The dreaded flu lingers. For days and days and days, in fact every day of the year so far, we’ve had fevers and sore throats, unsettled stomachs and spilled Gatorade, achy bones and frazzled nerves. I can’t tell whether the general grumpiness is due solely to the germs, or whether it also has to do with our particular family history - you see, every three years we seem to catch the flu en masse, then quickly spiral down into madness.
Back in 2010 we caught the flu, which morphed into pneumonia for everyone in the family. Damon had pneumonia, too, but that didn’t seem like quite enough. No, no, he went all out, and after being sick for weeks on end he woke up one morning with bubbles in his lungs and skin the color of a ripe banana. At which point I dragged him into the doctor’s. They immediately put him in the hospital with autoimmune hemolitic anemia, which meant he needed oxygen and a ‘warm’ blood transfusion…you know, the stuff of nightmares.
Then, three years before that, there was the spring of 2007, when the twins were just four years old, Annalise was seven, and the boys were ten and twelve. Damon went away to ‘work’ on a week-long business trip (to a five-star hotel on the big island of Hawaii!) while I stayed home to ‘mother’, which consisted of cleaning the kitchen and manning the school run yet again. Accordingly (the universe being what it is) every last one of my offspring caught a ferocious, vomity flu the moment Damon took to the skies. Presciently, it also happened to state ‘Mother’s Day’ on the calendar, which felt less like a one-day event and more like a permanent pox upon my house.
By the time Damon returned a week later I was in the full throes of a nervous breakdown. I was depressed, furious, despondent that my life had ended up in a never-ending shuffle between the laundry room and toilet while somehow Damon’s life had ended up in a hammock in Hawaii, swimming with sea turtles.
Weeks, months, almost a whole year passed, during which time I was overcome with melancholia. Then one weekend in March, Damon came home and told me to pack some suitcases…he was taking all of us on a surprise vacation.
My mood improved instantly. We drove to the ferry crossing in Newport Beach, but not before Damon stopped the car in front of a megastore and told me to run in and grab lots of sunscreen. While I was in the check-out lane I saw bikinied barbies lined along the top of the candy kiosk, waving merrily just to me, the words ‘Island Adventure Barbie’ flung across their heads like a crown. Instinctively I grabbed one for each girl, and a Bionicle for each boy, thinking this might just go down in history as the happiest day of our lives.
My giddiness was short-lived. The ferry crossing was a nightmare. Apparently the seas were ‘rough’ – a 7 out of 8 on a daily scale or something like that, and the ferry crew told our family and the other two couples who were crossing to sit down, buckle up, prepare for Armageddon!
Truly it felt like the end of the world. That boat rolled and rocked, dipped and dove, turned sideways and flew up and down. Within two minutes everyone on board sans me and one other lady and the crew were vomiting non-stop. Even the little lap-dog could be heard retching from its cage.
I sat petrified in my seat, barely breathing, trying desperately not to lose my lunch, while Damon took all five kids back a few rows away from me. He sat there for hours while we lurched ever forwards. Kid after kid threw up all over the place. Damon threw up as well, but he never asked me for help, or sent kids up my way, or failed in his task of taking care of every one of those sick, shivering little bodies the entire way across the sea so that my yearned-for vacation wouldn’t be marred by vomit yet again.
Eventually we did dock, the boat ceased rolling, and we were able to stand, wipe ourselves off, then stumble down the gangplank onto the gorgeous island of Catalina. (If only I had possessed an iphone in those days! These photos are pathetically bad…) You’ll have to picture the seven of us marching down the gangplank covered in vomit, like some creepy Tim Burton/Sound of Music mash-up, yet all smiling happily – not only because we’d survived that treacherous crossing, but because finally, truly, at long, long last, we were stepping into paradise!
We headed straight to our hotel, situated right at the harbor’s edge, and immediately Damon inquired about a laundromat, because everyone was flat-out disgusting. (These were not clothes that could be rolled up and washed later….No siree!)
The hotel attendant covered her face with a kleenex and politely (in hushed tones) told us to take our clothes around the corner to a little courtyard. If we walked all the way to the back, we’d find a laundromat.
Lickety-split we ran to our rooms, changed our clothes, washed everyone’s face and brushed teeth…then set off again. We found the courtyard just where she’d said it would be, canopied by enormous palms of every variety, and sure enough, there was a laundromat right there. Damon and the boys set to work on the clothes, while I hung out in the courtyard, watching as the girls ran with unbridled abandon around the planters full of ‘tropical island foliage’. For once my three girls were all getting along and laughing with each other, running their ‘Island Adventure’ Barbies through the leafy greens while enormous colorful birds perched among the bushes like Disney characters.
Pretty soon the clothes were spinning and so, too, were our empty stomachs. There was a restaurant right at the edge of the harbor which welcomed us in, and there we found a sea view, a vast bar, and a floor littered with peanut shells. Amazingly, small birds flew in and out the open windows to snatch peanut shells off the floor, then off they flew again, happy customers indeed!
All seven of us, looking frazzled and unkempt for sure, sat in a huge booth while the waiter brought each kid root beer in glass bottles. Birds swooped back and forth overhead. Peanut shells were cracked and thrown onto the floor with great abandon. A jukebox sat right on the table that played music. Rarely have I been happier in all my life.
After dinner we walked along the edge of the dappled cove while some kids chased birds and other kids collected rocks and still others wrote “Happy” over and over in the sand. At last we headed back to our hotel room, to make up beds on the floor for the twins (there are never enough beds when you have five kids!), and hunker down for the night, tired but content.
Not long after the lights were off Juliet sat up from her spot on the floor and yelled, “My Barbie’s lost! She’s gone!”
Lights came back on. Bags were unzipped and dumped all over the floor. Katriel and Annalise’s Barbies were procured post-haste. But alas – even after every nook and cranny of those hotel rooms was scoured…no Barbie for Juliet!
My four-year-old cried and cried. “My Island Adventure is ruined!” she wailed, inconsolable. As she wept I tried to talk her through where she could have left Barbie…in the restaurant, down at the beach?
“No, no, she’s not there.” Juliet moaned. I told her we’d retrace all of our steps in the morning but still she cried.
It seemed like forever before she relaxed and drifted off. I shut my eyes and wondered if our few-hours old Island Vacation was indeed doomed. Finally I slept.
“I know where she is!” Juliet shouted suddenly, shattering the dark stillness. I awoke startled and disoriented. Juliet was standing over me, yanking on my blanket. “Mom! I know where Barbie is. She’s by the big bird where we washed the clothes! Let’s go!”
I told her repeatedly it was too dark to go fetch Barbie now, that she’d be safe until morning, that we’d go get her first thing. Juliet did not like that answer at all. She cried that Barbie was alone and afraid, that outside it was dark and cold, couldn’t Daddy go rescue her right now? (Um…No!)
At daybreak Juliet was up and dressed in no time at all. “Let’s go!” she kept yelling. Everyone else shuffled around and dressed grumpily, not knowing where anything was, tripping over suitcases on chairs and beds on the floor, etc….
Yet somehow we made it out the door before 8am, then ran down the street after Juliet. In the courtyard she made a bee-line for the bird. Every leaf was lifted, the birds and courtyard searched inch by inch, yet Barbie was nowhere to be found. Ack! Barbie was not there.
Juliet was heart-broken. She cried and cried while Annalise and Katriel clutched their Barbies close to their chests with worried little frowns on their faces.
We led our sad tribe down to the beach where the other kids played happily again. Juliet threw herself down on the sand in despair. After awhile we ate breakfast in a cute little cafe, while Juliet sat in her chair and cried. “Where did she go?” she whispered.
No one had an answer.
After I’d had some coffee it dawned on me that maybe one of the shopkeepers had picked up Barbie. I suggested we go back when the shops opened and ask around.
An eternity later ten o’clock rolled around and there we were, back in the courtyard, peering into the bushes yet again. Damon and the boys retraced their every move within the laundromat. Meanwhile I went and asked each storekeeper if they had seen a Barbie while Katriel and Annalise waved their dolls in the air and Juliet whimpered. At last, in one of the stores, after seeing the other two girls’ dolls, two Mexican ladies smiled and clapped their hands together excitedly. “Yes, yes, flying Barbie!” one lady said.
They led us out to the courtyard and motioned up to the trees overhead. We peered up, baffled. Yet lo and behold…there was Island Barbie, flying through the trees, both arms outstretched, smiling down at us all with her hair sailing behind her, dappled by sunlight. Juliet screamed with joy.
“How did she get up there?” I gasped. (She was very high up in the tree!) The ladies smiled mischievously. One bent over and patted Juliet’s back. “She flew up high, yes?”
Juliet’s expression at that precise moment is one I will never forget. “My Barbie can fly!” she gushed, breathless with wonder.
One of the ladies laughed and said, “Yesterday we see her, way up high, with all the pretty birds. Maybe she try to fly away, too?”
As the other girls squealed and jumped and ran to tell Damon and the boys, Juliet clasped her hands to her chest, looking for all the world like she might explode with happiness. “My Barbie can fly!” she said again, still amazed. One of the ladies went and got a broom from her store while Damon and the boys emerged from the laundromat. They laughed and laughed when they saw Barbie way up in that tree, dangling there in her bikini. Damon climbed up onto the planter wall and strategically tapped Barbie with the broom handle, so that down she flew, right towards Juliet’s out-stretched arms.
As I recall these moments, five years later, Juliet lies on the sofa, burning with fever. Damon is again away on business. And truthfully the pox seems perched once more over our front door.
But I am still here, pouring Gatorade, scrubbing the floor, running to the store…inhabiting this island called ‘mothering’ whatever the weather. Because it’s darn near impossible to escape this place once you’ve docked on its shores. And even though sometimes I, too, fling myself to the top of a tree, yearning to flee, mostly I sit in the sand alongside every other mom and watch my children play. With my hair in disarray, half-naked, with Ken nowhere to be seen, still I sit.
Because there are indeed moments of magic amongst the mayhem. There is pleasure despite the pox. There are bills and bile, but bliss too. And every so often, as I glance up from yet another load of laundry or sink full of dishes, there it is – that dazzling vista smacking me in the face, reminding me of all the beauty yet to come.