On December 15th, I came down with a fever. A rash started to form on my hands. Then my feet. My throat ached. If I’d ever experienced anything like it before, it was probably back in kindergarten when I had the chickenpox. During a doctor’s visit during which he called my rash “impressive” and my tonsils “nasty,” I learned that it was definitely not strep, but some sort of viral infection, possibly hand, foot, and mouth disease. Treat the symptoms, the doc said. It will go away.
But would it go away in time for Christmas?
We were supposed to host a Christmas party on the 18th. My husband thought maybe I could just spend the party in our bedroom, keeping my germs to myself. (I realize this could make him sound like a terrible, unfeeling person but I assure you he is not; he is an optimistic, heart-set, people pleaser. And I might have put the idea in his head because I hate to break his heart and cancelling the party looked a lot like heartbreak.) Then we realized that I had breathed on or touched everything in the house and people would know that. And they might be a little weirded out by me playing Bertha in the attic. And I would not be able to make the food, leaving my husband to play chef in my kitchen and potentially burn the place down/serve a holiday helping of salmonella.
We cancelled the Christmas party. Sad, but also something of a relief because hosting 30 people and their kids is a lot of work. Oh well. Sigh.
We were supposed to leave for California on Sunday the 21st. We did not shrug and sigh about this. We watched my rash. My husband thought it would be fine, kept bargaining with it, planning for me to bring lots of wet wipes and cover my hands with gloves. After the first couple days, I felt mostly fine if I kept myself busy, and by day five, the only way anyone would know I was sick was by looking at the angry red marks on my fingers or the pink wisp of a rash creeping up my arms. If you shined a flashlight down my throat, you’d see that my tonsils were still pretty angry. But who was going to do that?
I decided we couldn’t go. Even if I was going to get better by Christmas day, even if travel would be fine and I could somehow avoid infecting a whole plane full of people and my relatives upon arrival, the fact remained that I had been sharing intimate space with my husband and especially the boy. You see, 19-month-olds don’t understand the concept of personal space. As far as they’re concerned, Mommy is just an extension of self. The morning of the day my fever set in, he stole quite a few licks off of my candy cane. He does his best to sneak a sip of anything I’m drinking, or at least to lick the lip of the cup. My husband might have been immune to it; the boy was going to get sick.
His fever erupted the Friday before we were supposed to leave. Even then, my husband tried to rationalize that he’d be better soon and it would all be okay. I yelled a little bit, in spite of my tonsils. And then, to prove she was on my side, Mother Nature slapped him with the virus, too.
So here we were: the three of us, all expressing different symptoms, but all laid up and contagious.
I’m not going to lie. We did leave the house a couple times. We even went into stores. By then, my hands were speckled but no longer bumpy, and I confined the boy to the shopping cart. We were going crazy inside the house, and now that we were spending the holiday just the three of us, I felt compelled to do everything I could to up our Christmas cheer. I got stocking stuffers and extra gifts. I pulled out every strand of twinkle lights we owned and put them everywhere I could. I cut snowflakes from printer paper. I made little snowman versions of all of us, including the cat and a generic dog, to be personalized once we’ve actually adopted our dog in January (We’re getting a dog! Yay!). I made gingerbread and fudge and eggnog ice cream. I kept the house as clean as I could, even doing the chores that usually fall to my husband, because he was in the phase of the illness when it hurts to grip anything.
On Christmas Eve, my husband had to work. I’d argued with him about this, not wanting him to infect his coworkers, but he argued that if he was going to infect them he probably already had. Plus, if he took the days off, we couldn’t reschedule our trip in January. I conceded. His fever had gone away and his hands weren’t nearly as bad as mine had been. So he worked. And while he worked, I baked festive treats for his coworkers (being very careful, of course, not to contaminate anything with my blood, spit, pus, or feces, as these are the fluids through which hand, foot, and mouth disease is spread).
It was my first year really playing Santa. I even forbade my husband from looking at anything I stuffed into the stockings or the pile of presents under the tree until morning. He’d been moping–he’d never spent Christmas without extended family, in-law or otherwise, and he was missing that vibe pretty badly. He was also missing the time off. It didn’t feel like a holiday, he said, when you worked the day before and the day after. (Obviously, he’s never worked a blue-collar job as an adult. Sometimes when I used to bemoan my situation working at a hotel or coffee shop, he’d tell anecdotes about his job at Wendy’s, where he worked when he was fourteen.) I wanted to muster at least a little magic. I wanted our Christmas to be enough.
Watching our son open his presents on Christmas morning was delightful, once he figured out what to do. Even watching him get overwhelmed by the glut of boxes and wrapping paper was fun. He refused to eat any of the traditional Christmas breakfast casserole we’ve adopted from my husband’s side of the family, choosing cereal and berries instead, but he ate the orange out of his stocking and paid no mind to any of the sweets that come with Christmas. He wore his Santa jammies all day because they’re adorable and because we’d been saving them for the grandparents’ house and so had only been worn that once.
Still, we grown-ups couldn’t help being a little sad. As all the Christmas specials will tell you, all that stuff doesn’t compare to being with family. We are so incredibly fortunate in so many ways. Even our illness wasn’t nearly as bad as it could have been–the boy has been energetic and chipper since his fever broke, despite the blisters on his hands and feet, and only a little fussy at night. We’re all currently peeling but not in any real pain.
In some ways, I think this sort of lonely Christmas was good for us. Holidays change as you get older. No matter how hard you hold onto it, the magic slips away. The season seems shorter. The bills and schedules and plans overtake your holiday spirit. Sometimes, you have to make sacrifices for your family. I think it’s best we learn about this while our son is still tiny, and won’t remember the year mommy and daddy pouted because we didn’t get our way.