It’s that time of year again. The trees are shedding their golden leaves, the clocks have been put back, geese are flying south; the mornings are crisp and the evenings misty. Thoughts turn to Halloween, Bonfire Night, even, dare I say, Christmas … and the winter bugs have started circulating.
Benjamin is so vulnerable – a cold can mean a fortnight of sitting up by his bedside, clearing his secretions, maintaining his airway, watching his saturations dip, and dip again. A diarrhoea and vomiting bug can cause him to loose fluids so quickly he needs an infusion straight into his bone marrow. The ‘flu could easily turn to pneumonia and sepsis.
A couple of weeks ago – a few days before Benjamin was booked for a much-needed operation for which he must be fighting fit – the children had two friends over for a playdate. That night one of the visitors was sick. Nothing anyone could have foreseen. But would she have been infectious while she was here? Was it too late to act? I bleached every doorknob, tap and toilet, and banned the girls from entering Benjamin’s room for two days. Was that enough? Was I being irresponsible to have asked their friends over? Dare we risk it again?
At this time of year it is so tempting to slip into a medicalised, isolationist regime to try to keep Benjamin healthy. We could refuse all party invitations, not travel on public transport, avoid soft play centres like the plague, and ban all visitors until after the spring equinox…
But would that be fair on anyone? Well I admit I could live without the soft play … but how can I teach my children the values of inclusion, diversity and acceptance if I don’t let people into or out of the house? Is there any point banning playdates when they will be sitting next to those same playmates at school, so close bending over their work that their heads are touching (nits are the least of our worries)? My girls won’t grow up strong, outward-looking and confident if their mum is fearful and protective. And if they can’t have fun with their friends at this festive time of year they may resent me and – worse – resent their brother whom I am trying to keep safe.
Interaction with his peers is crucial, too for Benjamin. He needs to be known, loved, and appreciated in his community. He can’t do that from behind closed doors.
I mustn’t allow my concern to turn to fear and paranoia, to foster mistrust and blame – that way madness, hatred and intolerance lie.
It’s hard, but I have to accept that he will get sick. There will be bugs that are transmissible before they show symptoms. There will be parents that send their kids to school within hours of their last episode of vomiting. There will be co-workers who struggle into the office with the head-cold from hell. There will be places I will have to change Benjamin on a toilet floor. I can’t control what the girls are touching when they are at school, or what the postie has handled before she comes into contact with our letters.
There will be days when I am run so ragged looking after everyone that I don’t think I can hold it all together. And there will be days when the benefits of getting out in the community will outweigh the risks one-hundred fold. We must hope for the best: that Benjamin will be stronger this year; that we will not be in the wrong places at the wrong times; that it will be a crisp, cold, bright winter full of outdoor activity and not a damp, muggy one with everyone packed into the same centrally-heated venues. And we must plan for the worst: keep the hospital bag packed, pizzas in the freezer, and an up-to-date list of contacts with all the kind people who I know will help us out if we need it.
I’ll take all the precautions I can to minimise the chances of Benjamin getting sick – there’s a fine line between being rational and reckless, and that’s the one I must tread. So we’ll all have our ‘flu vaccinations, we’ll get lots of fresh air and fresh fruit, I’ll support Benjamin’s gut with probiotics and his airway with chest physio. I’ll nag, and nag, and nag the girls to wash their hands (although I bet they’ll still get worms).
But ultimately I can only trust that other folks will do the same, pray that I get the balance right, and hold onto the fact that spring is around the corner. Another winter survived will be another year stronger – although I’m still very glad of an excuse not to endure the soft play.