I was a chronic faker.
In fifth grade math, I asked to go to the nurse nearly every day. Once I was old enough to stay home alone, I’m sure I played sick at least once a month. My mother didn’t always fall for it, but it was always worth a try. By high school, I had perfected my technique. “I don’t know what to do,” I’d tell my mother, “I really want to go to school today for _____, but I just don’t know if I can make it.” The addition of the, “I really want to…” always convinced my mother.
When I lived with my father, I’d simply ask him what patients he saw that day (he was a pediatrician) and then the next day I’d magically develop the same symptoms.
When it comes to being a “pants on fire” variety liar, reputation helps. My brother did me the favor of being the official Family Problem Child. I was the good child in the family by default—not, obviously, by deed. My parents assumed I was on the straight and narrow because I got good grades and mostly evaded detection when I misbehaved, so they were more inclined to believe my lies. (Sorry, Mom.)
Playing sick had only one major drawback: karma. Every time I played sick, it seemed like I got sick for real the following week. Because I’d already used up all of my parents’ sympathy, I was in a bad position. I’d swear to myself that I wouldn’t play sick again, but a few weeks later, I’d once again be unable to resist the lure of a day on the couch with The Price is Right.
My first born legitimately hates to miss school—unlike my lying self. Make-up work has brought him to tears—I used to have no qualms about pulling the boys from school to go out of town, but he hates missing school so much that I have promised myself to schedule around his vacations, even though that means the places we go will be more crowded. So if my eldest says he’s sick, I know he means it. My youngest, well, let’s just say he takes after his mama in more than just the cowlicks in his hair. He’s a malingerer, and he knows staying at home with Mama and Minecraft is way better than spending the day in the classroom. When my youngest says he’s sick, I’m generally in the “suck it up, Buttercup,” camp, and err on the side of disbelief. If he doesn’t have a fever or hasn’t tossed his cookies, it’s off to school he goes.
It’s truly unfortunate for him that I was such a terrible child. Recently, he had a not-very-bad cold or maybe just allergies type of thing, and I had no sympathy for him whatsoever. Until I got it. Suddenly I realized that he was really as fatigued as he said, and that dry cough thing was more irritating than I gave him credit for. I looked at my little four-foot tall child, who has no control over things like whether or not he gets a sick day, and the guilt rolled over me. I swore that next time, I’d be a little less skeptical.
Shortly thereafter, his big brother got strep throat, so when my littlest boy called from the school office to tell me his throat hurt, I went to pick him up right away. Because he got antibiotics before his fever spiked, he skipped out on the late night vomiting his brother experienced, which was good for him, but also meant he got to laze around the house for a three-day weekend when he wasn’t actually feeling very poorly.
“My brother doesn’t know he’s sick until he’s really sick, but I know right away. I’m better than he is at knowing when I’m sick,” he explained. I wasn’t sure this was really a life skill, since learning to suck it up and get my job done even when I didn’t want to was actually a valuable life skill that took me longer to learn than most. If you want to keep a job, raise a child, or generally succeed at anything, there are times you have to push through.
And yet, maybe he is more sensitive. Perhaps his categorization of every itch and ache will reveal itself in great art, or he’ll advance the field of research in general malaise someday. Perhaps he’ll redesign the couch pillow to be even more comfortable.
I sent him to his father’s house with his bottle of chalky, disgusting medicine. When I called to check on him later, I asked if he was looking forward to school on Monday.
“Oh, I’m not sure I’ll be well enough for that,” said my child--the one who hadn’t had a fever for three days, ate every Girl Scout cookie in the cabinet, and spent hours sitting upright at his desk playing MineCraft.
Luckily, his father was more of a malingerer than even I was as a child. “Oh, you’re going,” he told him. At least I didn’t have to be the bad guy this time.
Copyright © 2022 Lara Lillibridge
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