It all started, my father said, with a package of bologna and two hungry people. They were home from Colorado, had been on a plane and in a car, he said, and it was cold and rainy. He and my mother didn't want to go out to eat: they just wanted something quick.
So they ate some bologna. And while they were eating, my mother said, "This bologna tastes funny."
Two hours later, they were both in their respective bathrooms making various offerings to the porcelain god. These offerings were greedily accepted. And the god demanded more.
By the time Meelyn, Aisling and I saw them the Monday before Christmas, they were recovering, but still a bit fragile. They told us the story of their woes while the five of us were at Bob Evans in New Castle, the girls and I eating huge, farmhand-style lunches while my parents toyed with a single scrambled egg each.
"Hey, whyncha eatin' a ver big lunch?" I asked indistinctly through a mouthful of barbecued pork sandwich.
"It all started with a package of bad bologna," my father said with a faraway look in his eye, as if remembering something from a nightmare.
We commiserated with them on their sad bout of food poisoning and expressed our happiness that they were recovering and we thought that was the end of it.
Little did we know. That bologna was not finished with us and the topic of whether food poisoning can be transmitted from one person to another or whether this illness was actually due to some vicious virus they picked up on that airplane is a matter that is still being hotly, albeit lethargically, debated amongst the members of my family with the little bit of strength we have remaining to us.
On Christmas Eve, strangely enough, my stomach started making small restless wriggles that were in direct opposition to the spread the ladies of the family were carrying in to Grandad and Mary Liz's assisted living center that evening. I was to bring sloppy joes, buns, potato chips and dip and I made the sloppy joes with an aspect of doom hanging over me as Pat made Chex Party Mix, Nanny made deviled eggs and Angie made con queso dip in the same kitchen. The combination of different food smells threatened to fell me like a mighty oak under the woodsman's axe but I put my head down and plowed resolutely onwards, stirring and adding cumin and chopping onion and wishing I could go lie down on my parents' bed and howl.
Later on that evening, Angie privately confessed to my mother that she was feeling feverish and unwell, but she seemed to be holding her own, so I optimistically thought she would probably shake it off (she's not a big baby like I am) and I wondered with less certainty if I could shake off whatever was plaguing me.
As I've already written, the girls stayed home from midnight Mass because of their coughing -- I was thankful that they were on the tail end of those colds because Christmas? It is a miserable time to be sick, like having a bad case of poison ivy on top of a sunburn on your birthday.
The girls slept all through the night, which was something greatly different than the past eight or nine nights we'd been experiencing. We got up and opened our gifts and everything was very nice and, as I also wrote, they all went back to bed except for me. I went upstairs at eight thirty to take my shower and get ready to leave for Nan and Poppy's, and when I was putting on my makeup, I heard Meelyn wail, "Ohhhhh, DADDY!!!! I DON'T FEEL GOOD!"
My husband was standing in the upstairs hallway when she burst out of her bedroom, fleeing for the bathroom. He nearly got splattered unbecomingly with....well, you know. Afterwards, Meelyn, as white as salt, came into our room, followed by Aisling, whose round face was a picture of all that is opposite to Christmas cheer.
"My stomach feels very strange," she said. Meelyn fell on our bed wordlessly and my husband and I exchanged a worried glance. "I think I'd better call Mom and tell her we can't come," I said. This statement brought forth such a rousing chorus of feeble, tearful protests that I could hardly hear her when she answered.
"Mom, remember that bologna you and Pop were poisoned by?" I asked. "Somehow, I don't think it was the bologna."
"Oh, phooey," she said airily. "If they're going to be sick, they might as well be sick here."
I contemplated this, wondering what we'd be letting ourselves in for, traveling for forty-five minutes with two throwy-uppy teenagers, but she wore me down. In the end, I grabbed a little bucket and we set off, Meelyn holding herself rigid, her eyes squeezed shut; Aisling slumped in her seat like a sack of grain.
When we got to New Castle, we noticed that Pat and Angie's SUV was already in Nan and Pop's driveway. Nanny and Poppy themselves greeted us merrily at the door with the air of two people who have put hours of violent puking well behind them. "Merry Christmas!" caroled my mother, ushering us into the warm and breakfast-smelling air of the house. My husband came in with an armful of gifts; Meelyn followed him clutching her bucket.
The family room's Christmas tree was glowing gaily; a fire was crackling in the fireplace. The whole room was a scene of festive cheer straight out of Currier & Ives, except for the people, the number of whom was strangely diminished.
"Kieren and Angie are both sick," my mother said with a small moue of sadness.
"Kieren had to lie on the couch and let Dayden open his gifts," Pat said. "And Angie is in bed under a pile of blankets, praying for death."
"Oh," I said faintly.
"He threw up six times in the night and she has a high fever."
I eyed him, noting his devil-may-care attitude that said he was willing to go to the wall with a smile on his face, holding his bucket debonair grace, kind of like Cary Grant in To Catch a Thief. "You know, I think we may now have a new euphemism for the stomach flu in our family," I observed thoughtfully. "I think from now on, we might call it something like 'eating the bologna sandwich.'"
Pat caught the idea and said, "You mean, as in: 'Kieren and Angie are at home, eating their bologna sandwiches'?"
"Yes!" I exclaimed. "And Meelyn ate a bologna sandwich right before we left today!"
"And we were afraid she was going to eat one in the van, too," added my husband.
"Ha ha very funny," said Meelyn, glaring at us balefully through lackluster eyes.
"And it looks like Aisling might be eating a bologna sandwich before too much longer!" said Pat, jovially appraising Aisling's drawn face and furrowed brow. She withered him with a glance, but otherwise remained unmoving, a fleecy throw pulled up to her chin, a bucket at hand.
"I raised you both better than this," my mother said disapprovingly, appearing in the doorway with both hands clad in oven mitts.
"What is this? Is breakfast ready or are you trying to make a DIY Hazmat suit to protect yourself from reinfection?" asked Pat. "You know, after you contaminated your grandchildren and all?"
She stuck her tongue out at him. "Breakfast is served, for all who are able to eat it," she said with dignity.
The dining room table was open to its full length and it looked very strange with just Nan and Pop, me, my husband and Pat sitting there, kind of like five ants sitting on a picnic blanket. Dayden and Kiersi made a brief appearance to eat the few mouthfuls that sustain them and then went back in to hover over the tremendous pile of presents, poking at the wrapping paper and speculating on if the biggest gifts were theirs.
We all helped ourselves to enormous platefuls of food, reasoning that later on, all we'd likely be having was a bologna sandwich. "Eat drink and be merry, because tomorrow, we may sandwich," said my husband, raising a glass of orange juice in a toast.
"Just don't eat anything that's going to cause problems if it goes into reverse mode," Pat offered wisely. "Like Chex Mix. Not good."
"That'd be like a combination of gravel and broken glass," I winced.
"I brought both of you up better than that," my mother admonished. "No bad talk at the table. And you," she said, pointing at my grinning husband. "You watch yourself, mister."
"So long as I don't have to watch myself gakking up my breakfast, I'm good to go on everything else," he said dolefully.
Three days later, we all met back at Poppy and Nanny's for my husband's birthday party. By then, several more family members had been slain by the bologna virus, which had somehow mated with a heavy cold with flu-like symptoms, and horrible exceeding was the offspring thereof. We all sat draped across the furniture, covered with fleecy throws (or perhaps throwing the throws to the ground, depending on which stage of feverishness we were currently experiencing.) Some were holding onto boxes of tissues, others were clutching the ubiquitous buckets. From oldest child (me) to youngest child (Kiersi) we were ashen-faced and trembling, and this was on the upswing of the illness when we were all feeling well enough to go out.
"I don't even have it...yet," complained Pat, who was sporting two days' growth of beard and a bitter demeanor that was completely different from his former let's-all-go-down-together hilarity. "But I've wiped so many butts and faces and cleaned up so many puddles of vomit and poop that I feel like I--..."
"Stoppit,' said my mother, looking slightly green.
"Stop it. Stop it?" he said with feigned indignation. "Are not you and your bologna," -- this word uttered with extreme scorn -- "the cause of all this, woman?"
"I still say it's food poisoning," said my father obdurately. In situations like this, I'm always glad that he was convinced early on that the world is round.
"That's his story and he's sticking to it," my husband said, trying to shield his watery, red-rimmed eyes from the powerful glow of the forty-watt light bulb in the lamp next to him. He began to cough, a phlegmy hack that started an obedient chorus of wet coughs from around the room, like a troupe of trained seals at the zoo.
"It's been like the first ten minutes of Saving Private Ryan at our house," I said hollowly. "Only with Cold-Eeze lozenges instead of bullets." I wondered for a moment if wrapping bath towels around my shoes and then putting both legs in the fireplace would help me ward off the chill I could feel approaching.
"I'm tired of bologna," whined Dayden.
"I go poo poo this many times," said Kiersi eagerly, holding up both hands with all ten fingers splayed.
"More than that," said Pat. "Oh, waaay more than that."
"Anyone want to play a board game?" trilled my mother.
"Show off," I mumbled.
"Only if it's Pass the Bucket," said Pat.
Not to be deterred, she marched us into the dining room. Angie was the only one who had the nerve to defy her -- she was lying back in her reclining couch seat with her eyes mutinously closed, daring my mother to ask her again by her very posture.
The game was one Kieren got for Christmas, called something like "Would You Rather...." It wasn't a bad game, but it would have been better if I hadn't been having little eggy burps the whole time we were playing. Meelyn excused herself after a few questions and went back to the family room to collapse in solidarity with her auntie. My husband, on the grounds that it was his birthday and if he was going to die anyway, he'd prefer to do it while watching the Colts, followed soon thereafter. The rest of us played doggedly on, despite the fact that we had to lay our heads on the table between turns.
Kieren won, being third on the list of the original sickies and therefore in better form than the rest of us, except for Nanny and Poppy, of course, who were still blaming the whole sordid mess on that frikking bologna.
As we left that day, we kissed Nan and Pop goodbye. They are going back to Colorado and they won't be home again until March.
"See here," I said belligerently, hugging my mother. "Kindly make sure you're....fumigated... or whatever you need to do so that you don't decimate the troops over spring break in the same way you've knocked us over this Christmas."
"It was the bologna," my father insisted, kissing my cheek. "Bologna."
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