One winter windy city weekend in 1984, my wife, Barbara, and I were nearly killed by a squirrel but were saved by two dogs – and my sister.
The weekend promised to be uneventful. Typical frigid February, Chicago-style, blustery wind, blistering wind chill, sub-zero deep-freeze temperatures, windows shuttered, furnace on, non-stop, and us keeping warm in our cozy (read: very small) Evanston starter home.
We planned to stay inside the entire weekend. I was working feverishly on my dissertation and Barbara was catching up on paperwork and house-cleaning.
Sometime on Friday, unbeknownst to us, a squirrel fell down the chimney and blocked the flue. During the day on Saturday, neither my wife nor I felt well, but we didn’t think much of it. By nightfall, we both felt achy, cold, and nauseous; still, we assumed nothing unusual; maybe a bout with the flu.
By Sunday morning, I was bedridden with what seemed like a killer migraine. Barbara did not feel much better but by walking our two dogs outside throughout the day, she was able to inhale fresh air.
Carbon monoxide is an odorless gas. When a chimney flue is blocked, the furnace’s emissions have nowhere to go but backward – into the house. Its toxic effects are imperceptible and insidious. When you finally realize something is wrong, you are too disoriented, too immobilized, and too weak to do anything. If you don’t have a chimney cap, get one – now!
If you don’t have a carbon monoxide detector, get one – now!
By Sunday afternoon, I was in and out of consciousness and Barbara was in and out of the bathroom. By Sunday night, I was nearly unconscious; Barbara was barely conscious, replenishing just enough oxygen from walking the dogs.
By Monday morning, I was comatose. Barbara managed to call our doctor who discerned immediately we were in trouble. He advised her to open the windows and get us both to the emergency room immediately. Too late.
Barbara made a desperate final call to my sister, Brenda. She unlocked the front door. There, by the door, she passed out.
Brenda rushed over, dragged Barbara out of the house, then me, and raced us to the hospital. In the emergency room, an intern administered a serial-sevens task to me, a commonly used mental status screening instrument. As an intern myself at the time and being very familiar with this test, I corrected the young doctor on presenting me with incorrect instructions.
But in my by now semi-stuporous state, I failed the actual task.
Another hour of carbon monoxide poisoning and I would have died. A few hours more and Barbara would have died.
My only recollection of the whole ordeal is of my heroic wife and I both lying in the emergency room, masks over our faces, being re-oxygenated. I recall looking at my wife grasping air.
I begged God to let her live and to take me – if one of us had to die.
In that instant between life and death, and forever-after, Barbara and I understood that love is more about loving than it is about being loved. Lifelong couples endure, survive, and ultimately thrive through life’s challenges, struggles, and even life-threatening crises. They do so by loving each other, and sometimes they do so with a little help from their friends and family.
And with a deep and abiding gratitude, we would not be here today but for our lasting love, and of course a squirrel, two dogs, and my life-saving sister.
Author Note: Dr. Glenn B. Gelman is a Clinical Psychologist and a Personal Mentor
© 2014 Northern Illinois Counseling Associates, P.C. (NICA), Personal Mentoring Services (PMS)
Dr. Larry B. Gelman, Dr. Glenn B. Gelman, All Rights Reserved.