The Eighteen Cups: A Foreign Service Fable

“I want a divorce,” she said quietly. “I can’t take this any more.”

“You can’t leave,” he said imploringly. “What would I do without you? You’re my soul-mate, the love of my life, the mother of my children, not to mention my….” and he began to sing, “Sex Bomb, Sex Bomb! You’re my Sex Bomb! Baby, baby–“

“Stop!” she screamed. “Please, please don’t do your Tom Jones impression! That just makes this even harder.”

“OK,” he said, holding out his hands in defeat. “OK, I know how hard it’s been. All the moving, the new countries, the culture shock, the jet lag. But, listen, honey, I’ll do more this time, I promise. I’ll do all the paperwork. I’ll arrange the packout. Hell, I’ll even BE there for the packout! I’ll do everything.”

“Everything?” she asked sadly, pointing to the cups.

He looked at them – eighteen clean white paper cups, stacked up on the bathroom counter. “Oh, God, the cups. The cups.” He sank into a chair and began to sob. “It’s over. It’s really over!”

Oh, hell, I’m not really going to divorce the guy; I love him too much. But right around moving time, which seems to happen every two or three years, I start with the heavy-duty fantasizing: about never packing out again; about going home to live in small-town, Norman Rockwell America where Mom & Pop run the grocery store and everyone waves to everyone else, and there’s a parade on July 4th with fire engines and town marshals.

And no one has to poop in a cup.

Somehow I always forget about this particularly unglamorous part of diplomatic life until once again, it’s thrust right under my nose, so to speak. Just recently I came home with eighteen cups — three for each of us — and placed them prominently in the bathroom with a heavy sigh. The cups looked exactly like disposable coffee cups, complete with plastic lid, except that they had a 1950s illustration of a smiling, white-capped female nurse holding a clipboard in her left arm and some sort of vial in the other. Her expression was either warmly encouraging or annoyingly perky, depending on your attitude about medical tests, or, more apt in our case, on how long it took every family member to comply with her implied wishes.

We also each had three little vials to mix the, uh, cup’s contents into. And a cute little card that tested for “fecal occult blood,” too. And test tubes for blood lead poisoning and HIV, and slips listing all the additional things we’d be tested for at the lab.

Now, listen, I was grateful that the State Department was paying for all this; really, I was. But the fact remained that trying to get four kids to poop in a cup on three separate occasions was a bit daunting. If we had any diplomatic training at all, it got put to good use in this situation.

“What? I’m not doing that!” was the shocked reaction of our teenaged daughter.

“Yuck, that’s gross,” said our 12-year-old son. This from a boy who wouldn’t bathe for a month if he had his choice.

And the twins, boys aged 7, simply thought I had to be joking. Oh, I wish.

I tried reasoning in a pleasant tone, and everyone nodded and seemed to understand. The cups were still there, unused, two days later. Next I delivered a demarche.

“If you want to go back to America this summer, you have to do this!”

“Why?” challenged one of the older kids.

“Because we can’t go back unless we have our travel orders, and we can’t get our travel orders until we get a medical clearance, and we can’t get a medical clearance unless we poop in a cup three times!”

I don’t even know if this is strictly true, but it sounds as if it is, and that’s the main thing. It’s a little like answering the three riddles of the Sphinx, or bringing in the broomstick of the Wicked Witch of the West, except harder.

In the first few days after the cups came home, my husband and I each dutifully performed our three small patriotic services for the government and took the vials to the lab, explaining that future deliveries – i.e., samples from our children, might be sporadic.

We turned our attention back to threatening the children. Threats turned out to be highly effective, although not in the way we expected. All four kids immediately became constipated.

Several more days went by, and one child even stayed home from school, he felt so ill. I thought these tests were supposed to help keep us healthy, not make everyone sick.

Meanwhile a dozen cups still sat on the counter, their pristine whiteness mocking us.

Desperate, I brought out the last parental resort: bribery. A dollar a dump, to put it crassly. Do you know anyone else in the entire world — besides a farmer — who’s willing to pay for crap?

My kids are stubborn, but they’re not stupid. Let’s face it, this was the deal of a lifetime. All four kids went for the money, and Round One of the Cup Saga was over. Only eight more samples to go. Whoopee. Preparing the four samples for the lab — which is ordinarily an odious task — I practically danced around the bathroom. That fact alone should probably alarm the State Department’s psychiatric division, but I’m beyond caring.

Round Two: three out of four kids had to be reminded that there was easy money to be made, but after the reminder, no problem. Fourth child – one of the twins – started digging in his heels as only a child can. I guess he somehow got the insane idea that his bowels and what they produce are his business and no one else’s.

A day went by, and of course, the more we pleaded with our son to come through with the goods, the more he resisted. We could have taught a graduate seminar in Child Psychology 101 that week. He used the toilet at school, or at home when we weren’t looking. He insisted it “wasn’t the right time.” He asked over and over again why he had to do such a ridiculous thing, when he’d already humiliated himself once. He tried all the arguments his seven-year-old mind could come up with, while we kept nagging, begging, scolding, yelling. These were not our finest hours as parents, believe me.

In the meantime, the other kids completed Round Three and upped their cash holdings at the same time. Naturally not everyone accomplished their assigned task at the same hour or even the same day. I made quite a few deliveries to the Turkish lab, where, every single time, we went through an Abbott-and-Costello-meet-Kafka routine of “Is this John’s first?” “No, this is Will’s third.” “So this is also Annie’s third?” “No, this is Joseph’s second. Annie’s done her three.”

Finally it came down to our medical clearance hanging on the fourth recalcitrant child, who still refused to budge. The threats escalated. Now he couldn’t play Nintendo, or have all of his birthday money. I’m sure his grandparents would not like to know that we held back their check to him for as long as he held back something else. They probably had this nice idea that he was feeling all warm and fuzzy about Grammy and Gramps as he counted his money and saved for a pony or something, instead of now permanently associating their gift with the production of feces.

Finally, on the eve of a special play date with a friend that we said we might have to cancel (yes, I know, we are truly evil people), he came to our bedroom at 11:00 at night, clearly in psychological torment. With tears running down his cheeks, he said, “Mom, I did it, but I missed the cup. Can you fish it out of the toilet?”

I may be wrong, but I don’t think this is covered in Dr. Spock.

I was able to make both my son and myself happy that night, although for once in my life I cheated on something: I used the results of my fun fishing expedition to fill two vials, and marked them with two different dates. I’d had enough of torturing my kid, frankly. And this was my decision to make, as my beloved husband never did prepare any of the kids’ samples, if you must know. Kind of makes you think about adding a few lines to that pamphlet called The Role of the Foreign Service Spouse.

Now if you’re another of the lucky Foreign Service parents wrestling with The Cups right now, and dreaming about living in Little House on the Prairie where they never even heard of stool samples or jetlag or travel orders, take it from me: This too shall pass. Everything will come out in the end. “It” happens.

Francesca Huemer Kelly, a Foreign Service spouse presently based in Brussels, is a professional free-lance writer, published regularly in American and international magazines. She is a founder of Tales from a Small Planet, was the website’s editor-in-chief from 1999 to 2003, and currently serves in an advisory capacity. Also a trained concert singer, Ms. Kelly has lived in Milan, Leningrad, Moscow, Belgrade, Vienna, Ankara and Rome. She is the mother of four children.

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