Perspective: Payback

As I write this, the smell of toddler vomit still fills my nostrils. 

That’s not the most enticing lede I’ve ever written, and surely many of you have stopped reading already. Don’t worry – I’m not offended. 

I write this from the Appleton Airport, where my son, Connor, is momentarily content climbing on chairs in search of airplanes. He’s not quite two, and we’re in the midst of our first travel adventure without Mom. 

But back to the vomit. 

On our drive to the airport, my cell phone went on the fritz. Not a great start for a dad who relies on his wife for all things travel (and most of the other things). I had left early, giving myself plenty of time to correct any mistakes and still make my flight, so I had time to stop at Cellcom for a – hopefully – quick fix. 

Once inside, Connor took a look around and decided to redecorate, spewing berries and yogurt into the air. My parental instincts kicked in and I lunged, hands cupped, scooping the lion’s share of his breakfast before it hit the floor. 

My hands now full, Connor now staring quizzically at me, I struggled to determine what my next move was. Do I have to explain the obvious to the young man behind the counter? Apologize? Ask for help? 

No, I bolt for the bathroom and leave my son at the counter, of course.  

“I’ll be right back.”

Fortunately, Connor didn’t move. He pointed to the floor as I returned. I washed his coat, his shoes, his face. Then he joined me on the floor, wiping what we could from the rug. 

In his face, though, standing there, I saw something familiar. I had been here before, but in Connor’s shoes. 

In first grade at Gibraltar Elementary School, I wasn’t feeling very well during the hour before lunch. I approached the desk of my teacher, Mrs. Kostka, and filled her in on my condition. 

“Do you think you can try to go to lunch and see if you feel better?” she asked. I nodded. Lunch sounded good. 

Not much later, we were in line for the lunch room, Mrs. Kostka a few steps in front of me to mark the front of our class in line. I wasn’t feeling any better, and then I felt it coming. 

“Mrs. Kostka …” I probably mumbled, but I don’t recall for sure. It was all a blur. She turned, and without hesitation, raced to me in line, and before I could move, she was catching my vomit in her hand cupped beneath my chin, then guiding me to the nearby bathroom and washing me up to walk me to the sick room. 

It happened in a blink. Mrs. Kostka was no rookie. There would be no embarrassing puddle of spew on the floor, no desperate attempt to clean it up. The next day I didn’t have a new nickname. I don’t think anyone even noticed. Mrs. Koskta was that good.

Lucille Kotska died March 28. (I had to look up her obituary to find her first name – you never know your elementary teachers’ first names.) She was 92 years old. 

As I crawled on my hands and knees on the floor of the Cellcom store, I could almost hear her laughing. She had finally paid me back.