One year, one month, and 27 days. That's how long it took. That's how far into my daughter's life it took for me to get that frightening phone call that most parents receive but few, if any, ever expect.
"Penelope's running a fever. One of us has to go and pick her up."
"One of us," in this situation, usually means my wife. Just like how "we should cook tonight" or "we should call the realtor" usually means I should cook tonight and I should call the realtor. Hey, this marriage is 50-50. Kind of. But my wife handles most of the heavy lifting when it comes to Penelope, so if I'm needed, I have to step up.
And on this particular day, she couldn't leave work. The only other option was for her to pick up our drowsy baby, and take her back to the office. Not the best way to recover from a fever. So I had to leave work myself and get her. First time for everything.
Parenthood is a lot about numbers. Whether it's age, weight, height, head size - yes head size - we're always interested in the numbers. How may steps has she taken? How many words does she say? Parents are even obsessed with percentages. Or rather, percentiles. As in, Penelope is in the 25th percentile for weight and height. What does that mean? That if she were an adult, she'd be Danny DeVito. Maybe a little taller, definitely a lot cuter.
And why is it that we mark the age of our children in months? Penelope isn't "a year and two months." She's '14 months.' Why? Why do I have to have to calculate pre-algebra equations in my head every time I ask someone how old their child is? Am I 392 months old? When do we stop this craziness?
One big number pops up only once in a short while, and when it does, call off all other bets. Temperature. And this time, that number was getting scary.
The mercury and my anxiety were precipitously rising in tandem. Penelope had been sick before, but not like this. Not so sick she wasn't her happy, carefree adorable self. She was schmoopy. Lethargic. Miserable. I found her in the lobby of the day care, separated from the rest of the kids like some sort of leper, sitting in her stroller, with Lammie, sucking her thumb. She was hotter than Phoenix in August.
I knew the situation was serious when she wasn't having any of my normal antics to make her laugh. Every time I made a funny face, or a silly noise, she would give me a stone-cold look of disapproval, and shake her head 'no,' the whole time, with her thumb in her mouth.
I gave her some medicine and put her to bed, checking her constantly. She was burning up. Mercury rising. I took her to the doctor when she woke up, and even our normally stoic pediatrician registered a look of concern. That's because that number reached Freddy Kruger meets Poltergeist scary. 104.8. Wow.
Trying my best to appear calm and not make my voice tremble, I asked him, "At what point do I take her to the hospital?" Scary. Heat wave. I want my mommy. I want her mommy!
She was given a shot of antibiotics and that seemed to do the trick. Within the half hour, she was smiling again, talking, saying "hi" to people as we passed them in the stroller. By the time we got back home, it was as if nothing had happened. She was running around the condo, chasing the dog, eating Cheerios, clapping hands, closing all of the doors.
It was a defining day. For me as a dad. For her as my daughter. Dropping everything at my no-nonsense, high-pressure, demanding job to go take care of her, and not even thinking twice. She needed me, and there was no other place I belonged more. After everything I've done for her, done with her, witnessed her do: the changing, feeding, rocking to sleep, playing, dressing, teaching, laughing, hoping, disciplining, this was the most important. It was the first time in a while that I realized again that my daughter depends on me, totally and unapologetically.
As I sat there in the exam room, waiting for the doctor to come in, I was holding her in my arms, against my chest, singing to her and rocking her. She fell asleep as I ran through all of our songs: "Thunder Road," "You've Got A Friend," "The Way You Look Tonight," "Young at Heart,' "Just the Way You Are," "Jersey Girl." She was scorching. Making me sweat. But I didn't let go. How I felt didn't matter. All that matters is her. She is the sun, hot and bright, and we are just planets in her universe.