Ben was away on and off for a couple weeks and by last Friday I was losing it. I'm generally patient - my patience muscle has been greatly toned by my smallest, most challenging child. But when Ben is gone, I can go from zero to insanity in two seconds. I'll be cruising along, herding children in and out of meals and clothing and bed, all relatively well, when one will push the wrong mommy button, maybe one iota too much sass or ingratitude or, God forbid, daring to slap a sibling while my back is turned, and suddenly I'm hyperventilating, red in the face, shrieking that they've all lost treats and TV for a week.
My friend, Chrissy, bless her, took pity on me and invited us and our friend, Elizabeth, and her kids over for a bar-b-que on Friday night. We put the hot dogs on the grill and went with the kids to search for sticks for marshmallow roasting (my children were on treat probation, the only way they could partake in the marshmallows at the end of the evening is if they didn't give me any shit up until then).
We climbed Chrissy's driveway and found lots of stick candidates. Chrissy was stacking them in her arms when Ben, Elizabeth's husband (yes, they are Elizabeth and Ben and we are Liz and Ben - makes for some confusing introductions), newly arrived, pointed out the flowered oleander above us and wondered if these sticks lying under these bushes were perhaps oleander as well.
Chrissy quickly snatched sticks out of children's hands and we headed to the backyard, where there was no oleander to be found.
The meal proceeded. I spent a total of five minutes in my seat between fetching lemonade and ketchup and non-"burnt" hot dogs for my children. Finally the ordeal of feeding them was over and they moved on to the s'mores. I filled my wine glass, squinted my eyes against the smoke from the fire-pit and recalculated the hours until Ben returned.
Halfway through my chardonnay, I was vaguely aware of Elizabeth examining a roasting stick and Chrissy charging through the patio with that same bundle of oleander. "I don't know how these got back here!" she called as she rushed by.
Soon it was near bedtime - the close to another day, thank God - and, with many thanks in Chrissy's direction, I packed my kids into the van. It was late enough for a snooze cruise, what the girls have coded an "S.C.". I angled the rear view mirror on Mihiretu's drowsy face.
We drove the length of Butterfield Road, the long street that runs the three mile distance of our valley and then, Mihiretu still awake, I turned around to drive it again. Suddenly, half way down the road, I realized that something, digestively speaking, was not at all right. I fought the hot spits for a moment but then pulled the van to the side of the road, mumbled "Gotta throw up" and ran for the weeds.
I knelt there, all three kids dangling out of car windows spectating, Mihiretu now thoroughly awake, cars passing, certainly filled with tight-jeaned, highlighted moms that I vaguely know, and heaved into the grass. Just as I was pulling myself back together, Elizabeth and Ben passed in their car, then quickly turned around and parked behind us.
"What's going on?" Elizabeth called. I shakily stood and hobbled to her car.
"Food poisoning?" I said, wiping my mouth. "I don't know. Vomit. Vomit is going on."
I felt okay to drive again. I assured her that I'd call her if the upchucking continued. I ushered children back into seat-belts and swung around towards home.
Bedtime was ugly. I was making beds - this was not, it turns out, the day to wash the sheets - ordering children into pajamas, sticking toothbrushes in unwilling mouths, while intermittently running to kneel in front of the porcelain altar. Everyone was crying, not unusual for bedtime, but certainly more loudly than the norm. Mae was mad that I had implied she was selfish for insisting on the promised ice cream before bed and was choosing this moment to tell me that I hadn't been nice at all since summer had started. Lana was sobbing in Mae's arms, confused and scared, crying for Daddy. Mihiretu was hysterical, twisting in his bed like a python on PCP while I attempted to read "Goodnight Gorilla" as fast as possible so I could return to the bathroom.
Finally, finally, the children were stowed in their beds. I lay in my own and got on the phone with Ben on the East Coast to try to put together a rescue plan. I briefed him and he hung up to call Elizabeth to coordinate some form of assistance for the next day. I lay back, mixing bowl at my side, breathing in slowly through my nose to combat the nausea.
Moments later the phone rang. It was Ben, now quite concerned.
"Elizabeth told me about the oleander," he said.
I, in my pit of discomfort, had completely forgotten about it.
"I googled it," he said, talking quickly, "and then I called Poison Control."
I took another deep breath, trying to concentrate on his words but now aware of another wave of icky coming on.
"So, it's going to be okay, but the Poison Control guy said that anyone who might have had a marshmallow off an oleander stick should go to the emergency room." He cleared his throat apologetically. "Immediately."
I quickly calculated which of my children were in danger. Mihiretu, thank God, hates marshmallows. Lana probably had one or two. Mae had about fifteen.
As I was trying to envision waking the kids, getting them into the car and enduring the wait at the ER, all while comforting frightened and possibly poisoned children and, of course, vomiting, Ben said, "Wait, I've got another call coming in. I think it's Elizabeth, I'll patch her in."
The caller was indeed not Elizabeth but a doctor from the Poison Center, a salty old monologuer, thirty years on the job.
"You ever hear the story about the boy scout troop being poisoned because they roasted their hot dogs on oleander?" he demanded.
I burped as softly as possible and assured him I hadn't.
"They had FOOD poisoning! Bad weiners!" he chortled. "Urban myth debunked!"
"You know how they killed Socrates?" he quizzed.
I breathed in through my nose, willing my stomach to settle.
"Hemlock?" Ben guessed.
"Oleander!" he trumpeted. "You kids don't know your history. Those Greeks had to boil down buckets of oleander. One lady in Marin tried to kill herself by eating an oleander leaf sandwich. She didn't even get nauseous. Mrs. Capron," he announced, "you have food poisoning."
We finally got off the phone with the doctor. Ben called Elizabeth and I called Chrissy to spread the word that we weren't all dying. Chrissy had me talk to her daughter, Lindsay, who was weeping because she was sure her brother wouldn't ever wake up.
Oleander concern put to bed, so to speak, I finally turned off the light. It was now eleven-thirty and if the good doctor was right, I had at least eight more hours of misery before the tide turned. I slept fitfully, reaching for my bowl in a panic every hour on the hour.
Somewhere around two, Mihiretu woke up. I stumbled into his room, half bent over. The bed was wet, unfortunately, so we made our way to the bathroom to clean him up. I tried to convince him that instead of the usual routine of showering off under the tap of the bathtub, that tonight a wet washcloth would do the trick. No go. He clambered into the tub and I turned the knobs. The entire faucet head popped off and water shot upwards in a three-foot geyser.
The cleaning lady had made her monthly visit the day before and, in her thoroughness, she had loosened the tap. All I could do, between containing my nausea and attacking the spray with a towel, was laugh.
The next morning, Ben's dad and step-mom appeared like a mirage. They scooted the kids out the door and I swerved back into bed. I lay watching the clouds drift by through the skylight, a moment of silence and peace. I caught myself thinking: if the last twelve hours is what it took to earn the right to be in bed in an empty house on a Saturday morning, maybe it was worth it. It was madness, of course. My illness notwithstanding, the momentary belief that my children were poisoned is not something I'd ever, under any circumstances, voluntarily submit to. This stillness, the clouds above, were so eloquent because of what had come before. Sort of like waking up after a migraine, the absence of pain a joy in and of itself. I closed my eyes and didn't open them again for hours.