I once stood in front of a British Literature class of sixty and told them, after a long swig of water and a pop of a fresh cough drop on my tongue, that we call the Firecracker “Outbreak Monkey,” as in the monkey in the film Outbreak who unleashes a pandemic. This was my way of explaining my waning voice and the magician tissue-rope poised to stream from my pocket for the rest of the lecture. Three of the sixty offered an obligatory chuckle. The rest – nothing. Seats creaked as a few students shifted. I coughed in the silence. Then one front-row student, resting his pencil eraser on his temple, said, “Oh. That’s cruel. You call your little girl Outbreak Monkey? That’s awful.”
“Well, not to her face,” I said, which didn’t sound any better.
But the gist of the joke remains true – the Firecracker must surely spend her time at school licking the bottoms of every child’s shoe, and the doorknobs for good measure, because she regularly comes down with raging colds she often passes on to the rest of us. In the last three months alone, she’s had pink eye, mono, and pneumonia. It’s the reason I find Ted McCagg’s Day Care Tasting comic so apropos. The problem is the Firecracker’s adorable.
Those eyes, those rosy cheeks, she lures you toward the germs like a chump. The bigger problem is, since Day 16 chemo has been depleting my white cell count to the degree that even the slightest of colds, as my oncologist’s nurse told me with her brows raised, could kill me. “Literally,” the nurse said with a nod at each syllable, “kill you.”
“You know we have a five-year-old,” I said, “who is probably coming down with a cold as we speak.”
She handed me a stack of surgical masks, the kind that loop around the ears, and said, “Well, we can’t exactly tell you to not be around your child, but … don’t be around your child.”
During that three-week stretch in which the Firecracker had pink eye, mono, and pneumonia pretty much at the same time, the Firecracker thought it’d be best for her to sleep in my bed. She’d wake in the middle of the night, inchworm over to the scoop of my bent knees and ribs, hold my hands, breathe songs across my knuckles as we’d sing in whispers – Doris Day, Big Star, The Cure, Ella Fitzgerald. And somewhere in the middle of, I see your face in every flower, we’d fall asleep again. My first chemo night, she was still there. She insisted.
But when she stepped off the bus on Day 26, dragging her tote bag, telling me how cold she was, her eyes bleary, her nose stopped up, we had to fast-track-phase her back to her own bed. And on the mask went every time I was in a five-foot radius of her. A friend, also just starting chemo, told me about Hibiclens soap, which is apparently better than antibacterial soap, so I started showering in Hibiclens and making everyone wash up to the elbows in Hibiclens and buying enough Hibiclens for a lifetime supply of Hibliclens dipping. And every time I took the Firecracker’s temperature with the thermal-scan thermometer, I twisted it in a Clorox wipe and then took my own. If mine ever reaches precisely 100.5, I’m to phone the oncologist’s office on a special line. I’m not sure what happens after that. Maybe it’ll be like that scene in E.T. when armored men descend en masse to encase the house in plastic and exit in a giant hamster tube unfurling down the walkway.
Or maybe I’ll just get to crack open the emergency bottle of antibiotics in my medicine bin the oncologist prescribed for me the first day I met with her. One second my temperature will be 97.4. And then thirty minutes later 99.1. And then thirty minutes later 98.6. The Firecracker’s, though, had been consistently 100.7.
After the Firecracker first walked in sick, I explained the mask to her. “It’s so I don’t breathe any germs. It won’t scare you if I wear it, will it?” I took it out of my sweater dress pocket to show her as we stood in the entryway. The barrette that had pinned her overgrown bangs back at school had moved to the very center, guiding them between her eyebrows. She squinted, considered the mask for a second, and said no. She just wanted to play computer games. Usually, I’d set the timer for her to play up to an hour and no more, but I figured she could play as much as she wanted in order to keep her occupied. Otherwise, she’d want to sit on my lap and watch Cinderella and sip apple juice from a box in my hand and ask me to wipe her nose every two minutes. This is what we usually do. This is why I usually catch anything the Firecracker has. So I put on the mask.
“I’m cold,” she said.
“It’s your fever. I’ll get your medicine.”
She sat on her knees on the dining chair she’d pulled to the computer hutch and shook her bangs out of her eyes. The barrette finally flopped off with a pop against the keyboard as she logged herself on.
“Don’t give me the medicine that makes your hair fall out,” she said.
I paused at the kitchen cabinet where we keep a separate bin full of children’s medicine.
“Don’t worry about that. Only mommy takes that.”
“Your medicine says: not for children — only for grown-ups? Is that right?”
“I don’t want that medicine when I’m a grown-up.”
“You won’t ever have to take that medicine. It’s something just mommy has to do.”
It wasn’t the right answer, but it was the thing that came out first, my breath in my mask heating my cheeks as I said it.