Don’t lie down while watching TV. I had learned that one the hard way, after several consecutive episodes of M.A.S.H. with my parents, lying on the couch because it was near bedtime, and sitting up at the ending credits with a sudden, blinding headache. Cartoons, too, on my stomach on the goldenrod carpet, chin in hands, in that typical kid-on-Saturday-morning way. Those times it was my neck that would hurt first, producing a different type of head pain, like a tight rubber band instead of hot eyebrows. Both these types tended to be two-sided at first and would gradually shift to one side or the other. I was learning at 5 to recognize different types of headaches, from different sources. My migraines still occasionally switch from double to single, back again and to the other side, within the same headache, for no reason I can determine.
I was thinking about my TV – headache rule as our big Chevy rounded another tight curve on the side of a mountain in West Virginia. My stomach lurched and I glanced down at my Dover Birds coloring book, where I had a Baltimore Oriole colored in about a third of the way. I wasn’t happy with it. The winding, hilly road made it very difficult to stay inside the lines, and while I knew it wasn’t strictly necessary to do so (being a child of Free To Be, You And Me and the Anti-Coloring Book) these illustrations were very grown up, of actual birds instead of childlike drawings, and I wanted them to look nice. My parents had put on the Sesame Street tape with the bathroom sing-along, Bert being stuck in the tub without a towel. Woah — biiiig hill. The sensation was sort of like a balloon in my stomach filling with too much air. I felt queasy and a little too warm. I glanced over at my brother Josh, who was asleep in his weird bucket seat and sucking his thumb, the breeze from the open window ruffling his reddish baby hair. The curves and hills didn’t seem to be bothering him at all, and I wondered if it had something to do with the thumb. I considered trying that myself for a moment but dismissed that idea as I shifted uncomfortably and leaned my face toward my open window, where I could smell dirt and trees and that odor cars make. I decided maybe I’d better just read, as that seemed less active than coloring. Instead of placing my orange colored pencil into its box like I normally would have, I just dropped it into the denim bag Mama had made with all my other things for the car in it. Ugh. Daddy was driving, and smiling, because he’d grown up here and I knew he liked driving these roads. Mama’s hand, which is about all I could see of her, was gripping the arm rest hard enough that her knuckles were white. Another curve, and the thin guard rail was bent and I could see through the trees all the way to the river far below. What would happen, exactly, if the car crashed through that guard rail and careened down the hill? On the other side of the car was sheer caramel-cut mountain. If another car came just at the wrong time… or a deer… there were probably even bears here. West Virginia was very wild and exotic. My grandma and grandpa, daddy’s mom and not real dad, lived in a place called Alderson where there was a rocky river to swim in and a prison containing a bad famous lady named Squeaky Mouse. Up a steep hill, swing around a tight curve. I should tell Mama how bad I felt, but what could be done about it, really? “John Jacob Jingle Heimer Schmidt, his name is my name too!” the tape sang. My head felt kind of swimmmy…. a Sesame Street book, no, that Goldbug one. I pulled out the big Cars And Trucks And Things That Go and studied all the different cars and trucks on a random page. There was the little bug in his little car. I carefully read all the words that labeled the vehicles. None of them were on a mountain road like ours. Ugh – oh no. Sparkles swam in front of my eyes. I had that balloon feeling behind my ribs again, and there was one in my head too, and they were both going to pop. The book slid off my lap around the next curve. “Maahhh- ma” I kind of croaked, and somehow she heard me.
“Jeff, we need to find an emergency pull off,” she said urgently. “Look at your daughter’s face! NO! Don’t!” the correction came quickly but dad wasn’t about to turn around.
“Susan, there is nowhere to pull over for miles! Um… can she climb over the seat and sit on your lap?” My dad’s eyes never left the road. He was right, where would we go?
My mom hesitated. “What good would that do?” She said frantically, turning around to face me and reaching to smooth my hair where the wind was blowing it. I closed my eyes. Everything was spinning.
“Well isn’t it true that people don’t get as carsick in the front seat?”
“Okay.” Mama had decided. It was the only thing to do, the only thing we could do. “Wow, I’m glad Josh is still sleeping,” she said, holding her arms out gingerly as I unbuckled the wide lap belt and kind of half stood up. “Oh, why can’t they make an alternate route? This – is – craaazy…” She pulled me over the bucket seat, my long legs flailing as I tried not to kick Daddy, and into her lap. The jarring of my body this caused did not help. I leaned my face toward her window which was only half open and clutched my stomach. “Oh, Jeff, she’s going to throw up. We need to stop.”
Yes. Stop. Please. The front seat wasn’t helping. The further rolled-down window wasn’t helping. Being able to see the thin curving road in front of us wasn’t helping. On one side was a sheer drop, on the other side was now dense forest and there was certainly no place to park a car. I noted how badly my head hurt, which seemed connected to the feeling in my stomach. The two balloons were joined by a tightening string. As my parents were half-arguing half-panicking and my belly balloon was rising, I automatically began to trace back in my mind, as I had learned to do, to figure out what had caused my headache…
“Kind of – hold her out the window! Like her head!” Daddy inexplicably yelled. Out the window? “What else can we do? She can throw up out the window.”
I started heaving, and this was going to have to go somewhere. I read “Rainelle 60” on a blue sign and then couldn’t see anymore. I heard Mama yelling something and felt air rushing against my hot, sweaty face. Hands firmly held me and there went the balloon, out the window in a rush of awfulness and relief. I slid back inside, my head still pounding, and wiped the back of my hand across my mouth. Josh was crying now, the tape was still playing (“She’ll be comin’ round the mountain when she comes…”), and both my parents were yelling something – why did it smell so bad?
Mama started to laugh as Daddy continued to drive and lean toward his window to avoid the unmistakable stench of partially-digested kid food. I faced the back seat, which was covered with splatters. “Oh, we thought we were so smart…” Mama laughed until tears squeezed out of her eyes. I realized all of a sudden what had happened. I had thrown up, and instead of going on the side of the road or down the hill or on the outside of the car, the force of the wind had caused it to fly straight back into the back seat area through my still-open window, narrowly avoiding Josh but all over where I’d been sitting. Eeeeewwww. What could we do? We kept driving. I leaned my face into Mama’s neck and thought: Reading in the car. That was a new headache rule. No lying down while watching TV, and no reading in the car.