I had 12 bags of groceries to unload from the car. Thanksgiving was two days away and we were hosting dinner for 22. As I carried the first bags into the house, I looked at the toys everywhere, the laundry to sort, the pile of mail and school papers on the kitchen table. I decided it would take every free hour from that moment until Thanksgiving just to get the house in presentable shape and the food cooked and ready.
Bag by bag, I brought the groceries in. Two-year-old Jamilet stood next to the car in the driveway and watched me walk through the garage and into the house making the trips.
“Pretzels,” she said, watching me grab a bag. “Yogurt. Bread. Lunchtime?”
I told her it would be lunchtime right after I brought in all the groceries, and went into the house. One more bag to go. I left her leaning casually against the car door.
“Time for lunch,” I said to Jamilet, when I came back to the car. I looked down at her. She was holding an empty bottle of prescription allergy pills, the cap in one hand, the bottle in the other. Where had she gotten that? I felt alarm rising within me.
“Where did you get that bottle?”
“Bottle in car.”
“Open your mouth.” I swept her mouth with my fingers. There were no pills in her mouth, but just inside her lip was a white powdery substance. I swallowed.
“Did you eat the pills?”
“Empty,” she said.
I wanted to believe her. I grabbed the bottle, carried her in and called Poison Control.
“How many did she eat?” the woman on the other end asked me.
“I’m not sure she ate any,” I said. “The bottle might have been empty. I’m not even sure why the bottle was in the car.”
“Is it possible she ate 10 pills?” the woman asked.
“It’s possible. I just don’t know. She was alone for about a minute.”
“For her weight, 10 pills is lethal. You need to take her to the nearest emergency room. I’ll call ahead so they know you’re coming.”
I looked at Jamilet.
“Did you eat these?” I asked, again.
“Empty,” she said.
Empty. I strapped her into her car seat. She was probably right, but ten pills were lethal and where had the powdery residue in her mouth come from?
At the emergency room, they took her temperature and pulse. All were normal, but it suddenly became obvious to me just how serious the situation could become. The nurse on duty said the toxic dose for Jamilet’s weight was really more like five pills than ten. I called Bill, and he left work and sped over. Jamilet stuck by her story as Bill, a doctor, then two nurses, came in to ask her if she ate some pills. The final nurse even tried to lead her into saying she ate the pills.
“This bottle is empty because you ate the pills up, isn’t it?” the nurse said, smiling. “Were they yummy?”
“Empty,” Jamilet said.
Still, as a precaution, the E.R. staff said she should be hooked up to an E.K.G. and be observed for six hours — the amount of time it could take the drugs to activate in her system.
As they put the stickers with wires all over my baby’s chest and back, the nurse said she would bring in some charcoal for Jamilet to drink. Just in case, she said. The charcoal would absorb the medicine. I blinked back my tears. I was so sorry I had left her alone. Sorry that Bill or I had been careless enough to leave an allergy bottle—even an empty one—in the car. Sorry that I was putting her through six hours of observation when she had trouble sitting still for a ten-minute book. And to be honest, I was a little sorry for myself, too. With no time to spare before Thanksgiving, I would be spending the next six hours in the E.R. with a child who was possibly not sick at all.
An hour went by, with Jamilet sitting quietly on my lap, unusually calm, hooked up to the E.K.G. She cooperatively drank the charcoal drink they gave her, flavored, the nurse said, with six tablespoons of chocolate sauce. After an hour and a half with no change, I was even more convinced she had not eaten any pills. She fell asleep on my chest, and I eased my way back into the bed, and pulled my feet up. For two hours, she slept — her usual naptime. Not wanting to wake her with the T.V., I simply lay in bed and listened to her breathing. She was warm against my body, and looked smaller than usual in her tiny hospital gown. Normally, during Jamilet’s nap, I rush to get a hundred things done—phone interviews for articles, writing, editing, cleaning. And now it was naptime and she was asleep on my chest in a hospital. Bill was grading 8th grade essays on a chair nearby.
As she slept, it occurred to me that she and I had never done this before. I had cradled newborn Jacob and Liam in my arms and held them in wonder as they slept in the hospital after they were born. Jamilet and I had never had that time. She came to us at age 13 months as a foster child, already a good napper and sleeper. There had never been a reason to hold her as she slept. But now there was.
As she slept, I rubbed her skin, that unbelievably soft baby skin. Trapped in an E.R. room, two days before Thanksgiving, I understood that this was my time to experience newborn Jamilet.
And so I did. I let go of all the things I had to do, and gave thanks for the emergency that was not. I marveled at my sleeping daughter. I fingered her curls, and gently touched her lips. I watched her heartbeat on the monitor as I felt it against my chest. I prayed for her — thanking God for the gift of her life. Thanking God that our afternoon at the hospital was all for nothing. For nothing at all.