could see heavenly white-feathered wings covering my sleeping son. Inside this sick adult, the visual child in me was still alive and well, and in that nearly desperate moment, that was how I was able to entrust our most precious treasure to the Father’s care.
The blessing was that as the night wore on, my wracking cough seemed better. So when it was almost time, I didn’t have to wake my husband but was able to make it upstairs, resting to catch my breath between each climb up the next step.
From the doorway of the nursery, in the dim illumination of the little moon-shaped paper mache` night light, I could see that Elliot was awake and was now standing up in his crib.
“Hi, Sweetheart,” I said softly as I walked into the room.
“Hi, Mommy,” he answered.
“Do you feel better?” I asked. But he was not looking at me. He was looking beyond me, and pointing at the door.
“Lady . . .”
“What is it, Honey?” His gaze was still fixed—so earnest and intense—that I was compelled to look over my shoulder and out into the hallway. The icy fear was now beginning to change into a different kind of tingle in my spine.
“That lady. . .” he said again.
“What lady, Elliot?”
“That lady,” he repeated louder, more insistent. “That lady went away.”
“There was a lady here? And she went away?”
And then, like a celebrating athlete, with fisted hands he put both arms in the air and exclaimed, “Yes!”
How can I describe what I was feeling? There weren’t any stray white feathers lying about, but in that innocent, rosy-cheeked face I saw the unspeakable radiance of something so real, so pure.
As I hugged his little body in the darkness, I could feel through his damp footy pajamas that the fever had broken. In that moment I could also feel the amazing warmth of the Father’s presence spread over us.
I wanted to stay in that safe, inexpressible place forever.
So, with Elliot in my arms, I snuggled into our comfy rocker, utterly filled with peace, where we both slept “like a baby” until the light of morning.
I will never know for sure what Elliot actually saw that night in his room. But I do know for sure that the Almighty answered the fearful prayers of this new mother. And I know for sure that I will never forget that most special of “firsts”, when I felt the true wonder of the promise fulfilled: safely abiding in the shadow of His wings.
The angel of the LORD encamps around those who fear him, and he delivers them. Psalm 34:7