By Barbara Hussey
Nothing in life is to be feared. It is only to be understood.
My son Josh didn't experience outdoor temperatures above seventy degrees until he was over three years old. He was born in Alaska where, even in summer, no one breaks a sweat. I, on the other hand, had lived most of my life in the Deep South, so I was unprepared for the adjustments he would need to make when we moved back to my hometown in November of the year he turned three.
Josh fell in love with New Orleans, especially the French Quarter. He enjoyed the lively music, interesting people, and the Mississippi River's constant parade of tugboats, barges, steamboats, tankers, and cruise ships. We soon began spending our Saturdays riding the streetcar to Canal Street, then walking to Jackson Square to watch the street performers. Afterwards, we'd walk along the levee until we reached a gate in the floodwall through which we could enter Dutch Alley. There we'd meet my parents by the outdoor stage, listen to whatever jazz band was performing that week, and end the day with French pastry at a nearby cafÃ©. Our routine altered only when my parents stayed home.
On one of those occasions, a beautiful day in late spring, Josh and I began our weekly ramble with a ride on the Canal Street ferry. The early morning breeze on the river was brisk, masking the heat and humidity climbing rapidly in the paved city streets as spring segued into summer. Fascinated at seeing the river from a different viewpoint, we rode across and back twice. We finally disembarked, walking up Canal towards Chartres Street, which would lead us to Jackson Square. Josh trotted beside me, holding my hand and chatting happily about everything he'd seen. Suddenly he stopped and began crying.
I turned quickly and knelt facing him on the gritty sidewalk. "What's wrong, sweetie?" I brushed away the tears streaming down his cheeks, an action which only seemed to increase his anguished wails. Had something happened that I didn't understand? Was he in pain? "Please, Josh. Please tell Mommy what's wrong so I can fix it." I could hear the panic in my voice and hoped he didn't notice.
"My... my...." He choked on his sobs, unable to speak. I picked him up and looked around, fighting to stay calm while I decided what to do. Finally I spied a café in the lobby of a nearby hotel.
"Come on, let's go get something cool to drink so you can calm down and tell Mommy what's wrong. Okay?" He nodded, his agreement feeding my hope that whatever was wrong wasn't as bad as it seemed. Carrying him into the cool interior, I sat beside him at the counter and ordered two Cokes with plenty of ice. As we sipped, his sobs slowly subsided.
"Feeling better now?" I asked. His nods relieved my anxiety even though his sobs continued intermittently. Finally, he was quiet. I used a napkin to wipe away his tears, then fine-tuned my voice to soothe and comfort. "What happened, baby? Tell Mommy why you were crying."
He looked up at me, eyes large with fear. "My..." A sob caught in his throat, and I held my breath as he tried again. He rubbed his hand under his long silky bangs and held it out, but all I could see was moisture coating his fingers. His face crumpled again, but this time the words tumbled out. "My face is melting!"
I swallowed the laughter bubbling up inside even as my eyes filled with compassionate tears. Anxious to comfort him, I pulled him onto my lap and enveloped him in a bear hug. "Oh, sweetie, there's nothing to be afraid of. You're not melting. That's called sweat. It's perfectly normal. Everybody sweats. Look." I wiped my own forehead and showed him the moisture coating my own hand. "I'm so sorry you got scared. Mommy completely forgot that you wouldn't know what sweat is. You need to sweat; it's how your body cools off when it's hot outside. I hate to tell you, but you're going to do a lot of sweating during the summer. But I promise, there's no reason for you to be afraid."
He studied my hand, then looked up at me. He didn't look convinced. "You sure?" he asked.
"Positive," I said in the most confident tone I could produce. "I grew up here, remember?" I did my best to reassure him as we talked about the effects of heat and summer, then we continued our walk to Jackson Square. Problem solved, or so I thought.
Even though I had managed to allay his immediate fear that day, Josh's aversion to sweating lasted a long time. He insisted on a buzz cut that summer and every year after until he reached his teens. Gone was my golden-haired toddler. He was now a little boy — a little boy with a mind of his own. He might have to sweat, but he didn't have to let it drip down his face.