One year ago this week you emerged from your home. It was a chilly December morning with a tinge of frost on the grass. Maybe you were walking the kids to the bus stop, or maybe you were going outside to heat up the cars before heading to work.
As you reached the end of your driveway, you probably stopped and wondered in confusion at the pile located a few feet into the road. “What the hell is that?” you probably asked, before venturing a few guesses like “oatmeal?” or “a dead animal?”
Eventually you realized it was a pile of puke. A massive, stinking tower of vomit so large it must have come from a person with a stomach the size of a wrecking ball. “Stupid drunk teenagers,” you probably said, before returning to your home to silently curse your neighbor, whose Christmas light show attracts dozens and dozens of viewers each night. Hundreds of strangers park in the darkness while blocking access to your driveway. Puking just feet from where you pick up your morning paper.
I’m sorry and, please, allow me to explain.
I’m not easily excited, but when I get excited, I get excited. When it comes to the holidays I’m not Clark Griswold-level insane, but I belong to the flock who tend to see him as a brilliant visionary and not a bumbling suburbanite with misguided passion. Non-nutritive cereal varnish that prevents milk penetration = genius.
So last December, while sitting on a conference call in the mid-afternoon hours and watching YouTube clips of crazy Christmas light shows, I began Googling the phrase “Charlotte light shows,” and found a website that listed a dozen or so people that transform their houses into flashing, musical-themed awesomeness. I sketched out an itinerary for the perfect night. Feed the kids Christmas tree-shaped pizza (cut triangles out of the sides of the slice and turn the crust into the trunk), load them into the car in their Santa PJs and bring cookies and hot apple cider for the light show.
I called my wife and instructed her to be home with Kid #2 by 5:15 p.m. for a night filled with surprises. I burned the first pizza but had enough time to cook (but not cut tree shapes into) a second one, mostly because she arrived 15 minutes late. I crammed the pedestrian slices down the kids’ gullets to get us back on schedule. At 5:45 p.m. we loaded the kids in the car, and we were off.
We turned onto the I-77 ramp and immediately hit gridlock — a problem made worse by the fact that I misread the map and should have taken back roads regardless of the traffic. With my plans to arrive at exactly 6 p.m. for the first show now scuttled, I did what any reasonable father does. I got grumpy and started yelling at people, and muffled my profane responses when my wife asked questions like, “Why didn’t you look up the route before we left?”
After 20 minutes we finally turned off I-77. Kid #2 – then two years old and quite possibly the worst child in history when it comes to sitting in a car seat – mildly complained about her tummy hurting. My response: “JUST LOOSEN HER CAR SEAT SHE’S FINE WE NEED TO GET GOING WE’RE NOT STOPPING.” In my defense she constantly complains about the five-point harness pushing against her chest, and she makes no attempt to understand me when I tell her that it’s tight in order to keep her from dying.
We navigated more exit ramp traffic and stop light traffic, and 45 minutes after we left our home, we rolled up to 13513 Melrose Meadow Lane in Huntersville. “WHERE ARE WE DAD WHAT IS THIS WHEN ARE WE GOING TO BE HOME,” they screamed from the back seat. I pulled to the end of an empty cul de sac ringed by a trio of homes, turned the radio station to 89.3, and cackled in a madman’s voice. Miraculously, we had arrived moments before the next show was about to start.
And then, in the darkness, there was an explosion of light all timed to Trans Siberian Orchestra’s “Queen of the Winter Night” cranking from the speakers of our family truckster. Red, green, blue, yellow, an eruption of colors that rendered my children silent. I looked at my wife and got a smile that said, “You’re still an ass but nice work.” We unbuckled the kids from their car seats and they stood with their faces smashed up against the window. I reached in the back seat to grab the cookies and cider and realized that I’d forgotten them in the garage, but I didn’t even care. I was victorious.
“Is the house on fire?” Kid #1 asked. “No, buddy, those are Christmas lights,” I said.
Kid #2 crawled from the back seat and wrapped her arms around my wife and moaned, which I ascribed to her inability to comprehend such an amazing sight. Toddlers are so unreasonable. I cranked the music as we rolled through the second verse and more blasts of light. Kid #1 squeezed into the driver’s seat and we both sat, transfixed by rainbows of colors that I hadn’t seen since the Grateful Dead played the Boston Garden in 1993. My wife said something about something, and think I nodded or maybe shook my head. I didn’t care. I love flashing lights.
“Dad,” said Kid #1 as the second song wrapped up. “Can we stay for one more song? Please?”
“Of course,” I said, and reclined my seat as I basked in parental victory.
The song inspired by Mozart’s famous “Queen of the Night” reached its seminal moment. The violins screamed and the piano thumped the familiar refrain pee-da-lee-duh-dee-dee-dee-dee-dee-pee-da-lee-duh-dee-dee-dee-dee. The guitar strummed at a furious 130 beats per minute, and an operatic voice from the night howled UH UH UH UH UH OH UH. UH OOOOOOOOOOHHHHHHHHHHH. I closed my eyes in bliss.
And then, “HURRRRRRR. HURRRRRRR.” But this was no aria. Vomit erupted from Kid #2 like a geyser, covering my wife’s down jacket and much of the front seat. Kid #1 recoiled in horror and leaped to the back seat. I jumped out of the car and ran to open the passenger door. My wife and Kid #2 exploded out of the car and vomit rained down upon the earth like a 100-year storm. So. Much. Vomit. Gallons of gut sprayed the concrete as I yelled things like, “WE’RE AT THE THRESHOLD OF HELL!” My wife pleaded for me to calm down while I continued yelling and trying to fix a situation for which there was no Band-Aid.
It was a full-blown, four-alarm holiday emergency.
After a minute the vomiting subsided and we surveyed the horrific scene – a mass of puke covering so much territory that its outline resembled Asia. We stripped Kid #2 down to her underwear in the freezing cold, wiped her down, put her back in the car seat, and tried to bundle all of the puke-covered clothes into my wife’s jacket. I live in fear of vomiting so I grabbed bleach wipes from the back of the car and used every last one to sanitize anything that wasn’t fabric. Everyone returned to their seats, and I slammed shut the tailgate.
I turned around and at some point another car had pulled up in the cul de sac. A family of four was loaded into the front seat of their minivan, completely ignoring the light show and affixing their shocked gazes upon me. I stared back for what felt like a minute, but was probably only a few seconds. They quickly started their car and drove away hoping to avoid any exposure to the contagion. I turned toward the pile of vomit only feet away from the end of someone’s driveway.
I opened up the tailgate to search for something, anything, that could clean the puke from the road. There was nothing. No water bottle. No cardboard scrap that could be fashioned into a shovel. My wife’s storage area, normally strewn with junk, was clean and empty.
Patient Zero moaned in the back seat of the car.
“GET IN THE CAR,” my wife pleaded. I shut the tailgate and took one last glimpse at the barf, lowered my chin in defeat and got back in the car.
I cranked the engine, put it in drive and exited neighborhood of lovely homes. Kid #1 pleaded with us to roll down the windows to alleviate the smell, but that wasn’t an option at sub-30 temps. We suffered through the thick stench of vomit for the 15-minute ride (I took the correct route home).
It’s been a year and I don’t remember much about the rest of that night. But what followed was a three-month period of hell where the four of us passed around a vomit bug like a baton in a 4 x 100 relay. It got so bad that sometime during the final wave in late February I Googled, “Can a house be infected with Norovirus?” Spring came, and with it the virus disappeared.
Here we are a year later. It’s Christmas season and Kid #2 has no memory of that terrible night. Kid #1, on the other hand, asks her if she feels sick every time we drive by a holiday light display.
Tonight, I’ll ease the kids into the car because we got them home early, and I won’t have to tell anyone to hurry up. I’ll take the correct route and arrive just seconds before 6 p.m. so we’ll be there exactly when the show cranks up in the darkness. I’ll pour my kids a cup of hot cider and they won’t spill a drop in the back seat. At no point will my wife think of jumping out of the car. I will be a Holiday Hero.
But I’ll toss a shovel and a gallon of water in the trunk, just in case.
Cover image via the Huntersville Christmas Lights Facebook page