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When a child falls ill

india Updated: Feb 21, 2009 23:12 IST
Soumya Bhattacharya
Soumya Bhattacharya
Hindustan Times
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It’s awful when one’s child falls ill, isn’t it? We’ve been struggling with the illness our seven-year-old has had for the past nine days. Now, our girl—and, therefore, my wife and I—are veterans at dealing with illness.

When she was two months old, our daughter had so severe a respiratory tract infection that we had to admit her to hospital and put her on a nebuliser—a device that pumps an oxygen mist into the body—to help her breathe.

She was diagnosed with an asthma-like condition (when she was, she was two years old—too young for it to be officially called asthma; it now is). Since then, she has been on inhalers and is largely denied—because she is allergic to them—lots of things children enjoy as a matter of course: chocolates, chips and soft drinks.

The attacks come now and then, particularly during humid monsoons and pollution-heavy winters, and we are used to them. What she really needs to have, we are told, is clean air. Given we aren’t migrating to New Zealand, I suppose she is stuck with it.

Looking at her, though, you wouldn’t be able to tell. Even when Oishi has tremendously high fever, she tends to be bright, cheerful and uncomplaining. Which is why, seeing her weakened, sullen and barely able to stay on her feet last week after unremittingly high temperatures, we got spooked.

More than spooked, we felt return the helplessness—and impotent, irrational agony—all of us feel when we watch our children suffer.

I suppose it’s simply part of parenthood. And it’s part of parenthood because it is tied up with the sense of maturity parenthood endows most of us with, the sense of responsibility it imparts.

When they are little, we feel entirely responsible for our children. And not being able to alleviate their suffering makes us feel as though we have failed to fulfill our responsibility towards them.

Parenthood also teaches us—for want of a less exalted word—to be, well, selfless. Or at least less selfish in certain ways; it shifts the focus of things away from ourselves.

When we worry about our jobs or money or futures, as parents, we always tend to worry about how these things— the lack of them, perhaps — will affect our children.

When we think of how long we’ll live—and the manner in which we shall for the duration that we do —those thoughts are wittingly or unwittingly associated with what all this may mean for our children.

I know I am not alone in thinking all this. Literature is the only religion I have and Martin Amis – one of my literary heroes and a British writer who has always been acutely conscious of his position in the canon and always anxious about how posterity will judge the work he leaves behind – said in a recent interview that now, at 60 years of age, when he considers his life, he doesn’t think of his books. “It’s to do with your children and, more fascinating, how it went with women. That’s the big question.”

And one of Amis’s literary heroes, the Nobel Prize-winning American writer, Saul Bellow, said something similar as he lay dying.

So that’s what it comes to as one grows older. I don’t know if you do, but I certainly feel that way. More than anything else, that—or a version of that — is the really important thing: how it went with the women and, more fascinating, how it went with one’s child or children. That is the big question.