I drank gasoline when I was three.
First, I must absolve my mother and all other adults nearby of any responsibility. I moved very quickly from the time I was small, and had the ability to disappear instantaneously. In fact, when I was an infant I could crawl as fast as other children could run. This got me into a lot of trouble, as my reach has often exceeded my grasp, and my inquisitive intelligence has continually outstripped my wisdom and previous experience.
We were at my grandparent's house on a bright summer day. They lived on a quiet street in a small town in New Hampshire, and we were staying with them, in the first home I have ever known. My mother was in the kitchen, and I wandered out the front door to play in the yard, a safe place in a safe, sleepy town.
My grandmother raised flowers in a large, rectangular brick planter in front of the picture window that looked out onto the street, and I noticed that the rich earth was dry from the strong sunlight. I wanted to help, so I tried to turn on the spigot by the front door so I could water the planter with the hose. It was too hard for my tiny hands to turn. I noticed that the garage was open, so I went over to look inside. On the floor of the garage, among my grandfather's yard tools I found a large (to me) red rectangular metal can with a handle on top and a long, curving spout.
I shook the container, and discovered it was nearly full of what I assumed to be water. I must add here that I have suffered from hay fever from childhood, and was usually stuffed up all spring and summer, into the fall. I couldn't smell anything at all, even something so strong as the fuel in the can.
I tottered over to the planter, and carefully poured a small amount of water on the base of each plant, just like my grandmother had shown me to do, so each flower got a good drink. After I completed this task, the can was still at least half full. At that time they had a pool in the side yard. Unbeknownst to my mother and grandparents, I had already figured out the safety latch on the gate that closed off the deck surrounding the above-ground peanut shaped pool.
In summertime, the sun would make the boards of the deck very hot, so we would splash water on the deck to cool it down and keep the boards from eventually cracking. Having successfully negotiated the gate, I started watering the deck, carefully pouring liquid on each board.
Once this was done, I found myself very thirsty-and probably quite high from fumes-so I walked down the steps to the yard, latched the gate behind me, and tilted up the can to take a drink, my mouth latched on the metal spout.
This is the clearest memory of my life, the feel of the cool liquid against my lips, the anticipation of my thirst being quenched, the concentration and balance it took to raise the heavy can high enough to bring the liquid down my throat. My head was tilted almost straight up before the fluid started flowing, and it came in a torrent.
I drank deeply, so deeply. Then the pain came, in my mouth and down my throat it burned, in my belly it burned. I wrestled the weight of the can down, leaned forward, and screamed. it felt like fire as as I shrieked in agony, and I thought for a moment that flames flowed from my mouth and nose as the gasoline and fumes burned my tender mucous membranes on the way out.
I ran to my mother, in through the back porch, to the kitchen, sniveling and screaming, the can still clutched in my little fist. "It burns, it burns," I wept.
It had only been a few minutes I was out of her sight. She looked at me aghast, my face and torso stained with the spill, the can still tightly grasped in my hand, the miasma of fumes emanating from me like a dark aura; "What did you do? Did you drink that?"
"Yes!" I howled.
"How much did you drink?"
"I went gulp, gulp, gulp. I'm gonna die," I wept.
"I'm not going to let you die," she declared in a fierce, firm voice. In seconds she had poison control on the phone. I understand that my aunt and grandmother were on the scene, but all I remember was my mother. She wasn't going to let me die. No matter how much it hurt, no matter how sick and toxified I felt, she told me she wasn't going to let me die, and I believed her.
The nurse at poison control instructed her to give me milk and vegetable oil to protect my stomach, and to neutralize the gasoline until the ambulance could get me to the hospital and a stomach pump. She instructed my mother in no uncertain terms that I was not to vomit under any circumstances, lest there be permanent damage. I didn't want to drink anything else, but she got the mix down me.
By the time the ambulance arrived, the paid had faded, and she had cleaned me up and soothed my tears. We were sitting on the front steps, and every once in a while I would let out a tremendous belch that smelled like milk and gasoline.
* * * * *
Over the years this story had become an amusing anecdote to me, just another story to tell. Yet, it caused deeper trauma than I realized. I could not drink anything without tasting it first. I couldn't take a shot of liquor, a sip of juice, anything, without holding in my mouth for a second to verify what it was. I thought nothing of this habit.
When my traveling partner and I camped for an extended period of time in the Arizona Desert, he noticed that I was not drinking enough water. It was summer, and my low intake could be life threatening. Annoyed, he finally said "Tim, I don't know why you don't get it." He lifted a gallon jug of water to illustrate. "You have to go, 'gulp, gulp, gulp!" I reeled back in shock, sat down, and nearly wept. No, I wanted to scream. I can't. I can't go gulp, gulp, gulp. Of course, once I'd made the connection I was able to work through it.
I learned many things in the desert, and this was not the least of them.
Stay tuned for I Should Have Died #2: The Birds