Once upon a time, when the boys were both in diapers, we made a decision to go see Paul’s parents in Florida. It did not seem like a fateful decision at the time. It seemed like it would be fun. We even asked my sister Mary Lou to go along, and she said yes. She had either never, or not in a very long time, been to the ocean. So why not, right?
The first sign of trouble was the discussion about whether or not we would stop halfway down to Florida and stay the night in a hotel somewhere. There are two schools of thought on this topic, and both sides are passionate and entrenched and kind of loud about how completely right they are. Paul belongs to the school of thought that you just drive. You drive as long and as hard and as fast as you can get away with, and you stop only for gas. Bladders should and do have the same holding capacity as a gas tank. If you are very careful and monitor your fluid intake tightly and choreograph the movements to the gas station bathroom just so, you may even beat the standing land speed record for the destination and have bragging rights for a little while. In addition to bragging rights, this plan has the advantage of not paying for a hotel and not wasting any precious vacation time.
I do not belong to this school. I think that arriving at my destination dehydrated and cranky and hungry and tired and needing to sleep most of the first day that I’m there defeats the purpose of the time saved on the road, and also makes everything a lot less fun. Vacations are supposed to be fun. Bookending several days of sunshine and swimming with two days of intense UNfun does not work well for me. As for the bragging rights, when otherwise sane and lovely people are driven to the point of having a family member use an empty Gladware container as a toilet because there’s still gas in the tank and an extra stop means lost time, I think both reason and enjoyment have been left somewhere in the dust on the side of the road. (Yes, that really happened. No, it was not me or Paul or anyone in our car, ever. No, I am not telling you who it was.)
So we had a disagreement about whether to stop. I caved. We were going to drive straight through, 24 hours in one shot. Besides, Paul said, what did I care? He was going to do the lion’s share of the driving, and I could sleep.
We were supposed to leave on Wednesday. Tuesday, Levi started puking. Now, he’s a puker. He coughs a lot, and sometimes he coughs so hard that he vomits. Then he’s fine. (Fun, right? Yay him. Yay all of us.) This was not that. This was a real live stomach bug. The kind where he stood in the utility sink even after everything was out of his stomach and said, between dry heaves, “Mommy! I don’t like this!”
And all I could do was say, “Baby, I know. I don’t like it either,” while we both cried and I held on to his poor shaky little body. It was ugly. He was so sick that my memories of everyone else are a little hazy. I think Elias skated without any illness at all (thanks be to God), and Paul and I both got queasy and tired, but not sick like Levi. My sister, wise woman, stayed away. Paul’s parents were trying hard not to be disappointed, but they’d really been looking forward to the boys’ arrival in Florida (Paul and I were of course to be welcomed as the Bringers of Grandchildren, if not in our own right).
He was much better on Thursday, and we decided we could probably leave on Friday. He only got better as we went along, so Friday we called the grandparents and borrowed my mom’s van and loaded all the luggage and the baby in his infant seat, and Levi way in the back, with one of those travel DVD players. I was assigned to the middle row so I could reach both kids, and Paul and my sister were in front, sharing the driving.
I was doing my last pass through the house to make sure lights were off and doors were locked, and I stopped in the laundry room and thought, “You know … I think I’ll just grab a bucket.” I grabbed two, and two towels, and stuck them behind my seat and didn’t even mention them to anyone, because I was sure I was overthinking it. And off we went.
Things went just fine, really, for a long time. Levi did not, as we had hoped, sleep much in the car, but he had Donald Duck back there to keep him company, and Cheerios. Elias was fine.
Things started to get a little harried at about the 19-hour mark. Levi had still not slept. At all. He was still taking a nap every day at the time. Sometimes two. So he was TIRED. And he’d fall asleep, only to jerk awake moments later, disoriented and upset at being restrained in his car seat. “I’M STUCK!!!! MAMA, I’M STUCK. OOHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH, I’M STUCK,” he cried, and sobbed piteously. Over and over and over.
Every time he screamed, he woke up the baby, who screamed too. Despite my best efforts to remain chill, I was about seven hours past my own Maximum Happy Road Trip Time, and I was pretty frayed. So to try and calm down the kids, I started singing. It’s what my parents always did in the car.
Unbeknownst to me, the singing was driving Paul bananas. He usually really likes it when I sing, but he was feeling frayed, too, and he hadn’t told me that he was still feeling a little under the weather. Being half-sick makes everything more irritating, and isn’t an ideal circumstance for a driving marathon. (I would argue that there is no ideal circumstance for a driving marathon, but you already know my thoughts on this.) As a bonus, he was starting to hear an ominous noise in one of the van’s wheels that he was afraid to mention to anyone.
So Levi is intermittently sleeping and waking and screaming (OHHHHHHHH I’M STUCK MAMA MAMA PLEASE I’M STUCK OHHHHHHHHH I’M STUCK I’M STUCK) and Elias is crying because who wants to wake up to that, and I’m singing every soothing hymn I can dredge up from my childhood and thinking about how very much I want to be sleeping in a crummy hotel bed somewhere along the interstate and how I can make Paul pay for not allowing that (just keepin’ it real, folks), and Paul is hunched over the steering wheel driving seven over the speed limit trying to get to his parents’ place before the wheels came off (literally!) and wishing I would just shut the heck up already.
And into that lovely, lyrical moment, my sister said, very quietly, “I think I’m going to be sick.”
There was dead silence for half a moment, and then I shrieked, “HOLD ON! I HAVE A BUCKET!”
I have never been happier to have overthought something. I passed her a bucket, and then I passed her a towel, and she used them. Oh, sister, did she ever. I won’t get into the details too much because urrrgggggghhh. But many years ago I heard the expression “everything up, everything down” and, well, that was the first time I’d had occasion to use it. Mary Lou later said to our mom that she thinks we not only stopped at every gas station on the last hundred miles of the trip, but every telephone pole, too. It was really quite something.
We also discovered at that point that Levi is a sympathy puker. Every time he heard his beloved auntie retch, he vomited too, and so I was holding a bucket for him and patting Elias on the forehead to calm him down and singing (I think I did I’ll Fly Away rather a lot because the concept was sounding wonderful), and occasionally holding the spare towel over my face to take a nice deep breath. Because the sounds in the car were no fun, but the smell may have been worse.
And the ominous noise Paul had heard was getting worse, and he was still the only one who knew about it.
I think I suggested stopping for the night a number of times. Or Paul did. Someone did. But in our collectively exhausted, sick, manic, determined, wrung-out state, there was not a sensible decision to be had. And so on we went, vomiting and singing and crying into the night.
Twenty-seven hours after we started, we pulled into Paul’s parents’ driveway. His mom was waiting for us, and led my sister straight into a bedroom with an attached bathroom. She had Gatorade and crackers and ibuprofen sitting on the kitchen table for her.
I emerged from the van somewhat more slowly, and after handing the children over to their grandparents, I turned to Paul. He was unloading the mountain of paraphernalia that accompanies small children on a trip, and I said, in the calmest voice I could muster, “We are never doing that again. EVER.”
He didn’t argue.
After the first joyous hellos, I insisted that the kids needed to sleep, 8:00 in the morning or not. Levi would not lie down without Paul, so all three boys were down. I wanted to sleep, but I even more desperately wanted a shower. I always need to wash off the travel cooties before I can really relax.
You know how you stand under a hot shower, and you can sort of feel all those muscles in your neck relax a little? It’s a wonderful feeling. Never got there, not that day. To this day, I do not know exactly what happened, or how the shower curtain managed to stay on its rungs, but one second I had just stepped under that lovely hot steam, and the next second I was down. This made some noise, apparently, and Paul and Levi jumped up and motored down the hall, opening the door to find me stark naked, dripping wet, with my behind on the rug outside the tub and my feet still in the shower. (I had a bruise on the back of my knees the next day.) Paul helped me up, determined that nothing was broken, and I did get a shower. Carefully. It was not anywhere near as relaxing as I had envisioned.
The van had a wheel bearing out, as Paul had suspected (if that terminology is messed up, it’s me and not him; he actually knows what he’s talking about) and we drove a rental for a couple of days while it was being repaired at a nearby dealership.
My sister did emerge from the bedroom after a couple of days, and made it to the beach for an afternoon, though I doubt she’ll ever go anywhere with us again willingly. She can’t afford to replace her car that often.
What, you say? Why would she have to replace her car? I’m so glad you asked. See, she’d dropped it off at a repair shop right before we left, and told them to call for her credit card number when the work was done and they had the total. Once she had stopped puking, replenished her electrolytes, and seen the beach, she realized they’d had the car for five days and hadn’t called. Odd, that. So as we set out for home, she called up the repair shop. They seemed bemused that she was wondering about her car. Surely she knew that the area the shop was in had flooded in the torrential rains that had visited our county. Well, no. Because she’d been puking in Florida (and Georgia, to be completely accurate). Her car was a total loss.
It really was the perfect ending for that van trip. The cherry on top, you might say.
One of the little philosophies that I’ve adopted for myself is this: Anything that isn’t actually tragic is going to be funny someday. I distinctly remember the point in that trip when I was holding a bucket, listening to two people vomit, and breathing into a towel, that I thought, “I am looking forward to finding this funny.”
It didn’t take that long, actually, and Paul and I were entertaining people with our misery just a day or two after we got home. My favorite retelling of this story came when we were sitting in the waiting room at Children’s a little over a month afterward because Elias was having a minor surgery* (they really did mean minor this time; it took 30 minutes tops). One of the ministers from church had come to sit with us, and he asked us how our vacation had been. Tom. He’s so kind. He never, ever wants to hurt anyone’s feelings, and he certainly never wants to laugh at anyone’s misfortune. But even Tom was laughing out loud by the time we had reached Georgia in our recap. “Carol!” he said. “I just don’t understand how you kept from throwing up too!”
“Well,” I said, “I didn’t really have a choice. There weren’t any more buckets.”
* I was having a lot of abdominal pain while we waited, which I was trying very hard to ignore. Long story short, I had an emergency appendectomy that night at 11:15. Our insurance company was so super happy with us that day. You can’t even imagine.