Lost in Translation


Our little bi-lingual house guest was sick.

My wife’s niece Jeanne had been staying with us in Fort Myers for the winter break. My brother-in-law and his young second wife had decided to escape the Montreal weather and take a winter honeymoon cruise in the Caribbean and needed someone to keep watch on their eight-year-old.

She wandered into our bedroom about 5:30 in the morning and stood there, just like the dog does, willing me awake with a doleful stare and plaintive energy aimed directly at my skull.

“What’s wrong, Jeanne?”

“My throat ‘urls.”

“Oh, well you’d better get back in bed and we’ll be right down to check on you.”

Cathy and I had been through this with our own kids, now grown, and knew a sore throat could mean anything from the kid needing a drink of water to the room humidity was too dry. It seldom meant a real illness. At least I couldn’t remember anything like that from back then. That was Cath’s department. The bonus of being married to an RN.
After pulling on some warm-ups, I scuffed into the guest room, where I found Jeanne curled in the rocking chair holding a blanket and her stuffed whatever-it-was-once. Her face was quite pale and it looked like she had been crying.

“Okay, hon, let’s take a look at that throat.”

I placed my palm on her forehead and found it quite warm. My handy little LED flashlight I kept in the nightstand showed her throat was indeed quite on the rare side.
“Hmm, looks like you might be sick,” I said.

“I told you that already.”

“Yeah, right, but…um, never mind.”

“What’s going on, Dave?” I heard my deep-sleeping spouse mumble from the doorway.

“Looks like Jeanne might be sick. Her throat’s pretty red and she feels warm on her forehead.”
“Oh, no.”

“Yeah, I know. Her parents still three days out at sea and your best nursing days behind you.” I grinned. “You gonna take her to the urgent care on Daniels Parkway?”

“Nope, you are.”

“What? C’mon, Cath. I’ve got golf today and…”

“…And I’ve got to sub for the middle school nurse today. You’re It, Doctor.” Never knew retirement meant I’d need to work anymore, but there you are.”

Jeanne gave a little cough and whimper. “I want ma mère.”

“Oh, I want her, too, hon. I do, too.”

Cathy wrote down the symptoms for me to recite to the receptionist/triage clerk at the urgent care center and put them in an envelope with a health insurance card and the letter from her brother giving us permission to have Jeanne treated in the 99.999% unlikely instance that she might need to see a doctor while he and his Marion Cotillard look-alike trophy wife pressed their by-now toasty flesh into cruise ship berths and palm-slung island hammocks.

A young guy in blue scrubs, with a name placard that read, “Bobby Dinkley, P.A.,” and a tiny toy monkey attached to his stethoscope came into the exam room and just blinded us with sunny.

“How long has your daughter been sick, sir?’

“He’s not mon père,” Jeanne said, which blew a cloud over Bobby’s sunlight.

“My niece,” I said.

“Uh, okay, sure. Let’s check that temperature, okay, sweetie?”

Bobby stuck this little ray-gun looking thing in Jeanne’s ear before she had a chance to protest and three seconds later it beeped and glowed “102” on the read-out.

“Hmm, let’s look at that throat.”

After giving her the once-over with most of the paraphernalia that had more glowing little numbers on them, the physician’s assistant said, “We’ll do the quick strep test and see what we’ve got.”

He left Jeanne and me to sit alone in the room while they ran the test.

“Why don’t you get your shirt back on, Jeanne? This shouldn’t be much longer.”

She hadn’t spoken much since we got to the urgent care. But then, she hadn’t spoken much since her parents left Fort Myers for the cruise docks in Tampa. Most of the time she looked to be half on the verge of crying. Right now, understandably, she looked like she had crossed the 50-yard line of the Tear Bowl.

“Want to read something? I think I saw a Highlights magazine around here somewhere.


“Want me to read to you?”


“How are you feeling now, Jeanne? Are you tired?”


“We’ll be out of here soon and we’ll get you back to the house with some medicine and then we’ll try calling your mom and dad again to let them know how you are.”

“Non. Want ma mère now.”

“Well, we can’t help you there. Closest thing we have until Sunday is your Aunt Cathy and me.”

She curled up on the exam table and closed her eyes.

It was then that I realized two things. Despite her being on the verge most of her time with us, including being separated from her mother for the first time in her life, I hadn’t actually seen her cry. Our daughter, Rachel, had been a well-spring of tears at eight. It got worse when she started nudging her way through puberty. I silently prayed that Steve and Marie would be back in Florida before Jeanne reached that age.

The other thing I finally noticed was she never called me anything but You. No name. No Dave. No Uncle. No Uncle Dave. I’ll admit we were as new to her as she was to us, but Cathy had referred to me as Uncle Dave and told Jeanne about our daughter and how great it was going to be to have a little girl around the house again. It didn’t really hurt. It just felt strange.

Bobby came back into the room and said the test was non-committal or whatever for strep, but said that Jeanne should get on some medicines just to take care of any fever or bacterial infections she might have.

“Don’t want the little one to get bronchitis or pneumonia, do we, sir?”

“God no!”

He wrote us two prescriptions which we had filled on the way home. I got her back into her PJs and tucked in bed after giving her some Tylenol and an antibiotic she didn’t want to take.

“Do you want me to read to you?”

Non. Well, if you want to,” said the little girl who now looked littler and whiter than she had when she woke me up four hours ago. She laid still and I would have thought she was asleep except for the fact that her eyes were open and she looked directly through me while I read.

“How you feeling, hon?”

“Same,” she said. “I think I’ll try to get to sleep.”

“I’ll stay with you a while. Okay? Just to make sure you’re doing all right.”
But she still looked at me, and I felt like some kind of perv under her laser-guided scrutiny.

“You don’t ‘ave to stay with me,” she said in a not very convincing tone.

“Oh, it doesn’t bother me. I want to be sure you’re okay.”

Non, you can go do something else. I think I want to sleep.”

“All right, I’m going to go check my email and do a few chores and I’ll be back in a little while to check on you. Here’s your glass of water if you need it.” I pushed a sipping cup on the nightstand closer to her pillow.


I left her door open a crack and padded down the hall to my bedroom and fired up my Mac. I sent another email update to my brother-in-law, letting him know Jeanne was doing fine and everything was under control. I wrote it so I believed it myself, even though I figured I had lost control of this situation the moment I opened my eyes at 5:30.
I let the dog out, then went back to the guest room and tapped on the door.

“You can’t come in. You can’t get what I ‘ave.”

I opened the door and walked to her bedside. She was in the same position in which I left her and was still wide-eyed and flushed.

I took her temperature, this time with an old reliable thermometer of Cath’s.

“What’s it say?” Jeanne asked.

“Um, about a hundred.” It looked like one-hundred one to me, but I didn’t want to upset her anymore than I already had.

“It was cent deux before.”

“Who says?”

“I saw the numbers. I’m not stupid.”

“No, you’re not stupid. You’re a very smart girl.”

“It’s just…”

“What? What can I do to make you more comfortable, hon?”

“Doesn’t matter,” Jeanne said. I could see her swivel-hipping her way to the lachrymose mid-field stripe again.

“Sure it does. I’ll do anything I can to help.”

Touchdown! and the tears poured.

“I don’t want to die, Oncle Dave,” she wailed and reached out to hug me.

“What are talking about, sweetie. You’re not going to die.”

“It said cent deux. I want my ma mère.”

“Well of course you do. But you’re definitely not going to die.”

“Yes I am. Home I had a fever once and was sick for quatre days.” She held four fingers up in front of my face. “Then my temrachur was only quarante-quatre.”
It all became quite clear.

“Oh, Jeanne. That’s because you read your thermometers different in Quebec. Like home you have kilometres and here we have miles. In Quebec your thermometer uses something called the Celsius scale to tell how hot things are. Here we use something called a Fahrenheit scale. It gives us bigger numbers to tell the same temperature. On your home thermometer, normal is something like, oh shit, um, thirty-seven, uh, trente-sept…? Here, it would be ninety-eight. Umm, ninety-uh..huit. Or..something like that.”

“Are you sure?” she snuffled.

“Without question.”

“Oh.” Jeanne blinked back the tears. “I still want ma mère.”

“Yeah, well she’ll be calling later and will be home in a couple of days. Until then your Tante Cathy and I will take the best care of you we can.”

And then Jeanne blinked, snuffled, and rolled over to sleep for five hours.

For the next three days she cried a lot more, even after she started feeling better. But every time she did she would call for Oncle Dave, so it was okay.

Story #4 of my Story-a-Day in May quest. The prompt asked for a story told in first person. I put a modern spin on an old story…I hope. I’m sure i’m screwing up how medical temperatures are read in French-speaking Canada. So if any of my Québécois(e) readers, like my friend Heather Grace Stewart, read this, you can tell me I’m full of merde. Just be gentle, okay? Merci.


5 thoughts on “Lost in Translation

  1. Why is it that only mothers know how to check temps correctly? Feel the forehead, cold and clammy is not good, but neither is too hot and feverish. Its a fine art!

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