The cruelest month

January does a number on the Albrights

Lobster Newburg in croquettes
  • Lobster Newburg in croquettes

January depresses me. The holidays are over. Days are short. Spring is a barely open door at the end of a long hallway.

Monday after New Year’s, 1 woke up at 4 a.m. Stumbling down the upstairs hall toward the sound of 18-month-old Johnny’s cries, I felt the cold air rise up beneath my flannel nightgown. When I lifted Johnny from his crib, he trembled. His cheek burned against my neck. I laid Johnny down beside me in bed. Johnny fumbled for the bottle of juice I handed him, then settled into an uneven rhythm of breathing and sucking.

For the next half-hour, as Johnny drained the bottle, I stared into darkness and worried. “How sick is Johnny? Will the other kids get it? Will Lucy be able to start her first day of preschool? Will Rebecca miss days of school and fall behind?”

I awoke again at 5:30 to Johnny’s wail. Jack rolled over and coughed. “Is he okay?” Jack asked. His voice was husky.

“He’s got a fever,” I answered. “You don’t sound very good either.”

“I think I’m coming down with something.”

“Happy birthday,” I said.

Jack sheltered Johnny in the great curve of his arm while I walked downstairs to get Johnny some medicine. I returned with a plastic medicine spoon filled with children’s Motrin. In the dim glow of a low-burning halogen lamp, Johnny’s cheeks flushed red and his eyes gazed out glassy from beneath heavy lids. “Hey, little man,” Jack coaxed Johnny. “Drink some of this.”

I held the spoon to Johnny’s lips. He opened his mouth for a moment, then closed his lips tight just as the medicine slid out the spoon’s top. Sticky purple suspension flowed down Johnny’s chin and into the folds of his neck.

“Oh, Johnny,” I complained and ran to the bathroom for a towel. I mopped him up as best I could.

“I think he got a little,” Jack said. Johnny tossed and turned back and forth between Jack and me until the girls started calling out around 7:30. Jack brought three-year-old Lucy and almost-five-year-old Angela into our room. When the bed was full, Johnny sat up and held out his arms to be picked up. I carried him downstairs. Pausing at the bottom, I looked out into the living room. Our Christmas tree stood silhouetted against the dove-gray light seeping in the blinds. Doll furniture and Johnny’s new dump truck and an ice cream set my brother sent us still sat beneath the tree. The holiday clutter that had looked so festive the week after Christmas now looked messy. I thought of all the things I needed to do, the chores I’d told myself I would get to “as soon as the holidays are over” — organizing my files and rearranging the kids’ dresser drawers and sorting through the dozens of stuffed animals that spill from the shelves in Rebecca and Lucy’s room.

Johnny coughed and snuggled into my shoulder. “Let’s get you some more juice, my poor little sick boy.”

For the rest of the day, Jack (who had taken the day off for his 43rd birthday) and Johnny languished on the couch. Because he had promised her, Jack got up to take Angela to preschool at 12:30. When he returned, I drove 15 minutes to our local Plymouth dealer to get the oil changed in our minivan. “Will you be back by 3:00?” Jack asked as I walked out the door. “I told Angela I would pick her up.”

“I’m sure I will be ” I told him. “My appointment is at 1:30. It wouldn’t take more than an hour ant minutes to change the oil.”

They did. At 3:00,1 called Jack from the dealership. “They’re just finishing up,” I said. “I’ll have to pick Angie up on my way home.”

When Angela saw me walk into her classroom, her lower lip trembled. Tears spilled out of her big brown eyes. “What’s wrong?” Angela’s teacher asked.

“My daddy was supposed to pick me up,” Angela sobbed.

Angie cried all the way home. “I wanted Daddy to pick me up,” she managed to utter between outbursts.

“I’m so sorry, sweetie. Daddy wanted to pick you up. But I had to have some work done on the car and the men who did the work took too long, and I didn’t have time to go home before it was time to come pick you up, and Daddy couldn’t come by himself because Johnny is too sick.”

“I wanted Daddy to pick me up,” Angela continued as though I hadn’t spoken.

We celebrated Jack’s birthday with his favorite dinner: shrimp Newburg in puff pastry shells and white Vons sheet cake for dessert. Johnny sat in Jack’s lap and whimpered. Jack couldn’t really taste his food. Angela and Lucy demanded bean soup from a can. “Happy birthday,” I told Jack and raised my glass of sparkling cider.

“Thanks,” Jack said. He smiled a weary smile and kissed the top of Johnny’s hot head.

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