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Top Five Percent

July 27, 2010

This is an unusually long post. I would have split it into 2 but you can’t split stories like this in two. I’ll attempt brevity next time around!

Everyone is in the top five percent of something — and there are so many ways to be superlative. Henry, for instance, is in the top five percent of babies who are like bats with pizza radar. I know this because  of how he lunges, open-mouthed, for the tip of a huge slice. Another superlative quality is how affectionate he is to all living things, and even inanimate stuff like blankets and balloons and shadows.

The flip side of this passion and sensitivity is that when he doesn’t like something, you’ll know. Oh, make no mistake, you will know.

We take a lot of car trips together. We mostly go to the swimming pool, and these are brief and popular trips, though sometimes we have an altercation getting into or out of the car. But this is normal, I hear, for the sub-two set.

In these instances, I realize that I do not yet know how to deal with small angry people. I sense that you just have to breathe and act like you are patient and pretend that they aren’t winning and try not to be ashamed of your own decisions.

Last week was tough in terms of tantrums, though. On Friday, when it was 125% humidity and I was trying to stuff Henry into his carseat to go to Connecticut, he protested in a shrill enough way to curdle the upholstery off of the seats. As if the upholstery isn’t having a hard enough time lately.

But music fixes many many things, and the trip was generally ok, though a patch of weather had us literally parked on the highway for upwards of an hour. It might have been this “strapped in but not moving” memory that triggered the following, though we will never know:

When I was taking him back from Connecticut, we had only just gotten onto the highway when he started getting antsy, and the ramp-up was unusually speedy. He was not whining, he was not whimpering. He was generating breathless, strangled-sounding screams. I pulled over to the side of the highway.

Fact: Pulling over on the highway sucks, and though I think about it more than you’d like to know about, I need to be in a genuine panic to do it. To lend this fact context, I did not even pull over on the highway two weeks ago when I realized that Henry had fully wriggled out of the top straps of his carseat, and that his torso was freewheeling all around. I was panicked then, but I waited for an exit.

However, I wasn’t in the best state of mind myself, having just come from visiting my sister in the nursing home. The strangled quality of this screaming noise really got to me. And earlier that day, I’d noticed a noise that sounded like a slight hitch every time he exhaled. And I’d been a little worried when I heard that breathing noise, but not worried enough to like, call 911 or anything.

Maybe there was a stray cracker behind his head, poking into his neck and making him uncomfortable. Hey! That would be something I could fix, and then we could enjoy the trip home, which would take 2.5 hours under the best of circumstances. So I pulled over onto the shoulder, and got into the back seat with him. I noted that the weird breathing hitch was still there, and that no crackers were poking into his neck, nor was anything else awry that I could see.

This is an abbreviated list of things that did not make him stop crying:

  • The presentation of cheddar bunnies
  • water
  • singing
  • maracas
  • the favorite monkey blanket

I had given it my best shot. I knew he didn’t need to be changed, since I’d just changed him before we left. I knew he was not hungry, since I’d just shared a peanut butter sandwich and a peach with him — plus he rejected the cheese bunnies. I also knew that he desperately needed a nap, so I would just have to get back into the driver’s seat and drive and perhaps the screaming would morph into sleeping.

I steeled myself and pulled the car back into traffic. Henry screamed on but he was so upset that soon, he started to have trouble screaming. I was watching him at least as much as  I was watching the highway, and  . . . wait. Was he getting splotchy? Was he sounding strangled because he actually couldn’t breathe? There had been a priest at the nursing home, and he was telling me about how humidity triggers his asthma. Was Henry having his first ever asthma attack from the oppressive humidity?

Or was Henry’s throat closing from the peanut-based snack that we’d cavalierly shared 20 minutes earlier? He has peanut butter all the time but so did a friend’s daughter who’d recently gone into anaphylactic shock.

And maybe the fact that he’d fallen over and skinned his forehead two days earlier was adding a neurological element to the toxic health cocktail I was brewing in my mind.

I stopped the car again, pulled as far over onto the right shoulder as possible, and got into the backseat. Henry did seem to be having real trouble catching his breath. I grabbed my phone to call my husband — but then: what if I was actually right? If there was a real and immediate problem, my husband was not the person to call. I’d have to fill him in later.

My policy on calling 911 goes something like this: If you think you might want to call, chances are good that you should. Henry’s pediatrician corroborates this by telling me every single time I call that the single best predictor of there being something wrong with a kid is the parent’s gut. My gut was actually feeling pretty wrenched. So I did it. I called 911.

The moment someone answered, I tried to think of what to say. My baby can’t breathe! Except — yes of course, he is breathing. But there is a hitching noise. Well, there was one before. Wait. Now that he’s out of the carseat, and I am on the phone with 911, he is . . . why yes! He is smiling! I called you because my baby is crying. That is what I did. I mean, smiling.

The dispatcher was very nice. She told me that if my son seemed to be having trouble breathing, that it was of the utmost importance that I get him checked out, regardless of the severity or the nonexistence of the problem. She dispatched an ambulance immediately and told me that she’d stay on the phone with me until someone arrived.

I was pointed westbound, but I saw a cruiser pull onto the eastbound road and turn on the magic lights. It passed us and turned around somewhere and was pulling up fast behind us.

The dispatcher told me that the police are trained as first responders and yes, it was likely that an officer would arrive first. One cruiser was pulling up behind us when I saw another one sparkling in the distance not far behind it. Henry at this point had a huge smile on his face, and was pretending to be conducting important business by phone. As he cheerfully jabbered into his palm, the dispatcher told me that she is a parent and that she was glad that I had called and that under no circumstances should I feel silly about my call, regardless of the outcome.  Okay, so, here are the police. But wait. Here comes an SUV. No sorry, I meant . . three SUVs with paramedics in them. And hey! Looky here! Two full-length fire trucks zoom up and completed the entourage. The entourage of seven emergency vehicles.

The associated lightstorm was . . . let’s just call it moving and memorable. In a wholly different context, would have been a perfect birthday present for Henry. Or in another wholly different context . . .

I was getting nervous, but not for the reason I had originally been nervous. It appeared that with three little numbers, I had summoned every single emergency professional in the county.

I handed Henry to a police officer since I was on the traffic side. Henry looked at the man in a somewhat stunned manner, but he was happy to be going to what looked like a really good party. When I was out of the car he handed Henry back to me, and led us up a steep and scruffy unmowed hill next to the highway.

Twelve or thirteen guys were pouring out of vehicles and putting on yellow safety vests. The hill filled with testosterone and other gallant hormones as they ambled over and up toward us.

I wasn’t quite sure who to address. Looking around, I tried to explain the hitched breathing and the hysteria and my concerns about peanut butter. Someone produced a stethoscope and Henry starting wailing again. But this was a noise I recognized: it was his “I’m at the dr and I don’t like it” call. A paramedic had somehow managed to hear Henry’s lungs through the roar of traffic and the roar of baby. He also tried to listen to his heart.

Listening to his heart was challenging because Henry was acting like the gentle touch of the stethoscope was a particularly hot poker. “Is this behavior normal?” I was asked. The crying? Yes. They pronounced his color normal. His lungs were clear. His throat was not closed. His heart rate was stellar. But would I like to go to the hospital to get him checked anyhow?

Wait. I have to decide this? The thirteen of you aren’t going to advise me? That is what gets me about being a parent. It is executive decision after executive decision after executive decision. It is like being the President of the United States of Henry. Many of the decisions don’t matter too much, though they can seem stressful in the moment. Should I let someone eat asparagus and nothing else for dinner?  Like 10 spears? Uh, ok, just this once. Should I let him whimper for 5 minutes at 3am before going in to see what is wrong?

The consequences from most of these decision on one day are not going to be too great. But this? I had no idea. Would I be a fool to go to the hospital? Was I negligent not to go? Had I already shown poor judgment?

These men were all kind, and were all trying to look me in the eye and see what I wanted to do. I was still worried about Henry, but couldn’t help but feel like I’d overreacted. I decided to call my husband, though I knew that from a different state, he would also defer to me on whether or not to go to the hospital.

I don’t like keeping random strangers waiting, especially twelve at a time who have extremely important jobs. Calling would require me to go down the hill to the car, find the phone, and explain to Matthew while this large team of men bursting with health just stood there waiting. They said it was fine. I should call.

A week before I’d kicked a wall in my house accidentally. We get really bad cell phone reception in the new apartment so as I’d answered the phone, I’d starting running towards a window so as not to drop the call. Except, I don’t quite know where all of the walls are yet. Consequently my right foot is still bluish and bruised, and eight days later the only footwear bearable to my toes was a pair of flip flops. Flip flops weren’t the best choice for this hill.

So, while beginning to make my way down this big hill with Henry in my arms, towards my car parked on the shoulder, I took a weird misstep. For the record, I was not going to fall, I just needed to put my foot down differently than I tried to the first time, and I would have been able to do that. Still, either nine or ten of the men lunged forward to save me. “Woman Cradling Perfectly Healthy Toddler Tumbles Down Hill and Into Westbound Traffic,” is the headline what they were probably trying to avoid. Thirteen first responders watch in awe.

So for my next attempt down the hill, one of them grabbed my hand.

Let’s talk about this hand. First, let me tell you that my husband has big, tan, strong hands. (Very manly, honey!) I noted them when I first met him and he told me that he’d been out chopping wood in Colorado for some fix-it project he was doing with his family. I was impressed.

However. The hand that reached out to grab me was in a different league. Like a baseball league. It was the size of a baseball mitt, in fact. I’m sorry sir, are you a bear?

And whereas this hand had a familiar texture, I couldn’t place it at first. Oh, wait, I know. This guy’s hand texture was like of the bottom of someone’s grizzled foot, someone who needs a pedicure, and fast. This hand made the hands of my friends and relatives, the editors, ones with office jobs, the intrepid reporters, the musicians, even the personal trainers, seem like silky lady hands. Sorry, guys, but at least you’re all in this ladylike hand thing together.

As I climbed down to the car, I looked back at the twelve bright-eyed big-pawed men with their stethoscopes and glowing vests, so willing to help. If, as it turns out, my child’s life did not need saving, they would at least see me down a hill with their firebeaten hands.

I decided to forgo a trip to the hospital and drive on. They’d convinced me very politely, while leaving all decisions up to me, that Henry seemed completely fine to them. I knew that we had a long trip ahead of us and that maybe Henry did and that maybe that was the problem. Saying goodbye, I joked. “Well, if he panics again, or if I do, I guess I can stop and call 911.”

I was rolling my eyes at myself, but the main talker in the group made me make eye contact with him with his special testoroney powers. He would not break gaze, so neither could I. “That is absolutely what you will do,” he said.

A few of them pulled into the right lane of highway traffic and stopped their vehicles so I would have plenty of time and space to get back onto the highway, so it wasn’t scary at all. Then they turned off their lights and drove off, waiting for the next call.

Superlative, indeed.


8 Comments leave one →
  1. April permalink
    July 27, 2010 3:32 pm

    Oh, this time you have me in tears. Poor panicked you and poor screaming Henry but omg I am grateful for those firefighter/EMT/first responder types every time I deal with them. Last week we couldn’t go to Barton Springs because the lifeguards were dragging the pool and there were fire trucks and ambulances and scuba divers with lights and big rubber rafts, and they were all looking for a little boy who turned out to be sitting under a tree the whole time. I can only hope that all our calls to 911 turn out like that one, and like yours. Hugs to you and kisses to Henry.

  2. Sue Walen permalink
    July 28, 2010 10:53 am

    My Brooklyn daughter forwarded this post to me, and after I stopped giggling, I just knew I wanted to be a fan and signed up. Looking forward to getting to know you (and Henry) better!
    Great writing!

  3. Julie Mueller permalink
    July 28, 2010 12:57 pm

    I have a thing for men with hands like that.

  4. Rachel permalink
    July 28, 2010 8:02 pm

    This might be my most favorite post ever. Laughed and cried a few times. The longer the better!

  5. Becca V. permalink
    July 28, 2010 9:07 pm

    Oh my god. I made the mistake of starting to read this while on a very serious conference call. I think it was when i snorted out loud that they figured out i wasn’t exactly paying 100% attention to what was going on.

  6. July 29, 2010 6:11 pm

    so glad to have this story in my mental files b/c i will feel much less scared if i ever have to pull to the side of the road and call 911 (a scenario i have definitely imagined before)!

  7. Karen permalink
    August 6, 2010 3:18 pm

    Sorry to pester you with responses today, but this was my busy week-back-at-work-after-vacation and it’s my week-end goof-off…

    I laughed, I cried, I remembered taking my daughter to Maimonides pediatric ER on Good Friday to be diagnosed with her peanut allergy. It IS like being President of the United States of your child.

    Anyway- I somehow figured out how to enlarge the photo of you & Henry and can see clearly how big-eyed sweet and adorable he is. I can just imagine him being affectionate to balloons and shadows- my daughter is too. And god help me I am STILL that way: the only reason I could throw away the beautiful small shells we found at the beach last week is that they’re a choking hazard. Even then I couldn’t *actually* do it until Mia put one in her mouth and bit off a delicate, wafer-thin, razor-sharp bite. There was some wailing and clenched jaw when I went to fish it out, but thankfully no blood or even bite marks.

    I still kept a pretty one with a hole in it- maybe I’ll make her a necklace so she can tell me how crazy I am when she’s about five….


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