Friday, February 14, 2020
It's the season for colds, flu, and the stomach bug. Everyone seems to be reminding us to get a flu shot, wash our hands, cover our sneezes, take probiotics, and do everything we can to prevent spreading germs and getting sick. And, of course, these steps are important and beneficial. But the fact is, because we have children (who don't have the best germ-avoiding habits) and busy households, we simply won't be able to avoid all the germs this winter.
The idea that a complete avoidance of sickness may even be possible is best suited to the childless and those who can somehow isolate themselves this winter. Recently such a person informed my husband that he had only taken one sick day off of teaching in the last fifteen years. Ironically, my husband had the stomach bug the previous week. If you get vomited on by a distressed toddler every two hours for a whole night, it's pretty hard to avoid getting sick. As parents of six, including little ones, we get sneezed on, coughed on, vomited on, etc. with some frequency.
While trying to minimize the spread of germs and preventing illness in the household is a worthwhile pursuit to be incorporated into our lifestyle, there is also something to be said for expecting the sickness of our children and ourselves, embracing that, and serving the sick with generosity. Protecting one's health can allow one to serve God with energy. But the inability to prevent illness in our home can also allow us to serve God.
Let us remember that visiting the sick is one of the seven corporal works of mercy recognized by our Church as a particular way of doing God's will. In our tradition, we have many wonderful saints who dedicated their lives to caring for the sick, especially those who were ostracized because of their illness. The Church began hospitals to care for the sick who were unable to attain adequate care. One sociologist has suggested that the Church flourished when Christians cared for each other, rather than isolating themselves and ignoring the needy, in the midst of plagues. There are also many saints recognized for embracing their own illness, seeing it as an opportunity to grow closer to God by uniting their suffering to Christ's cross. And even now, many Catholic organizations and religious orders seek to provide care for the sick.
Despite this positive view of embracing sickness and care for the sick, there is a certain normal trepidation when a child comes home from school with the news that his classmate vomited next to him in school that morning or when a child lets you know that nine of 17 students were absent due to flu. As much as we might recognize the good of embracing the cross through our own and our children's sickness, we also know that this will throw off our schedule - the pressing deadlines, the regular commitments, etc. We can anticipate additional loads of laundry, trying to fit in trips to the pediatrician or urgent care, missing out on fun events we've planned, and trying to nurse everyone back to health, often while also actually being sick ourselves.
It's not easy, and it's not fun. If we approach it merely with a spirit of resignation to our duty, that is completely understandable. And if our kids watch a little more television than normal in that extra-long month of February, no one can really blame us. This aspect of parenting was not something we sought out when we dreamed of having children in our lives. We never laid awake at night envisioning scrubbing the carpet with paper towels and disinfecting wipes or imagining rearranging our busy day in order to get a strep or flu test for our children.
And yet, the fact that we would not choose caring for the sick or being sick ourselves is precisely why this becomes such a great opportunity for us. When we are physically exhausted, yet not able to have a "sick day," we may perform our tasks with resignation rather than enthusiasm. But that is a beautiful thing; the human body is amazing. Even tired and weak, we can and will provide for the needs of our children. We may be grumpy, but we will not abandon them. Sometimes uniting ourselves to Christ and his cross means struggling up that hill to Calvary, barely able to move but doing it anyway because we must.
Even when we are not ourselves sick, it's understandable not to be cheerful about a child's 103 temperature or being homebound when we have errands to run. Sickness can be sanctifying, but we don't choose it for our children, nor do we desire the disruption in our own lives. Yet this is a great opportunity for us to die to ourselves and our own plans and ambitions, and to focus on what God is calling us to at that moment. Our compassion, generosity, and calm concern can also become a great witness to our children about the Christian life. Neglecting our household tasks to spend the day holding a sick toddler is just as much a way of doing God's will as the dishes, and sometimes, this is precisely God's will for us at the moment: to live in the mess, extending his love and charity to those who are suffering in our own home.
If we can see the value of caring for the sick and accepting our own sickness, then we should also be able to extend our concern for others around us who are suffering. We know that this is the season for illness, and sometimes we know that our friends are in need. Many people go far out of their way to avoid those who are sick, but, as Christians, we should make efforts to go out of our way to help those who are sick, even beyond our own houses. (With exceptions, of course, for those who are already immune-compromised or have serious reason to avoid sickness.) We can offer to drop off some Gatorade or Tylenol, stop by the bakery to bring fresh-baked bread, deliver a flower bouquet, or make some homemade soup for those we know are sick. If we are truly concerned about introducing sickness to our own home, it's easy to leave such care packages outside someone's front door. We shouldn't let the modern inclination purposely to avoid those who are sick become our own perspective. The germy winter months can seem long and miserable, but we can still make good come of them with a spirit of Christian generosity and willingness to embrace the cross.