Even healthy people get sick. And sick people throw up. And not always when it’s convenient or when we’re ready for it. In fact, that’s usually never the case. This is the part where you, dear reader, decide to continue on with an iron stomach or turn away; because yes, I really am going to discuss vomit. Stick with me, if you can; there’s something to be learned here.
As a mom of two, I’ve done my fair share of vomit catching…and, sometimes, not catching. There have been those middle of the night episodes that require leaning your child over the edge of the bathtub for a 3 am hair wash. There have been those too late, desperate cries of “Mooommm!!” from the back seat of the car and then, the dreaded sound (and necessary roadside clean up, usually involving dirty car napkins and wads of grass from the ditch). In 2010, my husband Marc and I missed an iconic Canadian moment at the opening of the Vancouver Winter Olympics. Just as Wayne Gretzky was about to light the Olympic torches, we heard one of our children running around the house calling for us, using words, tears and throw up sounds to get our attention…first, in the upstairs hallway, then in the living room, and finally, at the top of the (carpeted) stairs to our family room. Sigh. Sorry, Wayne. We missed your big moment. I have caught puke in half-drunk cups of Starbucks coffee, balled-up-clothing-turned-catching-mitt, grocery bags still containing food items and, certainly, even in my hands.
A throw-up story that stands out among all the others happened just moments from my own driveway. My son had been complaining of feeling carsick, which he often did. So I placated him, which I often did. But in this instance, I wasn’t taking him seriously enough. Clearly. Just moments from home, he erupted. I desperately reached around to pass him a half-eaten bag of Goldfish crackers which he held in his hands, proceeding to oscillate his face, aiming in every direction but the Goldfish receptacle. My daughter was initially filled with great compassion for her big brother, who was in distress. Her initial sounds were of sympathy and kindness, cooing her comfort like a little mama: “it’s okay, Co” and “we’re almost home, bud.” Until she caught wind of the smell. As it wafted to her side of the vehicle, she began to gag and retch as well. Her dialogue moved rapidly from compassion to disgust and demands for self-preservation. I’m laughing my head off, even as I remember this; just as I did when both of my kids were throwing up in the back seat. I rolled down windows and comforted them through snorts of laughter. Because that is how these situations affect me.
This particular incident impacted me on a level more visceral than vomit. In the aftermath, as I attempted to clean my car (which consequently, though clean, smelled foul on warm days for a very long time), I contemplated how, in theory, we want to be the kind of people who can come alongside others. We want to be able to handle the hard stuff. We like the idea of being the support network for people during their dark nights. But theory is different than practice; and like the compassion turned disgust in the car, we can become easily repulsed when sick people actually get sick. Because sick people do throw up. And it’s messy. And it smells bad. And you might get caught in the crossfire.
As an elementary school teacher, I am, at any given moment, surrounded by ALL of the germs in circulation. Someone is always coughing (on me), someone is always sneezing (on me), someone is always complaining of an upset stomach (to me) and, yes, at least once a year, someone does not recognize that brief mouth-watering indication that he or she is about to throw-up (even though I actually talk candidly with my students about this invaluable red flag). Somehow, in the midst of all this, or maybe because my immune system has to work so hard, I rarely get sick. I am a vitamin-taking, real-food-eating, water-drinking, hand-washing, natural-remedy-applying genius. But even with all necessary precautions, sometimes I get sick, too.
Throw up stories are hilarious, but we’re not really talking about physical illness. Doing life together in a way that is rich and meaningful means that we get to be there for the celebratory, joyous times, but also for the hard parts. And the gross parts. It means that sometimes, we’ll experience one another as the best versions of ourselves. And sometimes as the worst. And even the healthiest of us get sick sometimes. Maybe you’re supporting one of your people during a difficult season right now, and it’s exhausting. Or maybe, in this moment, one of your people is holding your hair back for you while you lean over the bowl.
We need to know who our people are; who are the ones that we are supposed to walk with and do life with on this level? Of course we desire to be kind, loving and gracious to all people, but let’s be honest. There are a select few whom I would invite or allow into those truly raw and awful moments. Throwing up in front of someone is humbling, because you simply cannot control the ghastly sounds coming out of you. And holding back the hair of someone who is ill, being in such close proximity to their vomit, is an assault on all senses. Both require a level of intimacy and safety that you simply cannot (and would not want to) share with everyone.
Sometimes committing to this level of intimacy means listening to your friend retell the demise of her marriage for the eight-thousandth time. Sometimes it’s my husband listening patiently to me as I try to figure out why I feel worried (again). Sometimes it looks like showing up with snacks and red wine. Sometimes it looks like sending your new-mom friend to bed while you pace the floor with her crying baby. Sometimes it means crawling into your person’s darkness with them and just being quietly present. Sometimes it means sticking around at the hospital, or police station or funeral home. Sometimes it looks like laying in your child’s bed with them, well past their bedtime (and well into grown-up time) as they open up their heart and say the things they are unable to say in daylight. Sometimes it means letting your person safely spew negativity and poison, without shaming them for being sick, knowing that once they’ve finished, they’ll feel better and be able to see more clearly. And then, (the hard part), letting them off the hook for all of the ridiculous, paranoid ideas they held true the day before. Being present when someone vomits can mean that you end up caught in the cross-fire of something that has nothing to do with you, but you’re the safe person who bears the brunt…or your safe person bears the brunt for you.
We don’t always do it well. You don’t. I don’t. Because we’re humans, sometimes we recoil in disgust. We run from pain. We make judgements on how others navigate their hard seasons. We tire of negativity. Our empathy short circuits. We don’t listen for the whole story. We lose sight of the fact that, often, people aren’t just being crappy for no reason. We forget that it is an honour to hold space for our people and carry their stories. When this happens, we desert our people when they most need us to offer comfort, solace and a cool cloth. There is no judgement and no shame for this. We have all let our people down at one point or another. What’s beautiful is that we can simply begin again; we can start over right now. We can step in close, hold back hair and whisper words of comfort.
This is love, friends. Relationships that mean something can bear the weight of a heavy soul. (I am not talking about toxic or abusive relationships; that’s a different conversation). The only option for those who will not endure the smell of vomit, or who refuse to handle the occasional mess, is to do life alone. And I would argue, then, that the word life would need to be substituted with something much more meagre, sad and one-dimensional. For me, the choice is easy. I’m choosing to do life with my people in a way that is rich and meaningful. I am fully in; for the tears and the parties, for the worst and best versions, in sickness and in health. The only thing I cannot promise is that your actual barfing won’t make me laugh; because, like I said, that is how these situations affect me.