Our Brush With Mortality

We nearly lost Rose last night.

At 5:45 PM, I put down the phone after a long business call with a client. The final ten minutes of the call were something of a trial as Samuel was screaming in the background, a cry of frustration as when he has been corraled for safety or had a dangerous object removed from his hands. Neither seemed likely; his voice was moving up and down the hall beyond my door, almost as if the baby monitor had sprouted legs. A diaper change? A bonked head? I didn’t know.

I left our bedroom where my office is set up and found Dawn in the bathroom with Samuel strapped to her back. which meant she had been cooking. Rose was standing on the stool in front of the sink, sniffling and crying. She saw me and held out her arms and burst into tears again, babbling something completely unintelligible. Dawn turned to me, and despite the alarm on her face, her voice was even and calm, the voice you use to convince someone it isn’t as bad as it seems.

She used this voice years ago when I tried to slice open a package of frozen hot dogs for my nephews and instead sliced opened my finger. She had held my hand under the faucet and when I asked if we should go to the hospital, she said, in the same tone of voice, that I had exposed the fatty tissue near the bone, so it would probably be a good idea.

I understood Samuel indignation – no one care’s to be treated as an ignored backpack, but his screams made it difficult to hear. Nevertheless I caught the drift of Dawn’s explanantion. She had been cooking in the kitchen, munching on cashews, with Samuel tied to her back in the kabuki carrier. Rose was helping, and Dawn, realizing she was now four years old, gave Rose two (count them, two) cashews to munch on. Rose ate them. Her lips began to swell. Her throat became scratchy. She couldn’t swallow. By the time I got there, Dawn had managed to get Rose to take her antihistamine (Zirtec), but she couldn’t get her to drink anything else.

Dawn and I are a team. We each have only half a brain in emergencies, but they are matching halves. It would have taken me fifteen minutes to think of giving the Zirtec to Rose. On the other hand, by this point Dawn was waffling on what to do next. To be fair, she had two children screaming in stereo, one inches from her skull. I lapsed into her “it-isn’t-as-bad-as-I-think” tone of voice, which helped keep us all calm and focused.

Me: “We have to take her to the emergency room.”

Dawn: “Do you think so?”

Me: “Absolutely.”

Dawn: “Well…OK then.”

Dawn was afraid she had been overreacting, so it was reassuring for her that I insisted on the hospital. We grabbed shoes for everyone, Rose’s snuggle bunny, and Samuel’s diaper bag, hoping it was still packed with enough supplies, and headed downstairs to the car.

Rose, still crying and upset, insisted I sit between her and Samuel, so I wedged my skinny bottom between their car seats, and contorted my arms until I managed to buckle my seat belt. As we drove, I sang and told jokes to calm the children. Rose not only calmed down but affected bored impatience with my juvenile Knock Knock jokes. Samuel thought I was a riot.

Because this is Vermont, and central Vermont at that, we reached the hospital in fifteen minutes, and walked 80 feet to the emergency room. Statistically, events occur in clumps, not evenly spaced out, so we arrived the second in line of three more-or-less simultaneous families. The attendant asked us all what our problems were.

Mom #1: “He has a sore throat.”

Dawn: “She’s having an allergic reaction to cashew nuts, her throat is itchy, her lips are swollen, and she can’t swallow.”

Mom #2: “He has a sore throat … and a cough.”

Rose was let in right away, while the others were asked to wait to register. They moved us to a “room,” a single concrete wall with floor to ceiling curtains that wrap around for the other three walls. Samuel was fidgety, itching to get down, walk around and start yanking shiny expensive medical equipment off the walls, while Rose wanted nothing but to sit in Papa’s lap on the gurney. She was a little frightened, still couldn’t swallow, but her curiosity was getting the best of her, and the questions started. Her voice sounded unnaturally husky. Why did they have curtains? For privacy, sweetheart. I don’t want privacy. Yes, but the people in the other rooms might. Well, I want them opened.

Hospital staff came and went, asking questions, writing notes, talking directly to Rose in friendly and gentle tones. The nurse kept calling her “sister” as in “Sister! I got a special sticker for you.” That got Rose’s attention. The sticker folded over her fingertip like a bandaid with a picture of three small balloons over the fingertip. Small metal leads came out of one side. The nurse plugged a wire into the leads and the sticker/bandaid began to glow red as numbers popped up on a display screen. There was no more crying after that. Rose thought that was THE COOLEST THING.

“Papa, my bandaid has a light! I want Snuggle to ask me about my sticker!”

I picked up Snuggle Bunny like a puppet.
(Squeaky puppet voice)”Rose! What’s that on your finger?”

(Unnaturally husky Rose voice) “Snuggle! That’s my new sticker. It glows red!”

I then pointed out to Rose the computer screen displaying her oxygen saturation (100, a very good number) and other vital stats. “Do you know what that number is Rose?”

“No, Papa.”

“It’s your pulse. It says your heart is beating 107 times a minute. Do you know what my pulse is, right now?”

“What is it, Papa?”

“About 107 times a minute.”

She also got a special bracelet with her name on it that she had them put on her ankle. Her voice was still rough, her lips swollen, and her throat scratchy when the doctor arrived, a thin woman about our age with glasses and long dark graying hair. She asked Rose permission to look in her throat. She needed to see her uvula and told us she might have to push the depressor up which would have a momentary gag reflex. Rose panicked a little at that, so they propped up the gurney and had me lie back on it and hold Rose in my lap. The doctor was very quick so that Rose didn’t have time to get worked up and then, oh joy of miracles, they brought her a neon red popsicle.

Rose leaned back and said in her cheerfulest outdoor voice, “Snuggle, I have a red popsicle! Do you want some?”

“Rose, let’s give Snuggle a pretend popsicle instead.”

“OK, Snuggle you get two blueberry popsicles. Here you go! Papa, have Snuggle ask me about my allergy.”

(Squeaky voice) “Rose, what happened to you?”

(Not so husky voice anymore) “Snuggle, I had an allergic reaction!”

“What were you allergic to?”

“Cashews!”

“God bless you. What were you allergic too?”

“(Giggle) Cashews!”

“Oh! God bless you! But what were you allergic too?”

She laughed, lay back against my chest, her right leg casually tossed over her left knee, bouncing up and down. She avidly licked her popsicle and said to Snuggle Bunny and the world in general, “Mmmmm! This is GREAT!”

I could hear the people in the “room” next store laughing hysterically. The hospital staff were fairly charmed as well.

We waited. There was nothing else to do. They needed to make sure her reaction subsided completely before we could be released. Otherwise she would needed adrenaline or other intervention. Her lips did begin to shrink and her voice got less scratchy, and she could swallow the popsicle.

I wish I could say that it was smooth from there. Dawn took a wiggly Samuel on a walking tour of the lobby and returned exhausted. I offered to switch with her and walked a few laps with Samuel returning just in time to watch Rose throw up all over the bed. I ran to get some help and returned to find three meals worth on the bed. Rose didn’t like throwing up (who does) but she felt better when we explained that her body was trying to get rid of the cashews. She was running out of steam and ready to go home.

It was almost 8:00 PM when we were released and, on the way home, we decided to order pizza. Why, Lord only knows, because even at the time I knew it wouldn’t be the easiest thing to digest. But it was late, we didn’t want to cook, and Rose really wanted it. I called information on the cell phone to get the number for our preferred pizza place, when suddenly Dawn slammed the brakes on the car. I look up to see a deer skittishly crossing the road in front of us. The car started to roll forward again but then braked just as violently for a second deer leaping out of the brush beside us, eyes reflecting the headlamp glare.

“Why did we stop? What’s happening?” A four-year-old cannot wait for information, cannot know when her parents need a little silence to scan for more moving obstacles. She kept repeating her questions and then I heard a buzzing noise coming from my hand. I was still holding the cell phone. A voice was saying “Hel-LO!” in an impatient tone of voice. My first thought was “Give me a break lady! We nearly hit a deer in our car, and that’s the fun part of my evening so far!” But I remained polite.

As soon as we got home, Rose threw up again, but we made it to the kitchen sink, staining it pink with the remains of the neon red popsicle. Rose felt better after that, but her interest in pizza waned pretty quickly. She went to bed soon after with only a glass of water. Afterwards, I left Dawn feeding Samuel and drove to pick up the pizza so she and I could eat.

When I returned I informed Dawn that there was at least one pizza cashier in this town who will now think twice before asking, “How’s your day going?”

Later Dawn went to check on Rose sleeping, and I had my first quiet moment to reflect on the evening. That’s when it suddenly dawned on me that we really might have lost Rose tonight. If Dawn hadn’t given her the Zirtec, we don’t know how bad the reaction could have gotten. Then, honest to God, Dawn came back and performed a truly scary feat of mind reading by repeating those very thoughts out loud almost word for word before slowly dissolving into tears.

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