Friday, September 4, 2009

Birth of a Germaphobe

I’m the mom rolling her eyes at the “no- peanut signs”, thinking that if your kid is so allergic to nuts that my kid’s snack can make your sprog’s tongue inflate like a blimp than you really should be looking at the newest in bubble homes, not hanging out at kindergym. (The Moops! The Moops!). When the university I worked for banned perfume, I sulked for a month. Although I had suffered plenty over-Polo-infused elevator rides in my time, legislating smell seemed crazy. Eventually, though, and dutifully, my perfume found its dusty way to the back of my vanity drawer.

I had the same basic attitude towards colds, superbugs, germy germs. Nile Virus, Avian Flu, even SARS…ha and double ha. As with allergy epidemics, I couldn’t quite swallow that bugs are bigger and badder than they use to be; after all, human history is plagued, well, with plagues. Of course I have had intelligent, semi-informed conversations about modern society’s overuse of chemicals, cleaners, and antibiotics and concede that there are reasonable grounds to conclude that times they are a changin’, but I never really believed.

Norwalk made a believer out of me. Because last Sunday I learned what “The Norwalk” is: it’s the pathetic, bile-laden crawl you do across your bathroom tiles to the foot of your bed, where you lie for awhile until you need to make the return journey, back through bile, back to the basin. When the final count came through, our rousing St. Paddy’s party on Saturday night had resulted in 9 casualties, otherwise healthy adults hugging porcelain for several hours and bed-ridden for at least a couple of days. A fellow Walker laughed when I marveled aloud about how a human can choke on something as small as a peanut and die but when our bodies sense a teeny-tiny foreign molecule, our esophagus opens up like Old Faithful. 1-2 days after we had toasted each other, dug our fists into chip bowls and slopped Irish stew, we were, to use the vernacular, slayed. We were slayed by one of the most effective viruses I have ever had the displeasure of knowing, a “noro-virus”.

5 days into doctor-suggested but self-imposed quarantine later, I found myself carrying disinfectant wipes to the park so that I could wipe down the swings and merry-go-round after my toddler was finished. That same day, my husband rushed in and out of the store for food, touching only what was necessary, while the three of us waited on the sidewalk like wee waifs waiting for a handout. I went to bed the other night worrying about how I pay for a movie: which method would expose me and others the least? Swiping at a terminal would be best, then I could clean my card and the keypad afterwards. Real money? Oh God! Granny, now I know where it’s been; I’ve seen its travels; they resemble a red-water river ride through chunky canyon. How will I touch coins or paper money again? I covet the sanitation station outside the grocery store and wonder how I can make one at my front door look attractive. Perhaps top it with a flower basket.

When I think back to that fateful night, I’m shocked by my slack approach to hygiene. My son chewed some olives, then slopped them back into the bowl. I scooped the chewed ones out and went about my business. The two toddlers licked chips and double-dipped. The adults shared a bottle of Bushmill’s, the lazy man’s way, the rummy way. We dipped our potato cakes in communal gravy. One of the kids had diarrhea; we didn’t think anything of it. Cleaned her up, chucked the pants in the wash and cracked a Guinness. Did we wash our hands? I can’t remember. We kissed and hugged and wiped runny noses with our fingers, then onto our jeans. We walked on the beach and strange wet dogs licked our fingers; we had some more chips and veggies and dip. Norwalk was laughing its pants off and rubbing its nasty hands together with glee.

I now experiment with different measurements of bleach solutions. I do this because in my mind’s eye I can still see my throat wide as a fire hose spewing semi-digested Sunday dinner and gallons of reddish liquid. I can still feel my eyes bursting from my head and the uncertainty of which orifice my organs will get sucked through. I still have the pathetic image burned in my memory of my two-year old dry-heaving while I lay curled around his feet. 4 parts bleach, 10 parts water. Hot, hot water. Yes, that seems strong enough.

Disease control thanked me for calling and the emergency room (where you are NOT supposed to go if you think you have a noro-virus) was very accommodating. Bless IV Gravol. I learned some new medical terminology and that my husband, while he looks kind of cute in rubber gloves, brings new definition to the word “hurl”, as in all over the bathroom door, floor, and walls. Most importantly though, besides no longer mocking peanut-paranoid moms, I have learned that those big, bad bugs truly are everywhere and love normal, but sloppy families and party-goers just like us, and you. See you at the movies tonight.

(As published in Monday Magazine, July 2007)

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