The joys of a sick day: A single/working motherâ€™s refuge
Soft, afternoon, winter light from my window
When my 10-year-old son woke up, sat on the side of the bed and promptly threw up all over the floor last Thursday I was immediately overjoyed. Don’t get me wrong, I felt bad for him, he’s my baby, but the first thing that popped into my mind was that it would be a sick day. And for the child of a single mother, that’s just about the criteria—throwing up or a fever significantly over 100° or the poor kid goes to school. I quickly got a towel from the bathroom and cleaned up the floor cursorily. But before I could give sympathy or succor or any of those things to my fairly undaunted son, I had to get on the computer and create an absence on the New York City Department of Education’s SubCentral system. You’re required to do it before 5 a.m. and it was now 5:20.
Of course I didn’t remember my password (I actually have amazing attendance) but I succeeded in recovering it and creating the absence by 5:26 to be exact. Then I could attend to my son. Throwing up is no joy but even my son was happy knowing we’d have the day home together. He, too, has fond memories of sick days. I brought him water and settled him back into the bed. I cleaned the floor up more thoroughly and checked again to make sure I’d created the absence correctly on the computer. And then I breathed a huge sigh of relief.
We’d gotten back to NYC from the Midwest on Monday, 1/2, at about 9:30 p.m. We walked into the shambles of the apartment that we left on the 24th. It seemed like a lifetime ago that I’d defrosted the freezer on the night before our departure because so much ice had built up that the door wouldn’t close. All night long I’d heard it dripping, and little chunks of ice would occasionally crash down. But none of that mattered as we rode in the taxi at 6 a.m. on the way to the airport on the 24th, marveling that people were out shopping at Macy’s at that hour, and otherwise drifting around the sparsely populated, darkened urban landscape, as in an Edward Hopper painting come alive.
The disarray in our apartment upon our return had no such romantic connotations, nor did the fact that we had absolutely no food. It was late and we were tired and went to bed. Thus the work week hit hard and I was absolutely worn down by the first Thursday back from vacation. I pulled up the blinds on the windows and watched the soft light of the morning creep over the new day. It seemed a stillness settled upon the apartment, quickly replacing the usually frantic weekday-morning air. I could breathe. And I wasn’t worried about a thing.
When you have time you feel you can handle anything, anything that comes up. But when you get on that treadmill of a nonstop work routine you start to lose perspective. I wonder sometimes if that isn’t the plan behind it all (the level of my at-times paranoid-leaning, conspiracy-minded thinking would make some blanch). When my son was born I cared for him entirely by myself, without even relatives or close contacts nearby—or anywhere near—the city. While it wasn’t easy to take care of an infant alone, I was blessed with the gift of a little time, thanks to the financial help of my mother. I knew if I only had time I could face each day and figure out what to do, and I did.
Now sometimes I get so wrapped up in worrying about my job that I can’t even think straight. The nation (or who is it exactly?) is putting so much pressure on teachers and schools that no one can. My principal looked as if he were carrying the weight of the world on the first day back from vacation. Everyone else is sort of ashen and dazed. The kids are off the chain. We’ve got the state coming in to review us in two weeks because not enough of our seniors graduated last year. Guess what? Four of them were incarcerated but it’s still our fault—we get penalized. In a relatively small school four students leaves a big mark percentage-wise.
If kids leave our school and move to other states they stay on our rolls until we get registration information from another school. Every day we don’t our attendance records are affected, our percentage of kids who don’t take required state tests, and so on. I had a ninth-grader tell me the other day that I had a failure rate to worry about. Yeah. I had told him I couldn’t pass him if he didn’t complete the work.
We’re responsible for so much we have absolutely no control over. For example it’s the custom for some students to take the week before vacation and the week after vacation as additional vacation. A number of kids come to school in fall one or two weeks late and don’t even bat an eye. They’re out of the country and just stroll in when they return. And that’s just one thing. I know this is happening in urban schools across the nation. And did you hear about the schools in Tennessee, which was one of the first of two states to be awarded a grant from Obama’s Race to the Top initiative? Yeah, that’s working out real well.
My poor son must have thrown up 20 times last Thursday. But even he said he had a peaceful day. The light in the room changes profoundly as the hours go by. I walked out briefly twice to the store on the corner and the other store a block and a half away to get provisions and glimpsed the life on the street on a weekday, something I love. The patterns just seem so much more rich and varied than on Saturday and Sunday, most people’s usual days off. I screwed around on the computer for a good part of the day and got some of my work for school done. My son and I talked about and remembered other days that he’d stayed home, the two of us together, relaxing, not even going anywhere.
The day floated by in a kind of blissful nothingness. I restored partial order to our studio apartment. It seemed I had worlds of time on my hands and I could do anything I set out to do, make wise and rational decisions, reflect on the significance of different aspects of life, watch the quality of the sunlight change as the hours and minutes slowly ticked by. In the evening I finally went out to the Whole Foods on 24th and 7th. I’d put it off until then because my son was hoping he’d recover enough to go, but didn’t. And I had all day.
I felt this kind of crazy excitement seeing all the people on the streets after being in the house all day. So much seemed to be happening and I was wondering about everybody’s lives. I imagined—and do sort of remember—that must be how a very little kid feels every time he or she steps out the door, that kind of wonder and excitement at the world, along with the sense of rather endless possibility and hope.
I shoved my poor boy out the door the next day to go to school. He always does make a miraculous recovery and at least it was Friday. He decidedly could have used another day of rest but it’s not the first time I’ve sent him off looking pale and with my feeling dubious and terrible and just trying to have faith that things will work out. That’s the life of a single, working mother.
We were running late and I was rushing. I tripped up the subway stairs (metal). I was day-dreaming and didn’t get off at my stop and had to ride back, causing me to be about 25 minutes late. My payroll secretary greeted me by saying I had to punch in, when you usually don’t. It was just another glorious day all and all.
Well, thank god we’ve got Martin Luther King Day coming up. Because if I find myself hoping my son throws up again I’ll think it’s really time to look for another way of life. Single, working mother or not, I’d have to be put in the gross-parent hall of fame. I’ll try to just keep that image of peace from the last sick day in my mind instead.