The Ring of Fire

Our son is fascinated by fire trucks. American fire trucks, that is. Fifty thousand pounds of flamboyant steel, rubber and metal, complete with disco lights, ear-popping horn, and shrieking siren, hurling through the streets in a deafening roar. Every time I take him to the neighborhood playground, we stop in front the local fire station so he can say hello to the beloved truck. The doors are almost always open, and on lucky days a fireman sees the toddler across the street pointing his finger in excitement, and rings the bell or flashes the lights. Our little boy is so enthralled by fire trucks he wears them on his favorite socks.

In comparison to their American cousins, French fire trucks appear anemic and timid. Even if you see past size and look, the oh-so-French ‘pinpon pinpon’ simply cannot rival the made-for-Hollywood ‘woo woo woo’. Yet, no matter how meek it may seem to an American ear, this sound was burned forever inside my cortex forty years ago. And it all started with a ring. The ear kind.

My mother loves her jewelry. Conveniently allergic to cheap metals, her skin only bears solid gold. Stylish on every photo, the French version of Elizabeth Taylor, in the seventies her voluminous hair evoked the cover of Vogue magazine, and she often wore her favorite earrings, gold and mother-of-pearl. Even when changing my diapers.

At age two, in the mood for MMA (milk and martial arts), I kicked my mother in the face and sent her left earring flying straight into my gaping mouth. She flipped me and patted my back vigorously, to no avail. My father came to the rescue, picked me up by the feet, lifted, and shook, hoping to evict the foreign object from my tiny throat. The stubborn piece of jewelry would not come out. Entered the firemen, who carried me inside their truck and zoomed to the nearest hospital, sirens blaring (‘pinpon pinpon’), checking my vitals as I coughed and choked, and rushed me to the x-ray room. To their surprise, when the doctors reviewed the images, they found… nothing at all.

Once back home and recovered from the commotion, my parents discovered the missing earring hiding underneath the changing table. Wet and gooey, its color was forever altered to a lighter shade of gold.

As for me, I grew up having frequent nightmares, always ending the exact same way: I was unable to breathe, desperately trying to fill my lungs. I heard the fire truck blasting ‘pinpon pinpon’, and saw the lights flashing behind my closed eyelids. Seized by a familiar terror, I knew death awaited if I did not catch a breath in the next few seconds. Time stretched to eternity as I suffocated, waiting for the nightmare to end, then doubting whether this was indeed a nightmare, until I woke up in a start, heart pumping, soaked in sweat, gasping for air.

Fortunately, the nightmares stopped when I reached my forties — one of many changes brought by parenthood. Now I don’t need nightmares to wake me up at night: that’s my children’s jobs.

One hot summer night, I was about to go to bed after a night feeding when I heard loud gurgling and splashing sounds coming from our son’s bedroom. I ran in to find the two-month-old infant lying in his bed amidst a pool of regurgitated milk. How so much liquid came out of such a tiny body remains a grand mystery. My wife came to the rescue and as we teamed up to change our baby’s clothes she noticed that he was not his usual self. Despite his young age, the little boy was very social and engaging, making eye contact and interacting with us as we changed his diaper, even in the middle of the night. The infant lying in our arms, expressionless, was barely a shadow of the baby we knew so well and loved so much. He seemed dazed, staring blankly, neither asleep nor awake, in a state we had never witnessed before. I dialed 9-1-1.

“He’s breathing and his eyes are open but he’s not his usual self. He’s kind of lethargic, not responsive”, I told the 9-1-1 operator. Within minutes, horns blaring and sirens flashing, the paramedics stopped in front of the house, followed shortly by two full-size fire trucks.

“Your baby’s vitals are totally normal” said the leading paramedic. She turned to the firemen that had just walked into the room and smiled: “It’s just an ALTE.” Facing us again, she explained: “It means ‘Apparent Life Threatening Event’. He’s totally fine. This is your first one, right?” We rookies nodded affirmatively, feeling reassured and a bit silly. As the physician on duty at the ER would later confirm, there was absolutely nothing wrong with our love child. He probably had a reflux, and since he was lying down, the liquid triggered a gagging reflex, so the baby simply ejected the entire content of his stomach. The effort was so intense for his little body that he temporarily went into a lethargic state while recovering from exhaustion. No big deal.

“Would you like to go to the ER to have him checked out, just for peace of mind?” Asked the paramedic. We nodded again. Mai accompanied our son inside the ambulance, and I followed with the car.

The paramedics did not flash the lights or honk the horn. I wonder if my little boy felt disappointed.