The family holiday
“And we’re off.”
I sipped coffee from my travel mug and glanced over at Husband in the driver’s seat. The car’s back seats brimmed with luggage and kids. Ricka and Dicka flanked the car seat, and I tweaked ten-month-old Dontae’s pudgy foot to make him laugh. Safe Families for Children and Dontae’s mother had given us permission to take our little house guest with us on the six-hour road trip to Mom’s place in northern Minnesota. There we would visit my siblings and their families and bask in the magical time between Christmas and New Year’s when the agenda presented nothing more arduous than munching on cookies and frolicking in the snow.
When we arrived at Mom’s, my brother Fred, my youngest sister Flo, and their families wrapped us in hugs. My older sister Coco and her husband Ace pulled up in their fifteen-passenger van, and their eleven kids and one son-in-law streamed out. Even without my sister Olive and her family, the headcount was thirty-one. Each of our girls had a cousin her own age, and the kids scampered off together, shuffling Dontae amongst them. We adults discussed the menu for the upcoming days and each family’s meal responsibilities, and before bed, I prepped the next day’s breakfast.
“Do you have room in the fridge for this, Mom?” I pointed at the three pans of egg bake I had mixed up. “It’s supposed to refrigerate overnight. I’ll bake it in the morning.”
“Just stick it out on a shelf in the garage. It’s cold out there.”
I pulled tin foil over the pans. “But you have a heated garage, right, Mom?”
Mom waved away my concerns. “It’ll be fine.”
We awoke the next day to news about my sister Flo’s husband. He had vomited in the night, but not to worry; he was already feeling better. A couple of days earlier, a stomach bug had ripped through their household, Flo said, and he was the last to succumb.
The egg bake was a success, and we settled into our day. Dontae had been a champion sleeper; the new environment hadn’t thrown him off one bit. The kids smothered him with attention, and he beamed and pumped his chubby legs while they toted him around. The day flashed by with baby time, snowmobile rides, Bananagrams, and Hüsker Dü.
As we cleared away the dinner dishes that evening, one of Coco’s little ones curled up on the couch in the living room.
“My tummy hurts,” he said, his color ebbing away. Coco hustled him out of the room. Ten minutes later, she returned to the kitchen.
“Well, he threw up.”
“Poor thing,” said Mom.
Twenty minutes passed. Someone hollered, and Coco darted from the room again.
“Oh, boy.” She was back, her arms heaped with dirty laundry. “Another one just threw up. Do you have some old towels, Mom? And buckets?”
Mom rushed to the laundry room. Coco, Fred, Flo, and I followed.
“Help yourself to anything you need.” Mom pointed out the place where she stored pails and old towels. Then she stuffed soiled laundry into the washing machine.
Another one of Coco’s kids poked her head into the laundry room. “Mom, I think somebody else is throwing up right now.”
“Oh no.” Coco bolted from the room.
I flung looks at Mom, Fred, and Flo. “I don’t think this’ll end well.”
“Flo’s gonna hold back my hair when it’s my turn,” Fred said with a snigger.
“Yeah.” I smirked. “All your luscious, flowing hair.”
Dicka scrambled into the laundry room—her eyes wild—and tugged me aside. “Mama, I’m scared.” Her face twisted, and she burst into tears. “I don’t wanna throw up.”
“Oh, honey.” I bent down and gave her a squeeze. “You might not.”
Coco stuck her head into the room. “Another one’s down.”
Sobbing, Dicka ran off.
“I’m going to make a list.” I headed to the kitchen, and Flo joined me. I grabbed a notepad and pen off the counter and jotted a title—Vomit Fest 2012—and then the names of the four fallen ones with their approximate times of demise. “This could be fun.”
Then I ran upstairs and located Husband who was reading a book in our bedroom. I briefed him on the stomach flu situation.
“Yeah, I heard.” He raised his eyebrows and sighed. “I mean literally. I heard.”
I wrinkled my nose and gathered my hair into a ponytail. Then I pulled on a pair of tennis shoes. Husband watched me. “Getting ready to do the night shift with the sisters. I can run around faster this way.”
“Nice.” He shot me a half-smile. “Good luck with that.”
I jogged downstairs. Flicka and one of Coco’s girls lay facing each other—and chatting—on two parallel couches in the living room, a bucket stationed by each of them.
I put my hands on my hips. “Are you guys okay?”
“We’re ready,” Flicka said, and her cousin laughed.
I headed back into the kitchen for an update.
“Two more down.” Flo scrawled the names on my list. “Do you have enough buckets for this, Mom?”
Mom scrubbed her hands at the sink. “Each bedroom has a garbage can, and I have more pails and old ice cream buckets out in the garage. We should be fine. And we’ll keep the washing machine running all night if we have to.”
A thought punched me in the stomach. “Do you think it was the egg bake? The garage didn’t seem cold enough.” I frowned, nibbling my lower lip. “I bet it was the egg bake.”
Mom vigorously shook her head. “It wasn’t your egg bake. Not everyone ate it.” Then she picked up her cell phone, a twinkle in her eye. “Hey, let’s text Olive.” She read aloud as she keyed in a message to my sister—safe and far away in Minneapolis. “‘Wish you were here.’”
I snorted. “We know she doesn’t.”
As the evening hours passed, the body count rose, and the growing list of names threatened to trail off the page. We sisters scurried around the house and tended to the puking and listless ones. Flo, a nurse in real life too, wore rubber gloves and disinfected toilets and buckets between heaving patients. On my midnight rounds, I found her assisting Fred’s daughter who had stumbled into the upstairs bathroom.
“Fred’s whole family is sick now too.” Flo lifted the toilet seat, and the little girl emptied her stomach into the bowl. “Hand me that towel, would you?”
I pulled a towel off the rack and approached Flo at the toilet. But when I saw my niece’s hair matted with vomit, I gagged.
Flo wrinkled her brow. “Really?”
“I’m sorry. Weird.” I waved away my weakness. “I’ve been looking at vomit all night.”
I backed out of the bathroom and ventured into our family’s room—one of five bedrooms on the second floor of Mom’s house. Ricka had made a bed for herself on the floor, and she snuggled next to a bucket. She was on the verge, she said. Husband slept with a garbage can parked on the end table near his head. The baby snored in his Pack-n-Play. Curled up in her sleeping bag, Dicka wept quietly in a corner of the room, an old ice cream pail poised next to her.
“Have you gotten sick yet?” I whispered, stroking her hair.
She clutched her pillow, her chin quivering. “No. But I’m afraid.”
“You might be okay.”
She grabbed onto my sleeve. “Would you pray that I don’t throw up?”
“Sure, honey.” I bowed my head. But my stomach roiled, churning dread along with my dinner. “Uh oh.”
The room swirled around me, and I was vaguely aware of the passing hours. Clutch my stomach. Writhe in pain. Dangle my head over a bucket. Repeat. What time was it? Did I have a fever too? I imagined I heard the baby fuss, but someone plucked him from his bed and tiptoed out of our room with him. Someone else handed me a cold can of ginger ale and a bottle of water before I slipped from consciousness. Hours passed. Or maybe days…
I needed to visit the bathroom, so I slithered out of bed and dragged myself out of the room. The mission was grueling but once accomplished, I headed on all fours—in the dark—back to bed. On the way, I bumped into Ricka, creeping along the floor in a low crawl on her way to the bathroom.
Back in bed, I listened to the sounds of the night. In contrast to Ricka’s nearly soundless style, my brother-in-law Ace’s retching pierced the darkness, trumpeting his agony throughout the cavernous upstairs with its vaulted ceiling and wood floors. As if put to a challenge, Husband rivaled Ace’s volume with his own technique. I heard others sputtering out their last remains too. How many of us were left standing? Would we all die? Did it matter? What was the baby’s name again?
The next morning, nineteen of us were strewn about the house like used dishrags. Wan and stripped of joie de vivre, we sipped water through straws and kept the noise level down. What had happened? Had we traveled hundreds of miles simply to throw up together? Now having blown our allotted vacation days, it was time to plod home.
We gathered our things and carried our weak selves out to the car. We blew bland kisses to all and drove off. I loved the big group of people we had left behind, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to see them all again at the holidays. Under one roof. Sharing the same egg bake—or Norovirus germs. It all left a bad taste in my mouth.
But as we regained strength, I noted a few positives. All of Dicka’s crying had helped; she had somehow escaped the scourge. The girls learned to do a decent impression of Uncle Ace’s vomiting. And we all learned “in sickness and in health” should be reserved for marriages and not family holidays.
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*Names in this blog have been changed to protect my family, neighbors, and friends in the neighborhood, and in a nod of appreciation to the beloved Swedish author Maj Lindman, I’ve renamed my three blondies Flicka, Ricka, and Dicka.