When my daughter was born in 2004, I worried. I worried about all the normal things a first time father might, but also about chicken pox. I worried because almost every kid got it and I had never had it. I lived in fear of contracting it (which at least partially explains why I was suddenly absent from any room when someone had a rash), and was afraid of what might happen if Autumn wound up with it. Then my mom gave incredible news, she said I did have chicken pox when I was young. I was less worried. Pity she was wrong.
The strangest thing to me was that my mom always told me I didn’t have it when I was younger right up until Autumn was born. Then suddenly the story changed from “never had it” to “had a very mild case.” When I asked why the change, she acted as if there was never a different story, it was always this way. (Mom would have made an excellent Soviet historian). I still assumed I hadn’t to be on the safe side, but I had lost my main corroboration.
Fast forward a few years to 2010 and an unremarkable Thursday evening. Chrisie and I had entertained some guests and were relaxing after they left.
“I feel a little off,” I said, “I think I might even have a fever.”
I went to the kitchen to check it. When I came back, Chrisie asked, “Well?”
“I have a fever. It’s 99.3.”
“That’s hardly a fever.”
“Technically, it is a fever. I didn’t say I had a bad one, just that I did. That’s all.”
“Suck it up, you’re still going to my grandmother’s this weekend.”
Which is, of course, what I knew she would think. The timing couldn’t be denied. I took some medicine and was fine for the evening and the next morning. By Sunday morning, my temperature was over 101 and Chrisie told me I was staying home. I decided to go to the doctor on Monday if I was still sick.
My family left during the afternoon and I sat around watching TV and taking medicine. My fever finally broke after they had left and I decided to shower and shave. When I finished my shower, it was too steamy for my glasses so I started shaving. I kept cutting myself (which rarely happens). I slipped on my glasses and stared at a face I hadn’t seen since high school. I noticed a strange bumpy rash covering my arms and chest as well. I knew what it was, but did not want to admit it.
A trip to the urgent care clinic confirmed. I had chicken pox at 37. The staff kept telling me the were sorry. When I asked them why, they replied, “Because it’s a lot worse for adults.” I had texted Chrisie while in the office, but I called my mom on the way home.
“I need you guys to run get my prescriptions filled.”
“What did they tell you?”
A slight pause then, “Oh, well I guess we know the answer to that question then.”
“What question? You spent 31 years saying I head it and only changed your tune when Autumn was born. . . It doesn’t matter now. I have them and need the medicine please.”
Later, when she dropped off my prescriptions, she said, “Well, we know my precautions worked.”
“When your brother had it, I kept you separate so you wouldn’t get it, though you may not appreciate that now.”
“You realize that for the last six years, you’ve claimed I did have it when I was a baby, right?”
“Oh, no. I said we were never sure.”
“Wait, what?” History can be revised more than once.
I got a longer version the next day.
“It’s good to know that I was able to protect you when you were younger from this. I kept you and your brother apart, didn’t use the same towel, or anything. It obviously worked. I kept you from getting chicken pox. I protected you.”
“I think you just delayed it.”
Invariably, every other conversation (except one) went like so:
“Chicken pox, huh?”
“How do you feel?”
“Miserable. It’s a lot like puberty. I don’t understand what’s going on with my body, my face is broken out, and I don’t want to go out in public.”
“You know, it’s worse for adults.”
“Yeah, I’ve heard that.” Several hundred times. I guess it’s one of those strange compulsions, like opening up sour milk and saying, “Ugh, this milk smells horrible. Here, you smell it.” Humans must not be able to resist spreading misery.
One thought persists for me through this experience, our desire to spare our children and protect them. It’s clear now that I was always going to get chicken pox someday. I was “protected” from it as a baby, but it really is worse for an adult. I would prefer to have had it than so it could be long in my past now.
I understand this compelling need to protect our children, especially when I look to my own. I worry that, all too often, we protect them from life. That our attempt to spare them from the pain life can have only sets them up for greater pain in their future. Fear, rejection, and failure are natural. Unavoidable. It’s just a matter of when they will first experience it.
I look at my children and hope I will have the courage, though it will break my heart, to allow them to fall. I’d rather they experience academic failure or relationship rejection when they are young and still understand they can get back up, heal, and go forth. If the experience comes when they are older, it may result in a shattered life instead of a scraped knee or broken bone.
Adulthood makes some experiences (such as chicken pox) much worse than if experienced as a child. We should protect our children from the worst, but we owe it to them to let them experience a small taste of the natural fear, failure, and rejection this world often offers. A taste that will inoculate them against the stronger trials that will inevitably come. A vaccine to equip them to fight against the fear, the failure, the rejection. They will have seen it before and know it will not define them or end them.