The Thanksgiving Plague, or How I Almost Died in a Coal Mine

Thanksgiving 2008 will always be remembered by my family as the year my grandmother brought a stomach bug to dinner.

Mammam Edie was a lovable curmudgeon. None of us — her children or grandchildren — ever had any doubt she loved us, but often her affection took the form of reminding us we were pains in her ass. She was stubborn and feisty and straight-talking, and she was God-fearing and kind and funny. She lived her entire adult life in Pennsylvania, but when she called us “Baby” or “Sugar,” the traces of the Southern drawl from a North Carolina upbringing were unmistakable. In my childhood memories, she is a large woman with an even bigger personality. She would often declare, only half-joking, that she was perfect, and she would add that I was perfect, too, because I was her granddaughter, and I was just like her.

In her later years, Mammam Edie liked for us to make a fuss over her, but she would never have admitted as much. She didn’t want to cause a fuss, but if we happened to bring her a cup of coffee so she didn’t have to get up, she would be most delighted. She didn’t want to be any trouble, but if we thought to reserve the turkey neck for her when preparing Thanksgiving dinner, she would know we really did love her. And if we failed to make the fuss she’d been hoping for, she was sure to let us know how nice it would have been if we had.

Sometimes, such as that Thanksgiving, her refusal to cause a fuss wound up causing a much bigger problem than if she’d just asked for what she needed in the first place. It’s one thing to sit down with a plate full of turkey, gravy, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, green bean casserole, corn, stuffing, and buttery rolls, and say mournfully to the person who prepared the meal, “Oh, you didn’t save the turkey neck? That’s my favorite part.” It’s quite another to refuse to admit you have diarrhea despite incontrovertible evidence in the form of a trail of poop on the carpet between the room where you are staying and the bathroom.

Now, if this story were about absolutely anyone else in the world, Mammam Edie would have found it uproariously funny. I can hear her telling it: “Diane, I swear to God, the dumb son of gun shit on the carpet and tried to clean it up with an old bathroom towel and thought nobody would notice.” And she would slap and the kitchen table and laugh and maybe have a refill of Sanka.

But because this misery had befallen Mammam Edie herself, she said nothing. I am sure she was mortified; I certainly would have been. That said, I’d like to think I would have admitted that I was sick and had had an accident. What Mammam Edie did was pretend nothing had happened at all.

My and my grandparents, Robert and Edith Williams, August 2006

My mom had invited Mammam to stay with us for Thanksgiving to cheer her up. She had been so depressed since Pap Pap died in the spring of that year. While photographs of the pair of them bear more than a passing resemblance to the couple from the painting “American Gothic” (if the wife had a few more pounds on her, anyway), they loved each other through and through. They had been married for 55 years. From his death until hers in 2017, in every conversation I had with her, she told me how much she missed him.

As sympathetic as we were to her grief, Mammam was so cranky throughout that visit, even before her stomach bug struck, that we were all a little sorry she’d come. My brother Tommy was home from law school for the holiday, and my husband Todd and I had driven down from Massachusetts for the weekend. We had all been looking forward to a nice Thanksgiving together, but instead we had Mammam grumbling and Mom trying to hide how stressed out she was about Mammam’s grumbling. And then there was the plague.

While Mammam sat in the living room in the recliner having ginger ale and saltines (just because she felt like it, not because her stomach was upset, she never conceded that her stomach was upset) and the turkey roasted and my mother scrubbed the hallway carpet to remove the stain and odor from the accident my grandmother refused to admit she had had, the stomach bug was working its way to brother’s gut. Soon he was violently puking, his heaves shaking the entire house.

Unlike Mammam, Tommy couldn’t deny that he was definitely, seriously, thoroughly ill. She had left behind evidence, but he had eye-witnesses. He holed himself up in his bedroom, occasionally calling out for water or emerging for another round of full-body puking.

Still, that afternoon, the rest of us sat down at the dining room table for Thanksgiving Dinner. Not surprisingly, none of us had much appetite. We pushed food around our plates and told my mother it was delicious even though we had barely tasted it. Mammam complained that Mom hadn’t saved her the turkey neck. My husband and I helped clear the table and clean up. Mammam returned to her spot on the recliner, and Dad put on a football game. All of us listened carefully to our stomachs for the first rumblings of the virus, silently praying we would not be next.

That evening, when Tommy showed no signs of improving and could not hold down even a few sips of water, my parents took him to the ER for IV fluids. When they returned home a few hours later, Tommy looked significantly improved, Mammam was long since asleep, and the rest of us still seemed healthy. We thought the worst was over and went to bed. We were wrong, of course. The bug struck both of my parents during the night.

In the morning, Todd and I, still seemingly unaffected by the virus, decided we need to get away from the sick house. I came up with the brilliant plan to take Todd to Scranton’s premier tourist attraction: The Lackawanna County Coal Mine Tour. That would occupy us for a couple of hours. In the six years Todd and I had been together, in all our visits to Pennsylvania, I had never taken him on the Coal Mine Tour before, and this seemed like a golden opportunity.

And so it was that 300 feet beneath Earth’s surface, I was struck by the dreaded stomach bug. All morning I had told myself that any sense of nausea I was feeling was in my head. I wanted to believe that I was so worried about getting sick that I was making myself sick. I had washed my hands a million times the day before and kept my distance from my brother and grandmother. Also, as a teacher, I have a hearty immune system because I get exposed to so many things all the time. I was confident that once Todd and I got out of the house, I would be fine and all my psychosomatic symptoms would disappear.

Almost as soon as we were underground, donning our hard hats and listening to our tour guide, I began to feel my heart race. Year-round it is a cool, damp 53 degrees in the coal mine, but I began to sweat. I clutched Todd’s arm as a wave of dizziness hit me. And then, for the first time in my life (sadly not the last), I fainted.

I didn’t crumple to the ground amidst a gaggle of strangers. I realized I was going down and got Todd’s attention just as my vision began to tunnel. Todd managed to support me and get me to a bench. The tour guide conferred with us to see if I was okay, which I wasn’t, but at least I was seated and therefore not likely to fall and hurt myself. There was no simple way to get me back above ground until the tour ended, so we all agreed that I would stay there, sitting on the bench, doubled over with my head between my knees, while the 45-minute mine exploration continued.

Alone on my bench, I had plenty of time to think. Most of my thoughts were “don’t puke” and “don’t crap yourself.” But I also had time to curse myself for being so like my grandmother. If I had just listened to my body that morning and accepted the fact that I had also gotten the stomach bug, I wouldn’t have nearly died in a coal mine. Like my grandmother, I had stubbornly refused to admit there was anything wrong with me, and because of that, I had caused a great big fuss.

After the tour ended, I asked Todd to drive to CVS for Imodium. Still feeling fit as a fiddle, he decided we should continue with the Black Friday shopping plan. Instead of taking me home first, he went straight to his favorite store, TJ Maxx. I sat in the car wondering what sort of moron I married while he hunted for bargains.

When we finally got home, my parents were back at the ER with Tommy for another round of IV fluids. I shut myself in my bedroom and wished I had just stayed home in Massachusetts for Thanksgiving. I have no clue what Todd did while I wallowed. I wasn’t even close to as sick as my brother, thank God, but I was still pretty miserable. I recall being alone for the rest of the day. In the end, Todd was the only member of that Thanksgiving dinner party who evaded the virus entirely.

By Saturday morning, we were all on the mend, the bug having run its course. I was still feeling shaky and couldn’t even imagine eating, but Todd and I agreed: Time to go home. We packed up the car, politely declined the offer of Thanksgiving leftovers, and made the long drive back to Worcester.

While none of us were laughing at the time, in the years since, the story has taken on a comedic tone. Or it had, until now. In light of the Covid-19 pandemic, the story is more instructive than amusing.

This past week, on Wednesday, I started to feel unwell. Every morning before going to school, I must complete a self-certification questionnaire, verifying that I have had no Covid symptoms. Some items on the list are worth 5 points, and some are worth 10. If you end up with 10 points, you fail the self-certification, and you have to stay home and seek your physician’s advice. My symptom, which struck midday on Wednesday when I was already at work, was a 10-pointer, although it was not the most common sign of Covid.

In normal times, I would suffer through my discomfort and finish my workday. Heck, in normal times, I seldom take a sick day, even when I clearly have a cold. So last Wednesday, I sat at my desk, feeling clammy and uncomfortable, unsure what to do. Would leaving early be overly dramatic? Was I making a big deal over nothing? Surely I didn’t have Covid, just an upset tummy. It was probably something I ate. It was probably anxiety, given all the stresses of life these days. It was probably nothing. It wasn’t worth making a fuss, certainly.

If I went home, I would have to consult with my doctor and probably get a Covid test before returning to work. If I didn’t go home, I ran the risk of being an unwitting super spreader. All my options seemed bad, but in the end, I decided I couldn’t risk staying at work, even if that meant people might think I was being melodramatic, even if I was making a fuss for nothing. Because if I ignored my symptoms, I might make the same mistake my grandmother did at Thanksgiving 2008 and inadvertently cause a much bigger fuss in the long run.

Last week in Central Massachusetts, it was hard to get a Covid test. I tried to get an appointment at every non-referral testing site within a twenty-mile radius of my home. All were completely booked until the weekend after Thanksgiving. Walk-in testing sites that didn’t require referrals had hours’ long lines. I called my doctor, and she gave me a referral for a drive-up testing site. Friday, I felt mostly better, and that afternoon I got the results — negative. Thank God.

Still, even with a negative test in hand, I won’t be gathering with friends or family this Thanksgiving. My test was a snapshot in time. I was in the clear on Friday, but that doesn’t mean I won’t be exposed to the virus between now and Turkey Day. No, Todd and I will be staying safe at home with a turkey dinner for two.

We already lived through one Thanksgiving plague that showed us just how easily a virus can spread around the dinner table. We know what it’s like to watch a loved one go to the ER because of a holiday gathering.

Diane Vanaskie Mulligan is the author of three novels, most recently What She Inherits.

novelist, teacher, sourdough enthusiast, dog-lover, folkie and a whole bunch of other things, too.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store