A Cautionary Tale for Christmas

A personal tale of the importance of carbon monoxide detectors.


Christmas is, Charles Dickens knew, a time for ghosts. Not the spooks of Halloween but the intimate ghosts of our own lives. Christmas is Christmas is Christmas, the crescendo of the year, a marker in time we return to again and again. I am haunted by one Ghost of Christmas Past in particular and it’s a story worth repeating.

It was Christmas Eve two years ago. I was determined to prepare a nice Christmas dinner. We usually visit relatives who have made it their tradition to serve vegetable lasagna, which is nice but leaves a hole in my heart where a decadent holiday meal ought to be. I arrived home from a run to the store to buy something basic I’d forgotten (I’ve been known to buy foie gras but no milk) to find our apartment door and windows open and our carbon monoxide detector going off. “Stupid alarm” I thought.

We changed the batteries and the alarm abated. If it went off again, our landlord would phone the Fire Department. “Ridiculous, stupid, bloody alarm” I thought and basted the turkey breast.

By 6:00 I was almost ready to serve the dinner of my dreams. I’d pulled out all the stops in decorating. There was an actual cloth tablecloth and a couple of silver candlesticks from the pre-Sponge Bob days; the wine was chilling; the desert was ready to go and then the ”ridiculous stupid bloody alarm” went off again. I rolled my eyes and opened a window. My husband opened the front door again and went to see our landlord.

“He’s calling the Fire Department” my husband told me. I rolled my eyes and suppressed a growl: stupid, bloody alarm! “Okay,” I said, sticking the turkey in to warm, “but we’re having dinner the minute they leave!”

Seconds later my eldest son came rushing to lead me to the front window to see the fire trucks. It seemed like an awful lot of fire trucks. They were BIG firetrucks. They seemed to take up the whole street, all flashing lights and men tromping around in big boots. The next thing I knew, several firemen in full gear with axes were standing in my hall. “Merry Christmas!.” The absurdity of the situation was oddly cheering. A timer went off in the kitchen and I went to check the sweet potatoes. “I’m going to take a reading in back”, the man with the axe told me. “No problem” I said over my shoulder.

I was contemplating whether I ought to cover the platter with the turkey to keep it from drying out when he stuck his head in the kitchen and asked me “Do you have somewhere you can go?” I laughed the hysterical laughter of a woman whose judgment has been seriously impaired by a lethal cocktail of holiday stress and carbon monoxide. My husband was talking to a fireman at the door. “They’re shutting the boiler and the gas off.”

I laughed.

“The readings are off the charts back there” the fireman in the kitchen told me. We can’t let you stay here with this much gas”.

I stopped laughing.

It turned out a chimney had collapsed in a storm and carbon monoxide had been seeping into our apartment for weeks. The levels of gas built up upstairs first but the people who lived there were away so no one noticed their alarm beeping. Our apartment was next. I confess I don’t remember exactly what the CO level was in the back of the apartment where we sleep but it was much, much higher than it should have been. It was deadly.

After the firemen cut off the boiler the level of gas began to fall. A frigid cross breeze cooled our apartment and swept away the odorless killer we’d been living with. The firemen stayed until the concentration of gas in the air had fallen to an acceptable level but warned us to keep the windows open for at least another half an hour. We had gas to cook with at least, but no heat or hot water.

We ate our holiday meal and washed up with water we’d heated in the kettle. The children went to bed with visions of sugar plums, leaving cookies and a mug of cocoa for Santa. I went to “google” carbon monoxide poisoning. The diagram showing how carbon monoxide binds to red blood cells starving them of oxygen looked vaguely like a Christmas ornament. The children would have succumbed first, then me, then my husband. It seemed unreal, so unreal that the full weight of it didn’t really kick in until a few days later.

When the ridiculous, stupid bloody, wonderful, life-saving alarm went off again this fall we did not ignore it. All it needed was a battery.

Nancy Ridiculous, Bloody Stupid McDermott