Our gas fireplace has always emitted a slight odor. So when I was sitting in my living room this afternoon reading a book, and I suddenly felt a wave of nausea and a headache come on, I wondered whether it had something to do with the gas.
It’s not actually a fireplace, per se’. It’s a wood stove, or at least it’s shaped like one. But a real wood stove, which is what I really wanted, required a wider chimney than we had, and to build a new one was cost prohibitive. So we opted for the wood stove shape, but the savings and convenience of gas. The fact that instead of the delicious aroma of a wood burning fire it sometimes gave off a noxious chemical smell seemed an unfair reminder of our budget constraints.
I tried to finish my book, but I had become so tired, all I wanted to do was put my head down. I thought about calling the gas company to see if we had a leak, but I feared they might shut down our furnace as a precautionary measure. It was too cold to take that kind of risk. But more than that, if there’s one person in my life who makes me feel I’ve over-reacted to a situation, the person whose voice I hear when I get into some kind of trouble, the voice that says, “Lu-cy, what kind of mess have you gotten us into this time,” it’s the voice of my husband, Bruce. He already thinks I’m a hypochondriac and an alarmist. And yet when I tried to chalk my thoughts up to silly paranoia, all I could think of was my son and how bad I would feel if we did have a gas or carbon monoxide leak, and I’d put him in harm’s way just because I feared I was over-reacting.
I called the gas company’s 24-hour gas leak hotline, and they told me that my local fire department responded to such calls but that they would connect me to them through a conference line. I could hear the phone ringing and my local police department picking up. The man from the gas company explained that I was a township resident who had a gas leak.
“Oh, I’m not sure I actually have a leak. I just want to make sure that I don’t have one,” I interrupted. I didn’t want anyone to be alarmed.
The police officer asked for my address. He then asked me if I could wait outside on my front porch.
“My front porch? For how long?”
“M’am, if you have a gas leak, you need to get out of your home immediately,” he said.
This whole process was starting to feel way more serious than I’d hoped. All I wanted was for someone to take a reading as a precautionary measure, to reassure myself that nothing was wrong.
“My husband and child are in the house,” I said. I’m sure that made me sound like a very caring mother and wife.
My two-year-old son, Eddie, had just gone down for a nap, and my husband was upstairs in our office, sketching out a plan for a house renovation we were considering. If the hours in a day were like real estate, Eddie’s nap time would be like oceanfront property. It’s a coveted piece of time because anything and everything we could possibly have wanted to do – from laundry, to home projects, to reading, to lunch – must be squeezed into those few hours he’s napping. I knew as soon as I woke him, all bets were off.
“Everyone needs to get out of the home,” he said.
“You want us all to wait on the porch?” I asked. This must have been how Pandora felt when she’d opened the box. “How long do you think it will be until they get here?”
“The longer you keep me on the phone, the longer it’ll take,” he said.
Policemen are eminently practical.
“I just want to know how long I’m going to have my son on a cold porch. Do you think it will be five minutes, or do you think it will be an hour?” I asked.
“It’s the fire department. They won’t be an hour,” he said.
I walked upstairs to tell Bruce we had to get out of our house. He looked at me, like, “Lu-cy, what have you done this time?”
“Tell me when they get here,” he said, and went back to his sketching.
I milled about the house getting ready to leave at a moment’s notice when outside my window, I spotted a police car slowly drive by. I quickly ran out onto the porch and sat down in one of the chairs, as if I’d been sitting there all along. A police officer walked up to the house holding a large bag.
“Is that a monoxide detector?” I asked.
“It’s oxygen,” he said. “In case you need it.”
Oh, good lord. What have I done?
“I just got over the stomach virus. It’s possible that’s why I’m nauseous. I only called the gas company as a precautionary measure,” I said.
“That’s all right. Is there anyone in the home?”
“My husband and my son,” I said.
“Please tell them to come out,” he said.
At least he was nicer than the other officer, on the telephone. He was very young and had a soft voice and seemed almost apologetic before he’d even said anything. I went up to the office to get my husband.
“We have to wake the baby up from his nap?” Bruce asked.
“Yeah, I know,” I said.
Bruce put down his paperwork, and I grabbed the baby, and we all walked outside. Eddie was barely awake, and we left so quickly, he had no shoes on and was missing a sock.
As we stood on the porch, two fire trucks came screaming down the street, sirens blaring. They parked at the end of the street, and six firemen in full gear came bounding toward my house, some in bright yellow vests. A tall man with long hair, wearing civilian clothes, showed up talking into a hand-held radio. He seemed to be in charge.
A white emergency management van then pulled up, and a man with a monoxide meter emerged and started to head up my porch steps. I tapped him on the shoulder.
“Truly, I just got over the stomach virus. It’s possible this is —
“If you think there’s a leak, we need to check it out,” he said.
I felt like everyone was looking at me like I had Munchausen syndrome, a disorder in which a person acts as though they have a sickness but in fact they have caused their own symptoms in order to get attention.
Hearing the commotion, several of our neighbors began to congregate in the street to see what was going on. I averted their eyes. I once thought the hardest thing about a car accident is not the blood and pain but the embarrassment of people staring at you as they drive by. Our neighbor, Deb, volunteered to take Eddie inside her house as it was about 15 degrees outside. When I checked in on them about five minutes later, to see if Eddie wanted to see the fire trucks, he was sitting on Deb’s couch with her giant Labrador, being fed cookies and watching television. He looked so comfortable, I left him in there.
A couple of minutes later, the man with the meter emerged from my house and said he couldn’t detect anything.
“We got a zero reading. Upstairs. Downstairs. Zero. You can’t get any better than that,” he said.
Just then, an ambulance arrived. They needed to test me for monoxide poisoning. They clipped a plastic device on to my fingertip to get a reading.
“I really don’t think you’re going to get anything. I just got over the stomach virus, and—“
“This is just a precautionary measure, m’am,” the man said.
The machine registered nothing. They had me sign a piece of paper that said I’d refused medical treatment.
And with that, the ambulance left, followed by the man in the emergency van, the two fire trucks and the six firemen, their boss and the police man with the soft voice, though the officer left behind his bag of oxygen and had to come back to get it.
That night, we were sitting in the living room when outside, we heard an ambulance speed by, its siren blaring.
“Uh, oh, mommy has a headache,” my husband said.