Dante’s epic poem “Inferno“ may have imagined nine circles of hell, but there’s no need for parents to break out our high school text books to refresh ourselves on this classic. We already know what it is to experience hell: it’s when the entire family comes down with the stomach flu.
Even the healthiest among us can expect a bout of this nasty bug to run through our house every few years, and if the stomach flu passes us over, then we’re bound to catch an equally awful and contagious virus in its place. No matter the cause, the downward spiral and steep climb out after the family is taken down by a bad bug falls into nine circles of hell that I like to call “Domestic Infirmo.”
You know the stomach flu is out there. Maybe your kid’s best friend caught it. Maybe a coworker’s kid’s best friend has it. Maybe your sister’s kid’s best friend who lives 2,000 miles away has it. It doesn’t matter where it is; it’s out there. You know about it, and it’s only a matter of time before it finds its way into your home.
Even with this knowledge, you remain optimistic that your family is immune to its onslaught. Its approach becomes inevitable, but you turn your head in denial. Two other children in your kid’s class are now sick? Your coworker and your boss came down with it? Your sister’s entire family finally succumbed? It doesn’t matter, you say. Your family was just sick last month. There’s no way it can happen again.
Finally, you accept that it’s only a matter of time, and you wait for the first signs of illness. You linger an extra few seconds when you kiss your kids’ foreheads, gauging whether they feel warm. You ask how they’re doing and look for changes in their appetite. You step up your sanitation game, repeatedly cleaning hard surfaces, washing soft bedding, and enforcing hand washing before and after all meals. You check in with other parents, attempting to track the path of the bug, and you mentally prepare yourself for its arrival.
On the night you put clean sheets on the beds and are sleeping more soundly than you have in a while, you will hear the call from the other room, “Moooommmy (or Daddy)!” You’ll rush in asking what’s wrong, and they’ll say the words you fought so hard to avoid. “My tummy hurts.” Then, they’ll puke all over their freshly made bed, down the side, and on the wall so that the puke drips into the bed frame and requires a total dissection to clean it up. It has begun.
Anticipation Round 2
Now your mind is reeling. You have a very sick child for whom you’re concerned, but you’re also tallying the number of other family members in your house, reflecting on their recent exposure to the sick patient and calculating the amount of time before they, too, become sick (which is one to two days after exposure). You begin a second round of sanitation, and your house starts to smell like a hospital.
Boom. Boom. Boom. In turn, each family member drops like a fly. You’re cleaning up puke for days and exclaim aloud to no one in particular, “I am in hell!” It feels like you’ll never live a normal life again.
Once the bug makes its way through your family, it finally hits you. This is the first time you’ve thought about yourself since Patient Zero puked on your slippers. You ignore the warm feeling in your stomach and the headache growing behind your eyes until you’re literally brought to your knees.
You lie next to the toilet bargaining with God, whether your relationship with him is regular or not. You promise to enforce hand washing more consistently. You promise not to let the kids share their drinks. You promise to start eating clean and to work out and to call your mother-in-law more often. You promise everything and anything just to feel better again.
Finally, everyone is holding down solid foods again. You vow not to contribute to the virus’s spread, so you Google how long you’ll be contagious. You rub your eyes in horror as you read that you’re contagious anywhere from three days to two weeks after recovery. No. It can’t be. You have to get back to work.
You see the money you paid for your kids’ soccer team funneling down the drain, and you just need to get the hell out of the house and go somewhere other than Walgreens. You’ll give it one day with no fever and puking and send everyone back into the world. You’re certain no other family is staying quarantined for longer than that, anyway.
It’s finally over. You rejoin society and share your harrowing tale with anyone who will listen. With each retelling, you add a degree to the thermometer readings. You tack on a few more puke clean-ups, and you overestimate ever other detail that’s not immediately verifiable. This is your right. You’ve earned it because you’ve now been to hell, and you’ve lived to tell about it.