There we were, speaking in hushed but hostile tones to each other through clenched teeth, our heads ducked on either side of the Jeep’s frame as we fumbled with our respective child car seat straps. Our little girls shifted uncomfortably as we buckled them into their chairs, taking their cues from us and remaining–for once–completely quiet.
A trickle of sweat ran down my back and I realized just how warm the June evening had grown. I could feel the damp stains of baby puke and stale beer weighing down my dress before I could smell their offensive odors, but I knew that the heat would change that soon if I didn’t get out of the sun. With one last huff, I slammed the back door, slipped into the front passenger seat–grateful for the air that already had been cranked to full blast–and waited for my husband to join me up front.
When he did, we pulled out of the restaurant’s parking lot in a palpable silence that lasted the whole ride home.
* * *
Three hours earlier, as we climbed the winding hill from our Lakeside home up toward a newly opened eatery we were dying to try, the mood in the car had been much more jovial. It was my husband’s birthday and the plan was to celebrate with a meal out and a stop for ice cream cones afterward. The girls were dressed in freshly laundered rompers with their hair pinned back by smart little bows, and their twenty tiny, moonstone toes flexed inside new pairs of white leather sandals.
We preemptively fed our littlest at home. She recently had undergone surgery to fit her with a feeding tube. She was born early, and very small, and even a year later she needed extra medical intervention to help her to gain weight. The whole family was still adjusting to a new routine and I wasn’t yet comfortable with feeding her in public; I felt too fragile in my perceived failure as a nurturing, breastfeeding mother to face questioning eyes or judgement from strangers.
Congratulating ourselves for making it to the restaurant ahead of the majority of the dinner rush, we smugly stepped into its trendy vestibule and savored the coolness of the air conditioning. The host sat us in the very center of a large, family-style table that ran the length of the room and twittered about with menus and tall glasses of ice water before leaving to attend to new arrivals.
That was the start of it. As if on cue, knowing that we had settled in and were about to spend a few short moments paying attention to our lists of food options, the baby threw up.
And yet, she didn’t just… throw up. She regurgitated every last millimeter of formula I had fed her through her tube thirty minutes earlier. It came in waves and washed over her pristine outfit, my crisp linen dress, the little wooden high chair she sat in, and the giant table that was punctuated with perfectly rolled bundles of previously clean silverware.
Sometimes, I’m a super awesome mom who’s able to intuit the “puke face”; I snake my hand out and catch it in midair until a bucket or a towel materializes. This was not one of those times. This time, I was completely immobilized by the sheer force of its torrents. When I recovered enough to look away from the mess, it was clear that the rest of the dining room also had froze while watching the tidal wave flood around my family.
As onlookers regained their wits–and forever Minnesota nice–politely turned back to their meals, my husband and I simultaneously reached for something that would absorb the spreading mess. In his hurry, my husband knocked over his full pint of beer. We stared in horror as the amber liquid swirled into the center of the table to pool with the puke.
Not knowing what to do next, I faltered. A soft touch on my shoulder reminded me that others were witnessing our descent into chaos. Our server stood there, empathy in her eyes and damp rags in her hands. The three of us soaked up the mess as best we could and I lifted my daughter out of her chair, pressing her poor, wracked body against me as I carried her out to the car.
I was new at the feeding tube business, but I was a veteran parent; the trunk held clean diapers, a full container of wet wipes, and a change of clothes for the baby. There wasn’t much I could do for myself beyond a wipe clean up, but the two of us headed back into the restaurant a little fresher.
The waitress brought us a clean high chair, new silverware, and our warm entrees. I sunk into my seat at the same time my preschooler loudly proclaimed her refusal to eat her 15-dollar plate of food because “it looks like chicken, Mom, but it tastes like poop.” I felt my eyes start to sting and, not wanting to cry in a public space, I did what most typical moms do when they need to repress their stress: I took a giant sip of my drink.
By the end of the meal, my husband and I stood in the middle of the restaurant, each tersely taking care of a child and pausing every third minute to shovel a forkfuls of cold food into our mouths–a scene that regularly plays out at home, only at a fraction of the cost and without the added oppressive weight of complete humiliation. We paid the bill, scooped up our hot mess, and made a break for the door as quickly as we could. Before we were able to reach it, the waitress stopped us and handed me a coffee cup with a lid. She had kindly poured my half finished glass of sangria into it for me.
Frustrated that dinner had been such a nightmare, and with no other outlet for that frustration except for each other, my husband and I began bickering about how to salvage the night; do we head home and lick our wounds or do we make the best of things and go get ice cream as planned? Ultimately, we compromised (he drove us straight home while I pouted) and we spooned up ourselves and our empty-bellied children giant bowls of Moose Tracks from the freezer. Unsurprisingly, the sugar lifted our moods and the intensity of the evening’s earlier events lessened.
That night while everyone slept, I crept downstairs on silent feet and drank the rest of my sangria. It was watered down by the melted ice but I savored every sip. And in the dim light of the open fridge, I sent a small thank you into the universe and hoped it would find our patient server who shared her empathy with me during a vulnerable moment.
I know that this scene will play out again–in a different space and with different calamities–but the salve will forever be the same: familial teamwork, the kindness of strangers, and wine. Lots of wine.