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How vomit helped me through my father's birthday

Posted by Dr. Claire McCarthy  February 7, 2013 09:24 AM

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I really missed my father yesterday.

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It was his birthday, the eighth I've spent without him since his unexpected death. I keep thinking that it's going to get better, that the grief will dull and I will get used to living without him. But it's been harder than I expected. It hasn't gotten better.

It's just that there are so many things I need and want him for. A historian and writer, he was the parent who was around all the time when my sister and I were growing up. He was the one who brushed our hair, packed our lunches, picked us up from practice, showed up at school functions, listened to our drama and dried our tears. He was our cheerleader and sounding board, our companion, the one who made everything okay.

So I was cranky yesterday. I was cranky when I came home from work to take the kids to a learning event at church and 12-year-old Natasha said she had a stomachache. She didn't have a fever, the pain was really vague and her belly was soft. Fine, you don't have to go, I said. You can stay home with Elsa (who had a big test and was staying home to study). But you have to shower and go to bed. No TV. I don't want to do that, said Natasha, who is prone to exaggeration and occasional fibs. Which of course made me crankier.

There have been so many things I've wanted my dad's help with over the past 8 years. He used to do admissions work for his beloved alma mater and I always expected he'd be there to help me when it came time to go through the college application process with my kids--and yet I had to do it for Michaela and Zack without him. In these past eight years I've been doing so much writing--and he was my go-to person when it came to writing, my best critic and advisor. And all the time, all the time, there are things I want to tell him or ask him about. I know he didn't mean to abandon me, I know it's silly and unreasonable to feel that way, but it's how I've felt. 

Liam and I went to church--but not long after we got there, Natasha was texting me. I have diarrhea. I feel sick. And then: Can u come home please? So Liam and I left and came home. She still didn't have a fever and didn't seem all that sick; my mood didn't exactly improve. I need to go to bed now, she said, climbing into the top bunk with her clothes on. Can you stay upstairs with me?

So I got Liam into his pajamas and we read books in my bed. I was not just cranky but close to tears, so full of missing Daddy, so sorry for myself. And then it came, that noise that all parents know and dread: the vomit noise.

I don't know what I was thinking, letting her get into the top bunk of a T-shaped bunk bed. She had vomited over the edge, onto Liam's bed, onto the floor, everywhere. I mean everywhere, and  tons of it. 

I wiped up the ladder and floor so that she could get down and out, made a place for her to lay down in Elsa's room, and started the cleanup. And somewhere in the midst of gathering up vomit-covered bedding and scooping up particulate matter with towels and finding clean blankets for Natasha and tucking her in, I got hit with a memory.

My father was the one who was with us when we got sick. He was the one who held back our hair when we threw up, wiped our mouths, and cleaned it up. He was so patient and sweet as he did; I don't ever remember him complaining. All I remember is that when he was there, I felt better. It wasn't until years later that I realized just how squeamish he was; he had the worst time with vomit and diarrhea and blood. But he never let on. Because when you love someone you do what you need to do to take care of them.

And in that moment, I realized that so much of what I do well as a parent I learned from him. He's not here anymore, and I will never get over that. But he gave me so much, and taught me so much, that I use every single day. I am a better and happier person because I had him as long as I did. 

Instead of feeling sorry for myself, I felt grateful. 

Happy Birthday, Daddy. Thank you. So much.
This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About MD Mama

Claire McCarthy, M.D., is a pediatrician and Medical Communications Editor at Boston Children's Hospital . An assistant professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and a senior editor for Harvard More »

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