My daughter coughed in her sleep and my eyes opened. Still dark. Sitting up already on the couch, I thought (hoped?) that it had to be nearing morning as my eyes strained unsuccessfully to make out the hands of the clock on the fireplace mantle. Her legs were on top of my legs so I felt her twitch even though she slept. Her tongue clucked on the roof of her mouth. And she groaned. I knew she was going to vomit. Again.

She’d been sick all night. She was the third of my children to catch this awful flu.

I leaned towards her, my face just inches from hers. I didn’t want to wake her unless I knew for sure it was going to happen again. My six year old pursed her lips and groaned and I knew it was time. I placed my hand behind her head. “Come on doll, you’re going to get sick.” She woke slowly. Her eyes fluttered and widened and she looked at me questioningly. And then I saw her remember that she was sick. “Uggh,” she said. “Not again.”

“Sit up, doll,” I whispered and she leaned forward suddenly vomiting into the bucket I held in front of her. I pulled her hair from her face. We had our routine down. This was the sixth one of the evening.

We had taken to talking between her gasps. “It’s not sounding so good from over here,” I said lightly.

“It’s not looking so good from over here,” she said while looking into the bucket and I saw her half smile and look to me for recognition of her little joke. She constantly amazes me.

When she finished she sat back, wiping her mouth with a tissue I handed her. I trotted barefoot out of the room with the bucket and washed it out in the bathtub.

When I tiptoed back in she was almost already asleep in the dark. She heard me approach and she looked up at me. “I’m back” I said.

“I know,” she said sleepily, adding that she thought she was feeling better now.

“Good,” I said. She’d said that the past three times. I sat down next to her and looked at the mantle. It was 2:30 a.m.. We still had a long way to go. I knew because I’d been through it with the nine year old the night before. And the other six year old the night before that. 18 hours each. We still had four more hours to go. That’s just how long it takes.

Sitting on one end of the couch I tried to give her a little room but she stretched out and I felt her foot searching out my leg. Her toes touched me and she curled over, content.

“Hey,” I whispered. “Happy birthday six year old,” I said.

She opened her eyes slightly, tilted her head. Nodded. “Thanks.” Then she faded off to sleep.

I was thinking two things there in the darkness. One: God really made kids cute when they’re sick. Two: I felt so damn helpless. But sometimes, I guess, all we can do is hold the bucket. I’m starting to think that might just be the hardest part of being a parent. I don’t want to just hold the bucket. I want to make her better. Now. It’s her birthday, for goodness sake. But all I can do is hold the bucket.

And that’s the scary truth of it all. My daughters will suffer. My son will suffer. In this world, there’s no getting around it. I can’t stop that. I can teach them to pray. I can teach them there’s a loving God. I can teach them to offer up their suffering for the souls in Purgatory. But all of that won’t stop my children from being like every other person born on this Earth. They will suffer. And all I can do is love them. Let their toes touch my leg. Hold the bucket. Keep their hair out of their faces. It’s a very difficult lesson for a parent. I guess I’m still learning it.

Update: The six year old is better and she even had cake. Hooray.

But the three year old boy is sick and let me tell you it’s completely different. We sit on the piece of furniture my wife now calls the “sick couch” quite nicely together but each time the boy feels nauseous he inexplicably dashes from the couch and looks for a place to hide. When in pain he wants to be alone. So while he’s running like a Mammoth in search of his tar pit I’m running next to him with the bucket under his maw. Fun. The moment he’s done he goes back to the couch where he pulls the tag on his blanket between his thumb and his forefinger repeatedly, endlessly until he falls asleep again.