I’m not one to overreact when it comes to childhood illnesses and injuries. A sore throat? Gargle some salt water. A little fever? Cartoons oughta help. A scraped knee? Meh. Shake it off. But if one of my little darlings even hints at a stomach ache, I go into full-on panic mode. This is because my family has been the victim of a horrific stomach virus more times than I care to recall.
I now know why whole families used to die of influenza. There have been times when I was so sick myself that I could not care for my own children. The best I could do was to leave them on pallets on the floor with nothing but Disney Channel, a sleeve of crackers and a puke bucket while I hurled my way through my own personal hell on the floor of my bathroom. Feeling nauseated is miserable. A houseful of people vomiting round the clock is a nightmare. When an entire family comes down with a stomach bug, it’s like living in a horror movie.
1. Terror finds you when you least expect it. Unless you are a fan of horror films, and then you know that the killer always strikes when people are having fun—a summer camp, a sleepover, a family enjoying their new home. For us, the stomach bug tends to act in much the same way. For years, my family had the gruesome tradition of ringing in the New Year by retching up trash cans full of leftover Christmas cookies and partially digested chocolate Santas.
2. Stay pure. Or else. Everyone knows that the underlying message of almost all horror films is stay a virgin or be slashed to death by a homicidal maniac. It’s a wonder that abstinence-based sex-ed programs don’t include a PSA from Freddy and Jason. Anyway, the same is true for the stomach bug. The key to survival is to stay pure—wash your hands. Don’t drink after people. Fist bump instead of high-five. But do my kids heed my warnings? Noooo. They just roll their eyes and make jokes about me being a germaphobe—until the first victim is taken, then no one is laughing.
3. Someone has been keeping a dark secret. Ya know, if someone had just told those poor people that the house they were considering buying was built over a sacred burial ground they might have kept looking. Or if only those young campers had gotten a heads-up about the lake being full of dead bodies, they might have picked a less terrifying place to pitch their tents. Knowing the whole story up front would have saved countless slasher victims a whole lot of trouble and gallons of spilled innards. Likewise, if someone had just told me that the birthday girl had been vomiting all through the night before her party, I might have sent a nice gift and kept my kids a safe distance from the contagion.
4. Nights are the most terrifying. I never understood why people in horror movies don’t just go someplace else: a nice hotel, a spa, a place where there are no undead souls prowling about. But now I realize that sometimes there is just nowhere to run, especially after dark. I still have traumatic memories of lying awake at night when one of my kids had fallen ill—waiting, listening, praying it was just too much ice cream and not THE BUG. If I did manage to fall into a fitful sleep, I never knew when I would be jolted out of bed by the next victim, moaning in agony or racing down the hall to the bathroom (or to throw up right beside my bed). Somehow the breaking of dawn always brought new hope—until someone barfed up their cereal.
5. Just when you think it’s safe… A few days have passed. The kids have gone back to school. The house is fully sanitized. And then bam! Terror strikes again and someone else falls victim to the nightmare—usually the hero (aka Mom) who has been bravely and selflessly cleaning up after everyone for days.
6. You know there will be a sequel. Just like Jason and Freddy and Jaws, the stomach bug cannot be killed. Sure it will slink away for a time, leaving you with the remains of your shattered life and vomit-stained carpet. But you know it’s out there, somewhere, waiting, and it will be back. You are never really safe.