Calpol on the ceiling

family & parenting / Sunday, December 4th, 2011

It is funny how the minor problems we have to face in life can reflect the biggest changes we’ve encountered. If I was blogging this time five years ago, I’d probably be pondering how to remove red wine from the polished wood floorboards. Today, I’m wondering to how exactly one removes Calpol from one’s ceiling. And wondering, too, how exactly it got there…

Where to begin? As this blog is a record, after a fashion, as well as a place to muse, my silence of the last two weeks should be explained. There is an element of deja vu about the entire story, for which I apologise, and an element of trauma that I can only cope with a) via the medium of caustic wit and b) in two instalments. Just know, however, that all is well now and Newborn has managed to build on the great birthday cake snaffling of 2011 with a fine line in stealing chocolate buttons too. He’s also snuggled happily in his buggy.

Within hours of his birthday, Newborn began to snuffle. Sneeze and cough (only a little). He looked and sounded like a baby (well, toddler now) with a normal, plain old, common cold. As ever, in life, it is the danger in the ordinary for which we are unprepared.

He developed bronchiolitis, manifest in a crackly chest, mild recession, a temperature and (mostly) rapid breathing. It is an interesting thing, quick breathing; hypnotic and weird in someone you love. The faster the breath, the slower the world around seems and the harder it is to judge exactly what to do. The phrase ‘rapid breathing’ is weird too. I mean, what is rapid? Faster than a grown-up, sure. But what is fast for one so young? 40/50/60/80 breaths a minute? And you know all those things they always ask on the phone for NHS Direct and the GP about chest pains, and floppy and unresponsive babies, the ones which make you think ‘what sort of a dick would be on the phone with a baby like that?’ I can only say now, that it is harder than you might think to recognise an emergency when you are in the midst of it.

His quick chest produced one of those parenting moments where, like the modern mother I am, I was engaged in a google search with a panting boy on my lap and several websites including forums where mums like me were asking strangers how quick was too quick, before I realised that I should be more proactive. Not because the answers were helpful or indicated danger, but because I realised I was feeling in danger and wanted help. I tried again, and rang NHS Direct. Get an expert to tell me how many breaths, exactly, per minute counted as too fast, I thought. Midway through the conversation, I realised that my instinct to get help was right, but being played out in the wrong place. They called an ambulance.

Have you ever been in an ambulance? I haven’t, well not as a patient, maybe on a Brownie Guide trip or similar. It is awful. Although, at the same time, it was also a bit of a laugh. A paramedic friend tells me it is common for regular crew members to develop a patter, and my two certainly had theirs. A sweet and gently jocular air which never belittled my worry, but also somehow allowed me to feel unrushed and like we had all the time in the world. They even veered briefly into slapstick with a syringe of Calpol which, bashed out of the way by son’s clamp shut teeth, fired into the dusty crevices of one of our only ‘original features’, the house’s coving.

I must say I felt a right cock for ringing NHS Direct when I should probably have rung 999. Not least as I was that woman, one I’ve been warned about but I always thought I wouldn’t be, the one who couldn’t find her son’s inhaler or, as I was so panicked to my marrow, remember for the life of me what it is called. My mother always warned me to write EVERYTHING medical down, no matter how insignificant seeming; as she sagely put it: ‘You don’t want to be standing in front of a paediatrician saying ‘well, one of them has had chickenpox”. So as an early Christmas gift I pass that advice on to you, because as she rightly predicted it is a terrible humiliation, only tempered by the abject fear created by the kindly calm of doctors, nurses and paramedics when your child is really sick.

I often joke with a friend that our predilection for japes, scrapes and comic injury makes our lives somehow a sitcom existence. As my son got worse and worse, and they were talking about admission last week, I was briefly concerned we’d taken a dire turn, into the landscape as life as soap opera, or even worse, medical drama. I don’t want to be the slightly chipper woman with the small child in a Grey’s Anatomy or Casualty tear jerker with a moral message about, God knows, parental worrying, second guessing and the weakness of children. My worries about what a terrible mother I was were made worse when his face went red so it looked to everyone like he had really bad untreated eczema, rather than sensitive skin which only occasionally, rarely even,flares to anything. Another big red mark against my mothering.

We veered back into sitcom, of course, as he suddenly improved after 2 hours practically sitting up, smiling and gesturing to leave (waving at the nurses and saying ‘bye bye’). I prepared my armoury of jokes, about the magic power of the waiting room, the way our kids, shucks, embarrass us by getting better and making us liars in front of anyone in a uniform, and we set off back into the night having been told to come back if he got worse or we were worried at all.

And as we stood, in our pink and sticky hall, a night of ‘watching’ in front of us, several parenting ideas swam about in my head. A phrase I often hear, for example, when things are tough – I didn’t sign up for this. Well, thatwoman, I thought – you did. You did sign up for this. All of this, from the ruined medicine-spattered architecture, to the pale hotbod you must sit next to all night hoping he won’t struggle too much. You became a mother. You wanted a child and (all my life lessons are paraphrased from popular culture) with that great power and privilege comes an awful lot of shit you couldn’t have properly imagined (however much you thought you could) and responsibilities, chief of all the simplest and the scariest: keeping them alive.

5 Replies to “Calpol on the ceiling”

  1. Calling 999 is really, really hard, it goes against all our traing in Britishness and not making a fuss. I once had a friend collapse outside the Whittington because we decided that the best way to get there, given that he was having a problem with his heart, was ON THE BUS. So sorry you have had such a hard time, so glad he is better xxxx

  2. We never quite know what to do because no matter how many books we've read (or written, in my case!) or who's advice we have or haven't taken, theirs never a situation quite like the one we're in at the time. I think I'd have done the same thing in your position.

  3. Calling 999 is really difficult. I had my first ride in an ambulance this spring, but only after calling the hospital clinic (who suggested calling the GP for a home visit) and calling the GP (who said to call the ambulance). It was lucky we did, as I was having emergency surgery hours later.

    People like to suggest it's easy to recognise an emergency, but unless they're unconscious or bleeding all over the place it's awful hard to decide.

  4. Such interesting stories. I feel slightly glad I'm not alone in worrying about how to make the call on making the call, so to speak. It is so strange, isn't it, the fine line and, as you say Ella, the lack of wanting to a fuss…

  5. I agree with Ella. It goes against the grain for the British to make a fuss. And your poor friend, Ella, bless him for going on the bus! I hope he has made a full recovery.

    It is very hard to recognise an emergency. It always seems like it would be obvious but it's actually quite hard. I had my smallest at the GP with croup and they send us straight up to the hospital. And I'd have thought, with my previous experiences of an oldest sister with breathing issues, I'd have been more cautious than that! Sigh. The GP did tell me off but I thought I had to account for my tendency to over-react so didn't show up for ages. And yes, I felt like a cock. Sometimes I think that the entire medical profession is just out to make every parent feel like a cock at least once in their parenting career! But we didn't end up with a ceiling splattered with Calpol!

    I love that description – 'a pale hotbod' – that is exactly right. Ach, it is such a responsibility and one that we can never truly fulfil.

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