I was sick this week. Throwing up throughout the night, curled up in fetal position at the base of the toilet, not sure how clean the bath mat is, I do not even care, I will never eat blue cheese in a salad again, SICK.
Being sick as an adult is lousy. Being sick as a mom is just not fair. Usually, with a head cold or slight fever, we moms power through by tossing the child-wolves some technology, pouring some cereal in a bowl and calling it dinner, and announcing bedtime at 7pm.
Not this go-round. Leaving my bed was not an option.
I’ve got two kids over here. Jax and Johnny. Jax, age 13, was adopted from China when he was a little over three years old. Johnny is my foster son. I’ve known him for about a year and a half now, but he’s only lived here a few months.
Jax did what Jax does while I was sick. Delayed in all areas except building and leading with his heart, he turned into Nurture Kid. He checked on me, brought me ginger ale, turned on the diffuser, and tiptoed around my feverish body, turning my nightstand into a medicine cabinet.
Flashing the I love you sign with his right hand, he closed my door softly with his left so I didn’t wake.
Johnny, on the other hand, was a talking tornado, a whirling dervish of words, a mantra of ME ME ME that swarmed my pounding head and made my ears hurt. He barged in over and over, waking me up to talk about YouTube videos and tell me irrelevant story after story. He wanted me to talk through his guitar riffs, approve iTunes purchases, discuss buying a dog.
I was sick and I was tired, and with a 102 fever and a stomach full of acid, I had lost any ability to navigate this kid’s long-winded quirks. At around the 115th time he entered my room (to talk about his preference for long pants over shorts), I was too out of it to do anything other than to shake my head at him, pull the covers over my head, and beg the gods of stomach viruses for some quiet mercy. Luckily, the sitter came, shooed Johnny out of my room, and protected my closed door from his soliloquies.
I came around hours later, how many I really don’t know. Jax greeted me with a get well card and a huge hug.
Johnny greeted me with a “You sure weren’t very chatty.”
Dumbfounded, I said, “Child, I was sick. How do you like to be treated when you’re sick?”
He shrugged, palms up, and shook his head. He rolled his eyes at me like teenagers do when you’re asking them something that makes no sense.
Jax piped in with a list of what to do when someone isn’t feeling well. Jax’s first memories involve a major surgery, and at the time, it seemed cruel to bring home a terrified child and put him through palate surgery only a few months later. But we had no choice, and in hindsight, it was an attachment exercise on steroids. We never left his side, we spoon-fed him apple sauce, bathed him, gently changed his bandages, sang to him, hugged him, played trucks, loved him.
We set the bar with Jax for how to help someone who isn’t feeling well – and we set it high.
Johnny listened to Jax’s dissertation. He shrugged and said, “All I know is when I’m sick, I don’t like to be yelled at. So I just tried to be extra friendly.”
Every time I think I have a solid handle on how to parent this one, every time I think I have a decent understanding of how to tend to the scars foster care has left, he says something that sends me straight back to square one.
When I’m sick, I don’t like to be yelled at.
No one ever took Johnny’s temperature, followed with a quiet kiss to his hot forehead. No one brought him his favorite blanket and propped him up with extra pillows so he could read his book. No one silently crept into his room, replenishing his ginger ale and leaving fresh Saltines. No one peeked in their head to check on him, tucked him in as he slept, listened to him breathe.
Johnny has lived in strange beds in strange rooms with strange people his whole and entire life. Forget homemade chicken soup, he just didn’t want to be yelled at.
This kid is smart enough to know he doesn’t want to model what he’s seen. But you don’t know what you don’t know so his only option is to do the opposite. In his head, the opposite of yelling is to offer manic chatter and be extra friendly – and to his credit, he did so like a champ.
“You did good, Johnny. You were really friendly.”
He grinned, catching my sarcasm. I walked over to him and put my arm around his shoulders. I patted his upper back. He looked down, nodded a few times, and I felt him relax.
I said nothing.
Sometimes, the opposite of yelling is silence.
Rebecca Masterson is a writer, speaker, and an advocate for children. For more from Rebecca, follow her on Instagram. Or sign up for her newsletter.