You never forget the first time that someone just throws up all over you. Until a few years ago, I would have taken this statement as true. Not universal, of course; I know that some people experienced college, for example, in messy and hard-to-piece-together ways. Still, the gag reflex is a powerful way of marking time.
I know it was Boy, but I no longer know when. A few nights when he was 1 year old all run together for me—we would wake to a horrible sound from his room, something far beyond coughing, and find him sitting up in his crib in the dark, just vomiting all over himself, eyes asking us, What is going on? One of us would scoop him up, trying to calm him down and get him out of his pajamas, and the other would start the hurried and mechanical process of searching for towels, changing sheets, just trying to put things in order. On a good night it happened only once. On a rough one, it might go until morning. He made his way down the list of stomach bugs as if it was a matter of pride.
In each case, a doctor the next day was able to cheerfully point to a chart and show us that this was just another completely routine event in the life of a small person. But no matter how many times a 1-year-old throws up, it still doesn’t make any sense to him. His little body is suddenly and violently completely outside of his control. He’s being turned inside out, probably following minutes or hours of nausea and having no way of communicating it to the only people who might be able to help. Even for me, as an adult, there is no worse feeling. It’s debilitating—it reduces us to the most powerless versions of ourselves.
Boy is 5 now and this nighttime scene is a thing of the distant past; Girl never had these problems, even when she was sick. They’ve both passed that age of being constantly ill, and if they do feel sick, they understand what’s happening and can go hover over the open toilet like the rest of us do. It’s a strange ritual to see played out by someone not even three feet tall. I’m happy for them, and for us, when I see them do it. It’s so clean.
All of this is a long way of pointing to the memory of those sick nights, of the moment just after we’d find him retching in his crib. In every telling, I probably hesitate—there’s always that pause—as my eyes adjust to the dark and take in what is happening, verifying that it’s already too late to make any of it OK. I reach down into the crib to my tiny, vomit-covered boy who is trying to cry but can’t because his body is too busy doing something else, and he reaches back up to me, and I hold him close in the dark as he just barfs all over me, over and over, limp and convulsing and confused. Intimacy is such a beautiful word, and I use it often when I speak of beautiful Buddhist teachings, but the image in my head is of this encounter, of my hand against his heaving back and the hot, slow avalanche running down and into my shirt, the trust and the fear in his little grabbing hands. And later, after he falls back asleep in new pajamas and new sheets, me standing outside the house at 3am with a hose in one hand to wash everything off, waving with the other hand to make the motion-sensitive light stay on long enough to get the job done.
Strangely awake in the jarring, rare clarity of knowing there is really nothing more to be done than this.