I plunge a quarter-sized dollop of hand sanitizer into my palm.
The crowd goes wild.
He looked pale and thin with eyes of water-slicked glass. In our family these symptoms generally mean healthy with a touch of rhinovirus (the common variety) and an aversion to vegetables (of all varieties).
No fever. No Fatigue. No trouble breathing. Just a lingering cough and sniffles.
Of course, he'd been coughing all morning; one dry roar after another followed by lengthy rubbing of his nose onto a shirtsleeve. I remind him to use the crook of his arm to catch the sneezes as we mingled with the masses.
Of course, we have things to do. Places to be. Volunteerism forced upon us by the recreational league.
Yet every sternutation sent my gaze to the floor and my shoulders to the ceiling. What kind of mother brings her little bundle of typhoid into the world at large on the weekend? Doesn't she know she'll just spread his disease?
I sense the condemnation even though it's unspoken.
“Well … that's why I put him at the cash box instead of making hot dogs,” I said wryly to the person in my head who censors what words are allowed to escape my mouth. “Everyone knows money's filthy anyway ...” Lately, she's been tsk-ing a lot but letting none of my thoughts pass.
“Shhh. No need to be like that,” she hisses in my ear. “Let's just get through the day, shall we? You are doing the best you can. Repeat that.”
I may have no trouble listening to my inner voice, but I have a difficult time believing her sometimes.
It doesn't matter that the crowd is pulsating with a rhythm and harmony of phlegm. I only hear the nasal hum of the boy trailing after me as I work the concessions table at the school game. I feel a shocking desire to pretend he's not with me. And guilt.
I feel guilt.
Which turns out to be something my son will always help grind in like dirt at the knees:
“I've been coughing for a week,” he announced as if he had pulled a microphone and speaker from his pockets and switched it on. I cringed at the sound of it as it hits my ears.
“No, you haven't,” I respond with a loudspeaker voice of my own. “You came HOME from SCHOOL with this two days ago,” as if making the point we are at the place of likely origin will absolve me of any parental blame.
No time to lather and rinse, I plunge another coin-sized dollop of hand sanitizer into my palm and repeat.
I know … I know … He should be home in bed, warm in bed with hot soup and G-rated cinema. I should be feeding him citrus and feeling his forehead, asking him if he has enough blankets.
Eventually, that's where we'll be. Home, with our pets and TV.
Home, where tissue after tissue I hand him winds up scattered on the floor like discarded gardenias not yet past their prime. Each one wrinkled from rubbing against the nose as if to scratch an itch. One per sniffle. A new flower drops to the floor at regular intervals.
I will pick them up with the tips of two fingers and deposit them in plain brown paper bag – an inch-wide cuff folded at the top the way my mother use to do. I will wash my hands until they start to crack.
“You need to blow,” I will scold.
He will comply, half-heartedly, and start rubbing his nose again.
Of course, in the morning, when he looks at me with the puppy dog eyes and barks at me with a productive howl I will have second thoughts about sending him back into the mill …
These thoughts only last a minute. Just long enough for the beep of the thermometer.
“Sorry, kiddo: 98.6. You're going to school.”