"on the lip of / nothing": the sick child

We had our first experience with a sick child on Thursday night. H. woke up three times coughing and vomiting during the night. It's a strange helplessness you feel during those moments, holding your son who's looking at you as if all the discoveries he'd made about the world over the last nearly eleven months now meant nothing, that he feared and understood this new experience was a new reality. Which it was. Which it is. And there's nothing I can do about it.

I didn't sleep well and I don't know if it's because I've also caught the virus. Hopefully not since his mother is also getting over a similar illness. Mostly it was paranoia that kept me listening to the baby monitor and frequently getting out of bed to walk across the hall and into his room to confirm he was breathing and not drowning in his own vomit. These are the things you think of when your chid is sick. And it's these things and worse when it's the middle of the night. Your brain...just goes. To horrible places. Flashing on The Road. On Beloved. Margaret Garner. All the what-would-I-do, how-could-I-go-on questions.

This afternoon I was thinking about how to write about this experience and, as I sat down to scratch out some lines while H. napped, I remembered this poem by Sharon Olds from The Gold Cell.

I guess I don't need to write the my-child-is-sick poem since she's made it so no one can ever write that poem again. Well, obviously that's hyperbole, but you'll read the poem. You'll see what I mean. Especially if you have children.

via Vogue online
Sharon Olds has been in the poetry news lately. Vogue Magazine recently profiled her and has a brief review of her latest collection, Stag's Leap, which is described as
her most unified and vital work since 1992's The Father, finds both seeker and sensualist at their best. Describing the emotional trajectory of the year, 1997, that her husband of three decades left her for another woman, Olds moves from the intimacy of a long marriage, with its “hard sweets of femur and stone,” shared objets and domestic rituals—a haircut, a snooze on the sofa—to the “courtesy and horror” involved in its undoing. In the title poem, the speaker compares the deer emblazoned on a bottle of wine to her husband, “casting himself off a cliff in his fervor to get free of me”—and, with an astonishing generosity, cheers him on: “When anyone escapes, my heart / leaps up. Even when it’s I who am escaped from, I am half on the side of the leaver.” 

When My Son Is Sick

When my son is so sick that he falls asleep
in the middle of the day, his small oval
hard head hurting so much he
prefers to let go of consciousness like
someone dangling from a burning rope just
letting go of his life, I sit and
hardly breathe. I think about the
half-liquid skin of his lips,
swollen and nicked with red slits like the
fissures in a volcano crust, down
which you see the fire. Though I am
down the hall from him I see the
quick bellies of his eyeballs jerk
behind the greenish lids, his temples
red and sour with pain, his skin going
pale gold as cold butter and then
turning a little like rancid butter till the
freckles seem to spread, black little
islands of mold, he sleeps the awful
sleep of the sick, his hard-working heart
banging like pipes inside his body, like a
shoe struck on iron bars when
someone wants to be let out, I
sit, I sit very still, I am out at the
rim of the world, the edge they saw
when they knew it was flat--the torn edge,
thick and soil-black, the vessels and
veins and tendons hanging free,
dangling down,
when my boy is sick I sit on the lip of
nothing and hang my legs over
and sometimes let a shoe fall
to give it something.

Sharon Olds
from The Gold Cell