“I can’t do it.”
I took note of #2’s skinny body as he clung weakly with one hand to the railing of the stairwell in the Medellín, Colombia train station. We’d planned on spending the morning touring the area. That plan looked like it wasn’t going to survive first contact with the enemy.
I met my wife’s gaze as #2 sealed the deal by collapsing onto me, forcing me to hold him lest he roll down the stairs.
“I guess I’ll take him back to the hotel. You guys go ahead.”
#2 acknowledged my sacrifice by patting me weakly on the arm. #1 looked disappointed that he hadn’t thought of the old falling dramatically ill with no prior symptoms trick. #1 sneered at #2. #2, in full method-acting mode, ignored the look and instead lolled his head back in a way that indicated his spine had dissolved.
The hotel was over a mile away. After my arms grew weary of holding the 50 pounds of flaccid despair that was #2, I put him on my shoulders and continued to plod along. At intervals he leaned in to my ear and whispered things like, “You’re doing a good job Daddy. I couldn’t make it without you.”
A light coating of sweat formed on me not from carrying the small load but instead from the effort needed to keep #2 from falling off–a large sack of concrete at least stays in one place; #2 flailed about like he was actively trying to slip from my grasp. I kept an eye out for an open pharmacy where I optimistically might be able to get a children’s aspirin. There was, of course, nothing open as it was Christmas day.
As we neared the front door of the small hotel’s lobby I realized that my bride had the room key. I was going to have to get a new key made, which wouldn’t be a big deal were it not for the fact that several people were trying to check out. The entry and exit processes at this hotel were not quick, and involved copies of all passports, credit card holds for potential charges, waivers for optional health insurance, etc. Those now trying to leave were attempting to extricate themselves from the file cabinet their stay had created while I tried to make eye contact with any of the staff members that might take pity on me and the lifeless goiter very much not-clinging to my neck.
Thinking that the use of my hands might be helpful, I squeezed back through the small crowd and deposited #2 on the nearby couch. He immediately performed a half-roll and wound up mostly on the floor.
I left him where he lay and waded back in to the throng at the front desk. A few photocopies later, a new key in one hand and lifeless #2 in the other, we got in the small elevator and headed up to our room. #2 breathed hot air into my neck as I got to our door and tried the key which, of course, did not work. Neither cursing nor repeat efforts produced a different result, and #2 slowly slid out of my arms and created a puddle against the closed door.
“Come on buddy, we need to get back downstairs to get another key.”
#2 tried to raise a hand, but was overwhelmed by a combination of grief, weakness and self-pity. “I can’t Daddy. You go and I’ll wait here.”
His whispered words made me give a quick glance down the small hallway. If I took the nearby stairs I’d be back in just a couple of minutes. If I took him along I’d be in for another round of drama and falling off the couch.
“Don’t move,” I whispered, “I’ll be right back.”
He complied by continuing to cease all movement and I raced down the stairs, cut my way back through the crowd to get yet another key, and then ran back up the stairs to find him in the exact same position against the door.
“Daddy? Is that you?”
For most of this journey I’d harbored serious doubts regarding whether or not #2 was actually ill. I didn’t think he’d ever watched Sanford and Son but a lot of this smacked of Red Foxx coming to see Elizabeth. As I picked him back up I felt a pang of guilt for those thoughts and some degree of remorse for not going with the hotel’s optional-but-recommended health insurance.
I opened the door, put him down on the couch and felt his forehead. He felt cold, but then again I was now a sweaty mess from carrying him and the recent run up the hotel staircase.
As I continued to ponder the situation #2 eyes wobbled open. With great despair he held my gaze and whispered, “Can we watch a movie?”
All of my self-loathing and worrying slid away. “No, if your sick I’ll get you some water and you can lay down.”
#2 found a hidden reserve of energy and sat straight up, his eyes now beseeching me, “Well, can I play on your phone?”
I went to the bedroom and shut the door behind me. I’d been played like a fiddle. There was no doubt who the Academy Award would go to that morning.
Moments later my bride and #1 knocked on the door to our room. They’d bailed on their outing out of concern for #2 and had even found an open pharmacy on their way back. My bride kneeled down to look at the patient, who’d reverted back to a sad state of affairs on the couch.
“How are you feeling baby?”
#2 choked, visibly weakened by the effort of speaking, collapsed further into the couch. “A little better Mommy, but my head hurts.”
I decided to stay out of it and hung back to observe the proceedings with #1, who gladly told me that #2 had been faking it all along. I patted #1 reassuringly on his head and encouraged him to watch the show now playing out on the couch.
My bride continued to say supportive things as she poured something akin to children’s Tylenol into a small plastic dispenser cup and put it to #2’s lips. He gingerly took a large gulp, paused, then spit it out over the couch, coffee table, rug and of, course, my bride.
As my bride cringed and tried to clear the medicine from her eyes, #2 yelled out, “I couldn’t help it! My body rejected it!”
Much later that afternoon as we all sat in a movie theater crunching popcorn and chugging soda it occurred to me that the biggest challenges with parenting in general and #2 in particular are still to come. That thought made my head hurt just a little, and I slumped sadly down into my chair knowing that no one was going to carry me home.