I hear a gagging noise.
“Are you okay!?” I ask frantically, whipping my head around and peering into the back seat. My 4-year-old son has his neck craned forward and his tongue sticking out as he coughs. My husband jerks the steering wheel to the right and we abruptly pull to the side of the highway. Before we even stop rolling, I am unbuckling to twist across the back of my seat and check on my son more thoroughly.
Then I see the face—you know the face—his body bucks a little, his cheeks bulge, his head hitches forward. Without thinking, I stick my hands out.
And he vomits into them.
Ah. Sweet joy.
“Help,” I say feebly, turning to Dave, who is already opening his door to hop out of the car.
He meets me with a wad of baby wipes and gingerly tries to scrape my hands clean.
By the time I finally sit back into my seat and buckle my belt, we have filled a shopping bag with used wipes. The hastily tied bundle rests at my feet. Dave has cleaned Jake’s pants and my hands as best he could, but they are both still a little pungent. I feel vaguely nauseated from the smell, a combination of acid and flower fresh.
“Well. Should we turn around and go home?” Dave asks.
It is Mother’s Day, and we are halfway to the botanical gardens where we are planning to surprise my mother for brunch.
This isn’t exactly how I thought this day would go.
When I was about 10, I once watched my mother catch a puddle of vomit in her lap. My little brother had a stomach bug, and he did not have good enough aim to hit the Big-Bird-yellow mixing bowl we kept on hand for such purposes. She crouched over her legs and cupped her forearms around the mess, cradling it so it could not flow off her lap onto our ancient, striped couch.
“Ewww!” I gasped in horror, backing away.
“Get me some paper towels!” she shrieked, a pleading urgency in her eyes. But I was paralyzed. “Towels. Go!” she barked again, glancing down at my brother’s prostrate form and back up to me.
I will never EVER do that, I vowed vehemently as I turned and fled to the kitchen in search of cleaning supplies.
“It’s a lot easier to wash myself than the couch,” she explained when I returned.
“But you caught throw-up,” I moaned, standing as far away from the couch as I could, bending at the waist to hold out the towel roll. She calmly cleaned her legs and threw the offending paper towels into the yellow bowl. She told me the story of the first time I projectile vomited on her at age 2, and how horrified she was at having to change every item of clothing all the way down to her gray, flowered pumps.
I guess in the years that passed, she grew more cavalier about being plastered with revolting substances. This was just one more incident that would become legend in our family.
In my pre-pubescent years, vomit and motherhood had little conceptual overlap.
If only I had understood then how clearly this scene represented the daily rhythm of mothering: a perfect blend of self-sacrifice and self-preservation.
We arrive at the botanical gardens and I make a beeline for the bathroom to wash my hands more rigorously. I emerge smelling pink and antiseptic, the skin on my hands at once damp and tight. I hope against all hope that we are still early enough to surprise my mother. I hope Jake’s pants will air out under the bright, Spring sun.
Jake has bounced back and then some; as soon as he saw the giant fountain near the garden entrance, he forgot all about the car ride. Because I know he isn’t sick—note to self: do not give a 4-year-old an entire prosciutto-wrapped string cheese in the car—I have no qualms about exposing the crowds to his eager, decidedly hands-on explorations. Now, he is climbing onto the stone ledge of the fountain and jumping off, his feet crunching on the pebble-covered walkway.
I begin to watch the doors, waiting for my mom to appear. She has no idea we are meeting her here; this whole adventure is a significant departure from our usual routine.
Mother’s Day was never a big deal in my family. My mom never expected breakfast in bed or fancy jewelry, because she firmly believed my brother and I should express age-appropriate love on Mother’s Day, with macaroni plaques and tempera paint. Many of our creations are still proudly displayed in her kitchen, reminding her of long-gone seasons, of how it felt to be presented with a bouquet of construction-paper flowers that we created with our own hands.
Even well into adulthood, my brother and I have coasted on her low expectations. Mother’s Day is just a day, after all. A greeting card holiday to be celebrated with greeting cards.
And yet, after I became a mother, I began to understand why mothers around the world want to be recognized and celebrated for their work. After 364 days of being screamed at, hit, and drowned in a river of demands, I want a day when my family says, “Thank you.” And also, “Take a rest.” And maybe, “Here’s a big plate of brownies.”
So this year, we are going big. This year there will be brunch and a riot of flowers and the gift of time together. I hope my mom will be pleased.
After a few minutes, she walks through the glass revolving door with my father, grandfather, and brother close behind. She blinks in surprise when she catches sight of me, wraps me in a slightly tearful hug. I wonder if she can smell Jake’s mishap as I squeeze her shoulders.
We walk arm in arm down the sunny path to the tearoom where they serve brunch, and she laughs freely when I tell her about the car ride.
“What did I tell you!?” she crows. “Now you get it. Upholstery is hard to clean.”
“I know, I know,” I groan, shaking my head. My lips turn downward. “I can’t believe I caught it. I caught vomit. In my bare hands! On Mother’s Day!”
“Moms always do what we have to. Welcome to the club.”
“Did I want to be part of this club?” I ask, looking down at my hands and turning them over, studying them to see if they have transformed. They still look like my hands. Skinny fingers. Slightly grimy wedding ring. Wrinkled knuckles and rounded fingernails.
“Whether you like it or not, it’s too late to take it back,” my mom said, taking my arm as we turned down a trail lined with fat, fuchsia roses.
Before I became a mother, I never could have predicted how physical this job would be. I never knew that my kids would treat my body like an extension of their own, that their bodies would feel like a piece of mine even after years of physical separation.
I wonder if my 10-year-old self would feel proud or betrayed if she had known this day was coming.
I wonder if this story will become a part of my own family lore: the Mother’s Day when my instincts and reflexes overrode my hatred of bodily fluids.
This isn’t what I thought I would remember when I spent weeks arranging a special surprise.
But after all, I am still a mother on Mother’s Day.
Happy (almost) Mother’s Day!
photo credits for this essay go to Natalie Zhou of Nana Floral.