It only takes eight simple words to send me into a panic. Though I may appear calm on the surface - calmer than usual, even - inside, my brain is in a frantic tailspin. Because those eight words can be the harbinger of a mother's nightmare: "I feel like I'm going to throw up."
Yes, the stomach virus. It's never a good time for anyone. But if you have multiple kids, especially those under the magic getting-to-the-toilet-on-time age, it's a whole new level of hell. There's no telling when - or who - it's going to strike next. And it could be you. Which would mean the worst-case scenario: having to clean up someone else's barf while holding your own back. Because let's face facts ... it's not like we get time off for being sick.
Having a household-wide stomach virus is a truly traumatic experience. And at about one-thirty this morning, as I was scrubbing a three-foot path of undigested ham out of my carpet, I reflected upon how closely my experiences with this type of situation match the five stages of grief.
Stage one: denial. When the first child is stricken, the logical part of my brain tries very hard to override the panic. "It was probably just something he ate," I chirp lightly. "Sometimes our stomachs just disagree with us. Nothing to worry about. See? Everyone is fine." My we're-all-okay look is a little too forced, my smile just a little too wide, my optimism a little too ... well, optimistic. It's like if I say "it's nothing" with enough force, it might be true. It's nothing! Really!
Stage two: anger. Inevitably, though - usually around the kid's second trip to the toilet, or when diarrhea shows up to the party - I stop trying to deny there's a problem, and start getting pissed. I think about all the work involved. All the laundry. All the disgusting cleanup. All the nights of half-sleep, where I'm poised to spring out of bed at the first sound of anything remotely juicy. All the edginess of not knowing who'll be the next victim. All the marinating in germs for a few days while my kids fall prey to it one by one, like dominoes. All the Lysol-spraying, bleaching, washing until my hands are raw. And all for what? So I can get sick myself? IT'S NOT FREAKING FAIR, DAMN IT.
Stage three: bargaining. Since I have literally zero desire to do any of the aforementioned things (I mean, I don't even like laundry on a regular day), I start pleading to the cosmos. Please just let it be confined to this one kid. Please don't let it spread. Please let this little Clorox wipe kill every single germ. I promise I'll volunteer more. I promise I'll keep my house cleaner. I promise I'll stop dropping the f-bomb ... for the most part. I start disinfecting like crazy in a futile attempt to head off the virus. Look! I beg. I'm getting the bathroom really super clean! That should be enough to stop it, right? RIGHT? Pleeeeaaaase!
Stage four: depression. Eventually I realize that my bargaining never works. Because by this time, more than one of my kids has gotten sick, and I'm up to my elbows in soiled bedding and my hands feel like rooster feet from washing and sanitizing. I have calluses on my knees from scrubbing various surfaces. I have run out of paper towels like twice because kids have a knack for taking the two tablespoons of dinner they ate and magically turning it into gallons of vomit. I spray the Lysol with a heavy hand, even though all hope of it preventing anything has faded away. I slog through the mire of laundry and Pepto-Bismol, hair-stroking and back-rubbing, exhausted. I can practically feel my own immune system being overthrown by the very bacteria I've been relentlessly battling.
Stage five: acceptance. After a couple of seemingly-endless days and nights, there's a light at the end of the tunnel. The first kid to get it is over it, and the last kid to get it is feeling better enough to start whining. But as always, the damage control has taken a toll on me, and I feel the first rumblings of an unhappy stomach. Instead of trying to deny it, though, I just use the last hours of my relative wellness to make arrangements so that things don't go all to hell while my head is in the toilet. No use fighting it any more. I may feel like crap, but at least I'll get a few hours to lay in bed. And if I'm lucky I might lose a couple of pounds in the process.
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