If at 5:35 p.m. yesterday afternoon you’d asked Caroline to predict what the next two minutes of her life would be like—if you’d really pushed her to try and imagine the slipperiest, most exasperating chain of events waiting to envelop her—it’s a fair bet she wouldn’t have managed to catch a whiff of the eventual truth.
Isn’t that how it always is with vomit?
I was out running and she was home with the boys. Both Jay and Wally have continued to suffer pretty bad colds but on this particular late-afternoon they were bearing their afflictions well: Wally was bouncing in her arms on his rubber band legs; Jay was crawling across her lap, having fallen once again into the persona of “Baby Jay,” who babbles and wants to nurse and manages somehow to be even more trifling than his toddler alter-ego.
So there they were, the three of them all tangled together on the floor when Wally started to choke. He’s been prone to gagging since the day he was born and he’s lost his lunch more than a few times this past week on account of all the mucus in his system.
Caroline knew what was about to happen but she couldn’t move fast enough—Baby Jay had her pinned. So, like a soldier who falls on a grenade to save his comrades, Caroline pivoted Wally towards her chest to spare the carpet. He got her good.
The shock of the first projectile was enough to bring Baby Jay back to reality. He scrambled off of Caroline’s lap and offered a tentative diagnosis: “Wally threw up?”
Caroline would have answered, but there was no time to waste—she knew these things come in waves. She drew on every ounce of hamstring strength and managed to lift herself off the floor without using her hands. She cradled Wally in one arm, used the other to try and keep the mess contained to her shirt, and raced towards the bathroom. No sooner had her feet hit linoleum than Wally went off again.
A few seconds later the episode would have seemed complete. Wally was face down in Caroline’s arms. Tears and snot and milk were slick on his face. Caroline took one giant step to the far side of the mess. She pulled a hand towel off a rack and applied it gently to Wally’s face. “There, there,” she might have said. “It’s all over now.”
“What’s all over now?” asked a voice. It was Jay, for sure, but where exactly was he standing? Her brain measured the sound of his voice and mapped it against the geography of the bathroom floor and the events of the last twenty seconds. All signs pointed towards disaster. Caroline spun around and sure enough there was Jay, standing smack in the center of the splash zone.
Caroline locked eyes with Jay. She spoke slowly and clearly as if giving instructions for how to defuse a bomb. “Whatever you do,” she said, “don’t move.”
Caroline took a giant step back across the mess. On the other side she dabbed a few more times at Wally’s face and put him down on the playroom carpet. Then she ran upstairs like the track star she should have been to get two more towels from the linen closet.
At this point you’re probably performing some calculations of your own. You’re trying to estimate how far it might have been from the bathroom to the linen closet; you’re thinking about how quickly a panicked mother in the prime of her life can climb six stairs and run down a hallway. And if you’re really, really good you might be asking yourself the most important question of all: Just how fast can Wally crawl these days?
Caroline found the towels and turned around. She reached the top of the playroom stairs, started down, and then froze in her tracks. She couldn’t see the bathroom from where she stood but she could see the spot on the playroom floor where she’d left Wally. He quite clearly was not there anymore.
Where he was, of course, was with his beloved big brother. This might not have been a problem, except that for the first time all week Jay had done exactly what he’d been told to do: He hadn’t moved an inch from his position in the middle of Wally’s puke. Only now he had company, in the form of an eight-month-old with absolutely no survival instincts sliding around at his feet.
Caroline stood in the doorway to the bathroom. For the last two minutes she’d been moving as fast as she could but now she sighed and let her arms fall to her side. Wally looked up at her from his puddle. Jay looked down at his brother. Caroline looked at both her precious boys. “So this is how it ends,” she thought.