Loco Parentis: Crazy Love

Some of what gets handed down from generation to generation, you hope bypasses your kids. Pass the bell jar, please

BEFORE MARCY LEFT for Mexico, I took her to see a travel medicine specialist. She asked us questions, consulted maps, gave Marcy shots for hepatitis and typhoid, tested her for TB, wrote prescriptions for anti-malaria and anti-diarrhea drugs, and generally scared the bejesus out of me. Mosquito netting! DEET! Sunscreen! Lysol and alcohol wipes! Dengue fever! Don’t swim in lakes or streams! Don’t eat salad or fruit! If you buy a bottle of water from a vendor, don’t let him open it for you; check that the seal isn’t broken! Her paranoia made mine seem puny — and hers was informed. I’d heard about these illnesses but never paid attention to them, because they’d never threatened anyone I loved.

As we left the office, I was already making plans. “I’ll go online to find mosquito netting,” I promised.

Marcy gave me a fair approximation of Jake’s bland-dispassion face. “I am not taking mosquito netting.”

“You heard the doctor! Do you want to catch dengue fever? Do you want to die?”

“I’d rather die than show up at my host family’s house with a mosquito net.”

I lose on the mosquito netting. But I do send her off at the airport burdened down with SPF 60 and hand sanitizers and insect repellent and endless warnings about Montezuma’s revenge. Somehow, though, with everything else that’s going on — the breakup with the boyfriend, the cell-phone bill, her visits to pyramids and rainforests and native villages — I don’t think to ask if she’s been sick until she’s two months in.

“No,” she says. “Jenny” — one of her friends there — “was, but just for a day. Everyone else has been fine.”

Which goes to show either the resilience of youth, or the bogusness of the travel-medicine industry.

I prefer to think it’s the former. So far, my kids have taught me about allergies, anger management, anorexia, bedwetting, bilirubin, braces, brattiness, chicken pox, coxsackie virus, colic, croup …  Maybe someday mental illness will be added to that list. And because it will be happening to Marcy or Jake, someone I can’t not visit, can’t turn away from or ignore, can’t ever consider Them instead of part of me, I won’t be scared to face it, will sit with it at my kitchen table, will stare into its blank or angry eyes and think of this: “Love is not love/Which alters when it alteration finds.” Madness isn’t the plunge into eternal night that I once imagined. It can be a place you visit and come back from. Like Mexico.

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