An early present arrived just before Christmas: a nasty bug, part stomach ailment, part respiratory distress. We spent the holidays passing it around like a Secret Santa gift from hell.
Sam, God bless him, brought it home. Normally a bundle of nonstop, 7-year-old-boy mania, he revealed his illness by climbing into a wicker chair, folding himself in half and remaining in that extreme yoga position for an entire afternoon.
He quickly passed the bug to Celia, his 5-year-old partner in sickness and in health. Well past midnight on Christmas Eve, I discovered her standing nonchalantly at a bathroom sink. She’d just thrown up in the toilet, she informed me.
I brushed her teeth, washed her face and put her back in bed. “Are there any presents yet?” she asked weakly.
Not yet, honey. It’s still too early. And Santa is a germaphobe.
Five hours later, just past dawn, Celia was back in the bathroom for another round of unpleasantness. Her siblings bounded downstairs to gleefully pillage. A fully recovered Sam — his Iron Man immune system rarely goes down for more than 36 hours — and big sister Sophie ping-ponged from one present to another in their pajamas.
Celia, by contrast, regarded her presents as if they were a pile of tax returns. Nothing got a reaction. Not the lovely doll. Not the shiny bicycle. Not the much-coveted Doc McStuffins backpack.
She laid down on the floor, reached out an arm and listlessly tugged at the wrapping paper without smiling.
At that point, plans began to crumble; the holidays don’t always happen like you hope. Celia was clearly in no shape to socialize. The rest of the day, my wife and I took turns staying home with Celia while the other one fulfilled social obligations with Sam and Sophie.
By supper, everyone was exhausted. Sophie also felt a bit warm.
In two days, we were supposed to fly to Philadelphia to rendezvous with relatives, including a brother-in-law and niece who live in Australia and whom we haven’t seen in years.
But will the patients be in any shape to travel?
Sophie spent the day after Christmas in bed. Celia rallies to eat solid food, then is miserable again by bedtime.
Scheduled departure is 12 hours away. Maybe I’ll stay home with Celia and Sophie, and try to book another flight later in the week. Visions of airline surcharges dance in my head.
The morning dawns stressful and unhappy. Celia is still lethargic. A warm bath doesn’t help. A last-minute, Hail Mary dose of medicine does. Sophie is still not well but assures us she can make it.
OK, then. We’re going for it.
At the airport, we fortify the kids with smoothies. Strawberry-kiwi, specifically.
On the plane, Sophie curls up in a window seat, using a parka as a blanket. “I can’t believe we’re all on this flight,” my wife says.
Strawberry-kiwi smoothies, it turns out, weren’t such a great idea. On the descent into Chicago, Sophie, hidden beneath her parka, silently uses an air-sickness bag for its intended purpose. She is so discreet that my wife, who is reading in the seat next to her, doesn’t realize what’s happening.
Celia, meanwhile, is back to her bossy self. As the plane taxis, she dictates the logistics of getting to our connecting flight. Sam, his swagger fully restored, mocks a crying baby.
In the food court of Chicago’s Midway International Airport, we forbid Sophie from eating anything. She scowls. A single tear, beautiful and tragic, trickles down her cheek.
In the air once again, Celia attempts to nullify previous negotiations and steal the window seat from Sam. Their Uncle Danny, traveling with us as an unofficial “man-ny,” tries to distract them by appointing a “captain” of the flight. “Who was captain last time?”
“Celia,” says Sam.
“Sam,” says Celia.
We finally arrive in frigid Philadelphia, where the five of us will share a bedroom in Uncle Neil and Aunt Deb’s hillside home.
Celia and Sophie cough their way through the wee hours. A silent night it is not. Only Sam sleeps.
Two days later, my wife catches the bug, big-time. Headache. Congestion. Cough. In general, feeling like crap. It is no fun to be sick during the holidays. It is less fun to be sick during the holidays somewhere other than home.
Long before midnight on New Year's Eve, my ailing wife retires for the evening. Sophie and I welcome the new year watching “Wonder Woman.”
The movie credits roll. Wonder Woman has filled me with optimism. Maybe, I think, we’re over the hump.
Sophie’s churning stomach says otherwise. Ninety minutes into 2018, she gets sick once again.
Bugs, it seems, don’t take the holidays off.
Staff writer Keith Spera chronicles his parenting adventures in the occasional "Parental Advisory" column.