The stomach flu is the great equalizer. It sends shivers of fear into the hearts of even the strongest among us. It doesn’t matter if you’re a college student with midterms looming or a mom of two under two or a marketing manager at a big firm – if you hear someone’s got the stomach bug, it’s an instant retreat. Hide away. Get out the Lysol, blast the Thieves oil in the diffuser. Breathe artificial air until the stomach bug has run its course and the germs are far, far away from you.
No one wants the stomach flu. You hear someone you know has the stomach flu, and suddenly, you’re calculating how many days it’s been since you last had contact with that person, or their household. Did you hug? Did you take a sip of their latte? Did you exchange big, sloppy kisses with their two-year old? Every interaction is cataloging and weighed for likelihood that you, poor fool, will be next to feel your gut bubbling and simmering in that horrible, pre-puke way.
I don’t remember the last time I personally had the stomach flu, and that’s just fine with me. I am completely, 100% aware that writing this down is inviting the Universe to shower the stomach flu on me personally, as I have just mentioned how I am probably overdue to kneel before the porcelin throne and puke my guts up. I’ll keep you posted.
But my sweet baby girl had the stomach flu last night, and Lord, the only thing worse than having the stomach yourself is seeing your child have it. Spouse with stomach flu? Regrettable, sure. Shaun had the stomach flu back in late February, and I felt bad for him – bought him saltines and Gatorade and told him how sorry I was over and over again – but I also put him in quarantine at the other end of the house, entered and exited the room he was in with a cloud of Lysol before and after me, to make sure no one else got it.
But my Ari, sick? That was bleak. We didn’t know what was up, we didn’t suspect – Shaun headed off for his weekly lithography time at Brokenstone, I had decided Ari and I would stay home that night to try and prevent her from dipping her hands into ink and mineral spirits like she’s tried to do the last few times we went to the studio. And thank God we stayed home. I put some music on the computer, Ari wanted to snuggle up in my lap, not wholly unusual for the first hour after I’m home from work. She’s so clingy in that first hour, since I’ve been gone all day and she wants to make sure I stay within her grasp once I’m home, so I don’t disappear again. But then – she laid her little head on my chest, and we just relaxed for a few, long moments. This is nice, I thought, I never get cuddles like this anymore. Gonna soak it up.
Then – her little head reared back – I heard her make a choking noise – she’s had a runny nose for weeks now, all part of the allergies-turned croup-turned tonsillitis-turned ear infection-turned eye infection she’s been battling for weeks – I thought she was working through some snot – but no – the vomit. Ohhh, boy, the vomit.
It took me a moment to catch on. Don’t worry, I’m not going to describe it in detail to you, I wouldn’t do that to you, but Jesus, that was graphic. That was – like Halloween is OVER, guys, I don’t need that kind of horror and gore in my life anymore. And it was awful because Ari was scared and confused and didn’t know what was going on, because nothing like that had ever happened before in her life. We’ve done a lot of things she doesn’t understand lately – with all that sickness, we’ve done our best to explain as much as a 15-month old can understand, that we’re not trying to hurt her, we’re trying to help her when we pin her down so the doctor can examine her ears, or pin her down so we can put eye drops in her eyes, or hold her wriggling body still to try and finish the last few minutes of a breathing treatment. But this, this puking – she looked at me like – MAKE IT STOP, MOM, and I was like, oh, kid, you and me both. Man, do I wish I could stop this for you.
So. Then she finished. Vomiting more than one thought a tiny body that little should be able to hold. I was covered. She was covered. The floor was covered. She started crying, and I thought about joining in.
But – the mom genes. They kick in, automatically, even when your You Are a Person brain is screaming NOPE-NOPE-NOPE! ABORT MISSION! Your feel like a passenger in your own body as your mom genes take over and go on autopilot. You brain screams to burn your clothes and flee the house and never look back – but the mom genes patiently take over.
I stripped us down, because the smell was overwhelming. Ari kept crying, and more than the disgust, I felt so upset for her – sick, first of all, and worse, not understanding what was happening. I couldn’t deal with the vomit-soaked-everything yet, so I just dropped the clothes on the ground and covered the floor with towels. I cleaned us both up with wet wipes as best I could and then – we just sat.
We sat in the floor as far away from the vomit spot as possible, both of us mostly naked and clinging to each other in hopes that would make the horror fade. I didn’t necessarily think putting more on her stomach was a good idea, and yet, nursing is always the fastest way to calm her down when she’s upset, whether it’s a little fall or those eye drops or a bad dream. We sat half-naked in the floor, and after nursing for a few moments, Ari was calmer. I was calmer. I was able to text her father – not exactly GET YOUR ASS HOME IMMEDIATELY, but fairly close. Something like – your daughter and I are awash in a pile of her own vomit and I can’t put her down or she’ll cry and I can’t clean anything up because I am still shocked to find myself in this situation in the first place, so it’s not like an EMERGENCY but also don’t dillydally on your way home.
Somehow, I was able to rinse our clothes and get them in the washer. I found myself a sloppy, knock-about-the-house dress I could put on in case she puked again. I tried to think about how one goes about cleaning vomit out of the carpet, but the idea alone was so exhausting, and Ari suddenly felt hot – too hot – in my arms. We sat back down in the floor.
For almost an hour, we sat in the floor in varying states of undress, watching YouTube videos, and holding each other. I had wanted to believe she’d had a fluke puke – some food didn’t sit right or we played too hard or something, anything but the stomach flu. Nope. Ari was warm, and an even bigger hint than that – she still just wanted to lay against me and have me hold her. She’s a toddler now, 15 months – toddlers don’t cuddle like that unless they’re sick. She collapsed against my chest, or laid herself out on my lap, and just moaned, gently and quietly as I stroked her back, her hair.
There are all those glamorous mom moments. Those times when you’re aware you have a beautiful, adorable child – those rare times when their hair is combed and behaving, and they put on the outfit you picked out for them with minimal fuss and haven’t spilled anything on it yet. Those times when they’re actually being sweet and funny and performing all their tricks in front of an audience of your coworkers/grandparents/church ladies. Those times when they give a bashful smile and bury their face in your neck as if they’re just too pure and too sweet for this world, and you are their only safety and their only comfort – and we as mothers get to beam and smile gently at that audience, and bask in the warmth of being a mother to a precious child.
Then there are the truly mom moments. The not so glamorous moments, the not so immediately-rewarding ones. The moments when your child is projectile vomiting on you for the first time, and no matter how many poopy diapers you’ve changed or milk spit-ups you’ve handled by this point, you were in no way prepared for this. The moments when it’s 3:45 AM and your child will not go back to sleep and you are acutely aware with each passing second how much sleep you are definitely not getting before your alarms start going off to get ready for work. The moments when your child – YOUR CHILD – is the obnoxious tiny human throwing a fit in the Wal-mart checkout line and you suddenly decide you don’t need toilet paper near as much as you need to get the fuck outta that Wal-mart.
The true mom moments are not always the beautiful ones – the beautiful times make it worth it, sure. That pride and that joy you feel is the core principle keeping your anger in check when your kids backtalk you in public or spill a gallon of ranch dressing on the floor. That pride and that joy keep you from getting up one morning and walking out the door with the car keys and just driving down to Florida, just an escape from your responsibilities, just for a few days, just a couple – surely, you’ve earned this?!?!
But it’s the love that keeps us going. Nothing but love makes you peel your child’s puke-covered clothes off before your own, kneeling to hug her sticky little body to yours. Nothing but love makes rejoice that she’s curled into you with relief, instead of crying quite so hard. Nothing but love makes you sit in the floor half-naked yet completely content as long as your child is peaceful and quiet under your soothing hand.
My husband came home, and graciously cleaned up the floor without complaint. I’m just sorry I wasn’t here. I’m so sorry you had to deal with that alone. Clearly relieved he was only cleaning up the carpet when he could have been the one covered in vomit. Ari and I still sat in the floor.
The second time she puked on me – well, I wasn’t delighted. Far from it. But I was prepared. Suddenly, it didn’t matter so much whether she threw up on herself or on me or the floor again, or even the little grey basin I was holding helpfully near her mouth and she was shoving away violently. All that mattered was that she felt safe – that she knew Mama and Papa were right there with her, talking to her, coaching her through it, reassuring her it would pass in a couple minutes. I changed my clothes again that night, and later on, a third time. I did four loads of laundry. Sometimes I still think I catch a phantom whiff of puke, somewhere on my person, some spot I failed to blast and heat-treat to get it all off of me.
But it was worth it – worth it to hold her in my arms in the rocker, a little while later, and see her eyelids first flutter, then close completely as she drifted off into a healing sleep. Worth it to hold her in my arms for many long moments, just savoring the fact that she was here, and she was mine, and she was, for the moment, all right.