Sunday, March 09, 2003

Weapons of Mass Detergent

It was one of those days where you don’t have a second to breathe.

First there was a crisis at work and everyone was blaming everyone else, especially me. Then as soon as I got home, I had to take Amir to the doctor. Just as we were leaving, I got three phone calls, two from overseas, each one more urgent than the next.

By the time I got home I was frazzled, distracted…and hungry. All I’d had to eat all day was a sandwich of left over challah smeared with peanut butter, and some Raisin Bran for breakfast.

Now lately, I’ve become a real picker. I pick up the leftovers off the kids’ plates, scoop a bit of pasta into a bowl, then a little more, and then just a little more (Brian’s Rule of Eating #101: it’s less fattening if you break it up). I have a nice little stash of garlic-fried breadsticks at work, which I pick at all day.

So when I got home, I did a quick scan of the kitchen. I spied something on a spoon. It was white and sprinkly. Looked like powdered sugar. Without thinking, I picked up the spoon and put it to my mouth.

The sickly sour tasted that quickly spread across my taste buds told me that this was definitely not sugar. I spit it out but the damage was done. A couple of granules slipped by my defenses and slid down my throat.

Poison, I thought. I’ve been poisoned.

I began to feel faint. My pulse raced. My life flashed before me. I think it was my life, but that’s the thing about flashes: they’re so quick you never really know.

I searched around trying to figure out what I’d taken. Maybe to search for an antidote. Should I pull the atropin out of the gas mask kit?

There under the sink was a big blue pail filled with what looked like the same powdery white stuff:

“Dishwasher salt,” it read. “Not for ingestion”

I called Jody on her cellphone. She was out at the supermarket.

“How could you leave dishwasher salt on a regular spoon!” I berated her. “You know I can’t tell the difference.” I’d been blamed too much today, and I needed to lash out, even if it was the last thing I ever did (I apologized later).

My throat was now aching and I imagined my stomach turning inside out, my nerves frying one by one This must be what it’s like if you come in contact with weapons of mass destruction. All it takes is a tiny amount. If it gets on your skin or in your lungs, death comes swiftly and painfully. My episode was surely just a preview to the coming war against Iraq.

I had to call someone. But who? That’s when I realized I’d never memorized the emergency number in Israel…it’s not 911. So what is it? 100, or 101 or 102 Fortunately, our clinic always has a 24-hour on-call doctor.

Dr. Neuman listened calmly and advised me to drink a glass of milk to coat my stomach. Of course milk doesn’t agree with me. So now in addition to my burning throat, I was also flatulent. I ate a little bread and drank a whole bunch of water.

I must have been making some pretty funny noises in the kitchen, because Merav popped her head in.

“What’s the matter?” she asked wearing her concerned look.

“I ate something I shouldn’t have.”

“Are you going to die?”

Do kids everywhere ask these kinds of questions? Or just kids in Israel where death has become so much a part of the landscape?

“You only die when you are old,” Aviv commented from the TV room. Bless his heart.

Now, with all my might and soul, I wanted and planned to say: “Don’t be silly, Merav. Of course I won’t die.” But what came out was: “Probably not.”

Merav grabbed on to me. In my moment of panic, I had failed at the most important job I had left: comforting the impressionable.

I wish I could say that this was the first time this had happened. But once before, Jody had broken a hole into a jug of laundry detergent. Rather than waste it, she poured it into a glass. It had a cool pink appearance, a little bit frothy, very tempting on a hot summer day. I began to drink.

You would think I’d learn.

Or that Jody would.

The phone rang. It was the doctor calling back. Uh-oh.

“The Poison Center says you must come in. I must check you,” he said in his South African twang. “They say the salt is very abrasive. It could burn a hole in your esophagus.”

I left the kids and raced to the clinic in my car. What was perhaps at first a borderline controlled panic now was becoming entirely unbridled. All the while there, I’m thinking – is this it? Will I make it? Did I say goodbye properly?

And: when did I get to be this much of a drama queen?

At the clinic, Dr. Neuman checked my heartbeat. A little fast. But understandable. Then my throat. A little raw. Also understandable. Dishwasher salt will do that. He calls Posion Control again.

“Uh huh. OK. Yes. Thank you.”

“So, what did they say?”

“The doctor there says that if you’ve been able to eat and drink without throwing up, you’re going to be fine. Why he couldn’t tell me that before you came in, I don’t know.”

But I wanted to give him a hug anyway. I would make it through to see another day. And I’d experienced a simulated chemical attack. Anything after that would be a walk in the park.

I called Jody from my car phone with the good news. “That’s definitely the last time I eat dishwasher salt!” I said half joking.

“Dishwasher salt?” she said. “It wasn’t dishwasher salt on the spoon. It was dishwasher soap. The only thing you ate was a little bit of soap!”

“Soap to you maybe,” I replied. “But as far as I’m concerned, that stuff qualifies as a true WMD.”

Weapons of Mass Detergent, that is.

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