Diagnosis: too much corn.
Parentally, there is a process one goes through immediately after your child pukes. First of all, there is a knee-jerk reaction to get out of the way. This isn’t parental, really; I think this is pretty universal. No normal person enjoys getting puked on. After that initial normal-human jump-back, there’s another reflexive parental reaction, which I consider much like a first responder’s reaction: moving toward the distress. This is, I think, less reflexive than the jumping away. But parents love their kids and tend to move towards them when in distress. Of course, when I heard the retch and saw that there was a good bit of fluid leaving her mouth, I wanted to run. But then I understood what was happening, saw the same revulsion and surprise on her face, and I rushed into the kitchen to rub her back.
Then comes the damage assessment. What was thrown up on and how easily can it be cleaned? Are there any ways to mitigate the damage while it occurs? Is there a trash can nearby? How much vomit will get trailed if I just swoop her up and haul her away to a toilet right now? Decisions are made while stomach contents are still being expelled, usually involving lots of towels. My first thought was, “Man, am I glad she didn’t do this in the car.” It was much easier for me to stay empathetic and present with her since the kitchen floor is linoleum and easy to clean.
Next is the diagnostic phase. What is making my child sick? This involves some basic sleuthing – noting the time, the onset of symptoms, the contents of the vomit. Once your child is old enough to communicate verbally, there is the possibility of getting a report directly from them. This phase might last a while. In this instance, I had data prior to the event. Her teacher told me when I picked her up that she was complaining about her stomach hurting; she told me again in the car. “Are you hungry?” I’d asked her. “Do you think you could eat?”
“I’ll eat when we get home,” she said. “All I had for lunch was corn.”
“You only ate corn? You didn’t eat anything else?”
“I didn’t want anything else,” she said.
This account was confirmed by the contents on the kitchen floor.
Afterwards, I asked her more questions. When had she started feeling sick? The afternoon. Did she feel sick at lunch time while she was eating? No. Did the corn taste funny when she was eating it? No. “It was yummy,” she said with a shrug. And then, somewhat bashfully, “I ate a lot of it.”
I see. This information, coupled with the lack of fever and the apparent good health of all the other kids in her class, helped to rule out a stomach bug.
The diagnostic phase doesn’t end right away. By its nature, it lasts a while. She might develop a fever or diarrhea in the night, or be unable to hold down foods twenty-four hours later. So as this phase develops, the clean-up phase continues. Laundry was started, a bath was run, hair was washed. The kitchen was mopped, bedsheets were stripped (she threw up again in her bed), Lysol was liberally applied to everything within three feet of anything vomit had touched.
The last phase is, of course, the worry and heartbreak. I can still hear her pitiful voice asking in between heaves, “When will it stop?” What do you say to that question while you child is puking on herself? “I don’t know, baby. Soon, I hope.” After throwing up on her bedsheets, she said, “I’m sorry.”
Can you believe that? She apologized for getting sick. When she throws a fit and scratches me for redirecting her, she refuses to apologize. But she’ll apologize when she involuntarily gets sick on herself?
Well, sure. When we're sick, we need others. We need someone to take care of us. Sudden physical illness provokes shame and fear with a visceral impact, and what else can we do when we feel that kind of shame and fear with other people around? You don’t have to be very old to try reaching out with apologies and mea culpas when we’re sick and desperate for help.
And it works, oh my God. I barely slept that night. And at three o’clock in the morning, when I heard her calling out, “Daddy! Daddy!” I was awake as fast as if there were a fire in the house, bounding through the darkness to the side of her bed.
“Are you sick?” I asked.
“No. I want you to rock me to sleep.”
There is something sacred in frailty and illness, something of the divine in brokenness and weakness. What is love other than washing vomit out of your child’s hair or scooping pieces of corn out of the debris trap in the washing machine? (The skin of a corn kernel is unbelievably resilient.) Laundry and baths, wet rags and trash bags, sleepless nights: these are the things that love is made of. Nothing brings us closer to the ones we love like sickness, helplessness, and fear. Facing these very things is what love is for. Love is rushing towards distress and weakness; love is never hesitating to touch and clean dirt and mess; love embraces brokenness, not to fix it, but to cherish the beauty of that which is fragile.
She was back to her normal self on Saturday. She ate cereal for breakfast, she ran circles around us, she played with her buddy at the museum. I still worried about her, the intensity decreasing ever so slightly as the day progressed. I also grieved her frailty, her susceptibility to the simplest of things – too much corn! – and the tiny little moments when our weaknesses bring us closer together. I hate it when she is sick. But I love that I have the privilege of caring for her.