Cal’s eyes watered, his nose burbled, and his cough was so deep it sounded as if he had spent his three short years in a coal mine. I knew he was sick with a cold long before his body percolated and he proclaimed in that way toddlers do without their “to be” verbs, “Mommy, I sick.” Nine-year-old Sam’s plugged nose muffled that verb, too. Both of the boys were virus-ridden this week.
The common cold reduces us to one of our most unlovable states: bodily fluids leak from our faces; we are contagious but aren’t sick enough to inspire much more compassion than a perfunctory, “poor thing." In this vulnerable state, kids have to be separated from the herd, pack, tribe, community and meeting places: school, work, church, stores, etc. We know they’ll be better soon and we don’t want to catch whatever they’re sneezing on us.
My kids experience tell-tale signs of an oncoming cold before their faces actually begin to leak: bruise-colored rings circle Sam’s eyes; histamine-whipped behavior is Cal’s clue. Sam lapses into a languid state; Cal ramps up into hyperdrive. But the biggest tell-tale sign is what oozes from their pores. I can smell that they are sick.
Locating the sick scent is similar to excavating the refrigerator to sniff out what may be on the verge of spoiling. Each bit of food has its own distinct oder, but there’s no doubt when it's rotting. In hospitals, illnesses create their own distinct odors that waft into the hallways. To discern the scent of sick on my boys, I get my snout as close to them as I would to a carton of aging milk.
The common cold knows no cure and relief is limited for the wee among us. Parents must read and reread the exact dosages on medicine bottles. Too little produces no effect, while too much is toxic. We run to our parental toolbox to search for tools that might offer relief. We dig through the box and toss aside the time-out-hammer, the reduced-screen-time-wrench; we set aside the no-junk-food-before dinner-screwdriver. We scour the bottom of the kit for that rusted, salvaged, worn “old saw” passed down to us from our parents. The old saw at the bottom of my toolbox is that familiar standby "musterole," aka Vicks VapoRub™.
My mother slept in a king-sized waterbed and a nightstand anchored her to port. On it was her alarm clock, a pen and paper, whatever book she was reading or an out-dated People magazine she had pilfered from the waiting room at her job. Tucked in a cupboard below the shelves was the Vicks Vapor Rub™, a diaper and a diaper pin. I’m sure she salvaged the diaper and pin from my brother’s or my rump way back when we wore such things. Whenever she felt a cold coming on, she’d slather on the Vicks™ and then wrap her throat with that diaper.
After a few nights of use, the diaper, pin, and jar would be splayed out on one of the shelves like a forsaken bottle of rum and cigarettes after a randy night.
When my brother and I were young she’d rub the musterole on our chests and backs and we’d sleep in our father’s white undershirts, which hung to our knees. We pulled our pajama bottoms under and wrapped the tops over. Mom insisted on layers. After they divorced, she settled for our own t-shirts. When we were old enough and she didn’t worry that we’d strangle ourselves, she cowled our necks with the diaper. When we were all sick, a hand towel or even a kitchen towel would do. No matter how much they were laundered, I worried they might be foul with chicken grease from last week’s dinner. When the Vicks™ was applied to our chest, back or neck, it tickled. As the globs of rub on her fingertips approached, we giggled in anticipation.
The Mayo Clinic warns that there is danger associated with Vicks™ or any mentholated rub especially for children (see those warnings here). The Mayo Clinic reports that Mentholatum doesn’t actually “narrow blood vessels in the lining of your nose” which would lead to reduced swelling in your nasal passages. Decongestants accomplish that. Musterole simply tricks your brain into thinking that you are breathing easier, thus you breathe easier.
When children breathe easier, they sleep easier, get the rest they need, and the cold gets better.
Now, it is my turn to apply the rub on my squirmy, giggly children. The shake and shimmy of their torsos rubs the Vicks™ deep into their bedding. The vapor becomes ever more pronounced and heady. Under the pungent spell of camphor, I am both mother and child. I am both soothing and soothed. I breathe easier and I hope my children do, too.
Vicks Vapor Rub™ is richer in tricks than the Mayo Clinic supposed. Nestled under my wing, coated in a familial scent, my chicks breathe easier for the care and protection my mother offered me. I can no longer detect the sick smell with the Mentholatum tickling my nose.