What’s your emergency?


Note: It’s TBT, so I’m sharing my first essay, written many moons ago, but the lesson holds true today — maybe more than ever.

It was a muggy July afternoon and all was peaceful on our quite Atlanta street. I had just gotten both boys down for a nap at the same time. An accomplishment so rare, I decided to treat myself to something completely self-indulgent: A shower. As I silently crept down the hall, giving the dogs my “bark and you die” look, I was struck by the distinct smell of something burning. An insidious smell — like rubber or wiring.

My mind flashed back to the terrifying scene of our neighbor’s house burning to the ground a couple years earlier. Then I remembered the electrical fire up the street. And the kitchen explosion behind us. My thoughts were raging out of control, just as I knew the fire soon would be. Frank was on an airplane coming home from Chicago, so it was all up to me. I darted from room to room, sniffing like a hound on the trail. The threatening smell was everywhere. Upstairs, downstairs, in the hallway, in the kitchen.

Then I heard the beautiful sound of a car coming up the driveway. Frank’s home early. We’re saved. I thought as I ran to greet him. Catapulting myself out the side door, I yelled, “Quick! Something’s burning.” He dropped his luggage on the driveway and dashed in with me on his heels. We flew from room to room like Peter Pan and his shadow.

“Grab the kids and get out of the house,” he shouted as he dialed 9-1-1 and ushered the dogs outside. I took the stairs in two strides and soon had both boys thrown over either shoulder like two sacks of bewildered potatoes. “Everything’s okay,” I said, trying to use my most reassuring mommy voice. As I inhaled the fresh air of safety, I realized we’d made it. At least we had each other. But wait, Frank was still in there.

Before we got to the sidewalk, the fire trucks rounded the corner, sirens blaring. “Wow,” Alex said barely able to contain his excitement. “Are they coming to my house?” There were three fire engines and an ambulance. The firefighters, dressed in their scary aardvark-looking suits, leapt from the giant red trucks and disappeared into the house.

Out of my peripheral vision I saw a group of neighbors congregating. “Not another one,” they had to be s. A few of them risked it and came down to check on us. “We think it’s electrical,” I said, trying to sound like I wasn’t about to have a complete breakdown, imagining every piece of priceless pre-k art reduced to ash.

“Let me take the boys to my house,” my friend Anne offered. “Sure. Great. Uh huh.” I said, just knowing the whole house could go poof at any second.

I stood on the sidewalk accompanied by a fireman who kept watch from behind the ladder truck’s enormous steering wheel. We waited in silence. And waited some more. No hoses were being connected to the hydrant. No flames. Not even a spark. What’s going on? I wondered. After a while, the ambulance left. Then after another while, one of the fire trucks moved on. Finally I asked the driver if I could go in. “Sure,” he said, nonchalantly.

Cautiously, I inched open the side door to prevent being overcome by smoke. All the firemen and Frank were standing in the kitchen looking stumped. “Are you sure you haven’t turned on any electrical appliances today?” One of the men asked me. “Nope, nothing but the coffee pot which I always unplug after using to prevent an electrical fire,” I said confidently, thinking one of them might give me a gold star for being such a whiz at fire safety. I was just about to impress them with my stop, drop and roll technique when one of the men leaned against the dishwasher that was nearing the end of its drying cycle.

He opened the door and pulled out the bottom rack. “I think I’ve found the problem,” he mused. He held up a baby bottle nipple that had taken a kamikaze leap from its basket onto the heating element, burning a hole right through it.

A couple seconds of silence passed, as Frank and I exchanged looks of relief clouded by humiliation. Then, as if on cue, all the firemen burst out laughing. “Oh man, just don’t tell the neighbors,” Frank said half seriously. The firemen were all good sports, reassuring us that we did the right thing. Better safe than sorry and all that. But they were still chuckling as they made their way back to the trucks.

The nipple is encased in a glass baby food jar in the kitchen hutch. Right there on the shelf, for all to see. It’s our reminder of the harrowing afternoon that wasn’t. And now, when one of us is on the verge of overreacting, the other simply poses the question, “do you think it could be a burned nipple?”

Interesting how that has helped us put out a lot of fires.

3 thoughts on “What’s your emergency?

  1. Anonymous

    Cathy, I think this is one story that Aunt Carolyn never heard 🙂 It’s a great one, however, had I known right after this happened, just think of the ribbing I could’ve given you and Frank.

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