Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
Trap Door


It's 6:30 on a Friday night, and Kirby and Ben have just finished their bath. Two naked rumps bounce past me on their way to the bedroom, where they will be prominently featured in the nightly naked booty dance--a joyful bonanza of waggling, shimmying, shrieking, and, of course, nakedness. If the naked booty dance came in an aerial spray it would eliminate world conflict.

I put two-and-a-half year-old Kirby in a diaper and leave him playing in his room upstairs while five-year-old Ben and I head downstairs for a quick glass of milk. When I go back upstairs, Kirby is no longer in his room, and he's not in the kids' bathroom or hallway either.
I hear him humming and find him in the small bathroom adjacent to my bedroom. How the hell did he get in there? He has somehow opened the "childproof" door, pulled a stool from his room all the way down the hallway and into my bathroom, climbed up, and found a very old bottle of over-the-counter extra-strength sleeping pills that I didn't know we had.

The pills have a child-proof lid, but either it wasn't on correctly or Kirby is a reincarnation of Houdini, because he is sitting on the floor holding a mostly empty bottle, surrounded by blue jelly-bean-looking sleeping pills.

In that moment, the universe pauses, and shifts, and the world of naked-butt dancing bath boys is gone, as though I have fallen through a trap-door into an entirely different reality.

I squat down in front of Kirby and he looks at me with his round, blue eyes. "Did you eat any of these things?"

"Yes," he says. Shit, shit shit. I tell him to open his mouth. I peer inside and don't see anything. I sniff his mouth and don't smell anything, but I am not reassured. Kirby is known for eating things that lie at many points along the edibility spectrum: for example, raw broccoli stalks, and buttered kiwi with the skin on. And he adores medicine of any kind. He's been known to fake a cough in an attempt to get a shot of cough syrup. Kirby is definitely the child of mine Most Likely to Eat Sleeping Pills. But just because he says he ate a pill doesn't mean he actually ate one; he tends to say random things that may or may not have any relationship to the truth.

I try again, hoping for a different answer, or some indication that "yes" didn't actually mean "yes."

"Did you eat one, Kirbles?"

"Yes," he says again.

"Did you eat two?"

"Yes." I don't know whether to believe him. He can definitely count to two, but I still don't know if he understands the question, or how tightly he's sticking to reality.

He can tell from my face that something's wrong, and he looks forlorn. Then he says helpfully, "They taste yucky." Damn. He knows what they taste like. But maybe if they tasted yucky it means he spat them out? I look around the floor again but I don't see any wet pills.

I think about what to do. There's no way for me to know if he licked one and spat it out, or if he ate one, or if he ate five. He was only up there for a few minutes, but with Kirby it's hard to know. That kid is a Hoover. Or should I say, he's a Kirby, since I recently found out that "Kirby" is a brand of vacuum cleaner, which seems like an unfortunate coincidence right now.

I grab his hand, drag him downstairs and call Poison Control. By now he is whimpering and looking scared. The Poison Control guy, Bob, is very calm, but he says that because Kirby is so little things could get bad, fast. He tells me that kids hardly ever actually eat sleeping pills because they taste awful. "But we have to err on the side of safety," he says. "You did the right thing by calling right away."

He explains that the sleeping pills have the same active ingredient as Children's Benadryl, the tasty sweetened syrup, which is easy to suck down in large quantities. So this is a well-known sort of overdose, a garden-variety overdose, the kind of overdose that happens all the time. Apparently Benadryl-swilling is practically a national pastime among the preschool set. I am reassured by this; it means that Poison Control will know exactly what to do.

Bob tells me to drive Kirby to the local Children's Hospital immediately, and says he'll call the hospital to let them know I'm coming. I feel almost preternaturally calm, but the buzzing noise in my ears isn't normal. I'm trying to figure out the logistics. Should I get the boys dressed before we go? I hesitate, my heart clattering in my chest.

"My boys are both naked," I tell Bob. "And I'm home alone."

He understands what I'm asking. "You have time to dress them. And drive very carefully, okay?"

I call Kennard and tell him we have a problem. Those are the words I use: "We have a problem." I tell him to meet me at the ER, and he says tersely, "What's the problem?"

"Kirby might have eaten some sleeping pills," I say and hang up to get the boys dressed.

I tell Ben we have to go see a doctor.


"Because Kirby might have eaten some sleeping pills." I seem to be saying that a lot.

"What happens if he did?" Ben asks.

Well, that's the $20,000 question, isn't it?

"He'll be fine, the doctors will take good care of him." And I really believe this. Mostly.

I get the boys in their car seats but I can't find Kirby's blankie. Kirby, who is really worried now, is muttering, "I want my blankie, I want my blankie," and I know exactly how upset he's going to be if I don't find it. It would be very, very bad to have him at the hospital with no blankie, so I spend three precious minutes searching for it, every second of which I am silently screaming that we need to leave RIGHT NOW. Just as I'm about to give up, I find it wedged underneath the sofa.

In the minivan, I direct Ben to keep an eye on Kirby and tell me if he looks like he's getting sleepy. It's about a 20-minute drive, and every couple of minutes Ben says excitedly, "I think he ate the pills! I think he ate the pills! He's getting sleepy!"

This is a little distracting. I look in the rearview mirror and say, "Well, he looks pretty good to me Sweetie, I don't think he looks sleepy." Still Ben insists, gleefully (and incorrectly) that his brother's eyes are closing. But at some point he seems to realize the implications of this, and he does an about-face.

He suddenly says, "I'm sure Kirby didn't eat the pills, Mama, he seems just fine." And then he is quiet for a while.

Meanwhile, Kirby sits in his car seat sucking on his beloved blankie, looking subdued and guilty-- but not sleepy. Yet. I'm determined to keep him awake. So I sing a college drinking song I learned as a kid (it's on our bedtime roster), and I try to sound cheerful.

"... and when the game is over we will buy a keg of booze, and we'll drink to California till we wobble in our shoes..." Ben seems to relax a little; I don't think he realizes that we're in the middle of a real-life nightmare.

Kennard is waiting for us outside the hospital, looking grim. Thanks to Bob they're ready for us. A nurse immediately brings us to a private room, takes the bottle of sleeping pills and leaves.

We learn that Kirby must drink liquid activated charcoal that will absorb and bind with any pill remnants so they won't get into his bloodstream. The stuff looks like... liquid charcoal. Or used motor oil. What kid would drink something like this? Then I remember who I'm dealing with: the Kid Most Likely to Eat Sleeping Pills is also, by extension, the Kid Most Likely to Drink Used Motor Oil.

Sure enough, Kirby is disturbingly eager to try it. But then he takes a couple of sips, grimaces, and says hopefully, "All done?"

The nurse says, "No sweetie, we need to drink a little more."

In fact, "we" need to drink A LOT more, and if "we" don't, "we" will get it injected through the nose via a tube--perhaps after "we" have been put in restraints.

The nurse says Kirby can go home if he drinks all of the charcoal, and this is great leverage because, dear God, he really, really wants to go home now. He keeps taking sips and saying with increasing sadness, "All done? Go home now?" and I keep telling him, "No, not quite done, just a little more..."

I feel like I'm in a nasty frathouse hazing ritual. Maybe now's the time for singing the college drinking song, but I want to cry instead. I want to tell him I'm sorry I let him get into this mess. I want to drink the sludge for him. But I can't--he has to do this himself.

And he does. He drinks the whole thing, and let me tell you I bet only one kid in a hundred would be willing to drink that much thick black goo.

The nurse says we have to wait two hours before we can go home, and Kirby sighs and snuggles up closer in my lap. His blankie has black stains on the corner where he's sucking it. Kennard takes Ben home to put him in bed, giving me a squeeze on the arm before he goes.

Fortunately, the private rooms in the ER have TV and we turn on SpongeBob. (I'm not sure it's wise to combine SpongeBob with possible sleeping pill ingestion since SpongeBob alone could put you in a coma.) After a while Kirby gets bored with watching TV and I sing to him, benign stuff like Wheels on the Bus and the ABC's. I don't want the nurses to question my parenting skills any more than they already are. Then we tickle each other for a while. Kirby is still behaving normally and we are, strangely, having fun now; it's not often we get hours alone together with nothing on the to-do list and nowhere to go.

Over the sounds of our singing and giggling I can sometimes hear children crying beyond our door. Sometimes a toddler, sometimes a big kid, and, once, the high-pitched bleat of a newborn. We are not the only ones who have fallen through the trap door.

And then we are done, they are telling us to go home, I am carrying an exhausted Kirby back to the car. It's strange, but I am excited and happy, happier than I've been in weeks. I take this evening for what it is: a gift. It's a gift to be reminded of how much I have, and how easily I could lose it. I'm so very grateful that we can climb back up through the trap door and go home to sing our songs and dance the naked booty dance another day.

Jennifer Eyre White lives with her husband and three kids in the San Francisco Bay Area. From 2003-2005 she was a humor columnist for Literary Mama, and her essays have been featured in a variety of anthologies and magazines. You can find her online at HavingThreeKids, a site for those who have three, want three, or fear three.

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Jennifer, this is lovely! Having been on that "shit shit shit" end of the spectrum with Mara, who as a toddler picked up a mysterious orange pill on the playground, popped it in her mouth, and then bit me on the finger -- hard! -- when I tried to finger-sweep it out of her mouth, I alternately laughed and held my breath. Hurray for used motor oil and naked booty dances!
A terrific essay! I liked the details throughout--the "naked booty dance," the use of dialogue--it was easy to immerse myself in the scenes. We've all been there, the rush to the ER. Very evocative, funny, and true.
Thanks for your kind comments, Irena and Nancy. I'm glad you liked it and sorry to hear that you can relate :-) Here's to more naked booty dances and less activated charcoal.
Lovely, lovely written piece. I can see the dancing, and the horror you kept deep inside you while talking to Kirby. And drinking that sludge--kids are amazing. And do amazing things every day. Thanks for the wonderful reminder.
Having three kids of my own..I have been there where you where. Getting caught up in the everyday stresses of life often leaves us taking for granted our many blessings that come in the wildly chaotic, pleasantly crazy life of having three children. These reminders serve the simple purpose of reminding us just how quickly life can change.Cherish every day and moment in the shortlived world of childhood. One day when we are all empty nesters ,we will no doubt miss the chaotic lives we live today!!
Great article. We have also been on the wrong end of a nightmare ituation like that. Perhaps you could also help warn parents aboutt it. I had nicotene gum in my cupboard as I was trying to quit smoking. On the label it says "Keep away from children", but nothing out of the ordinary. Only once we had found my second oldest with the bag lying next to her, did we check the accompanying leaflet, which then spelt out that it was potentially LETHAL to small kids, even in small amounts. Hell, the packet didn't even say "POISON" on it in small words! Surely something that seems fairly innocuous (its gum that people put in their mouth everyday for goodness sake!) and has connotations of sweeties for small kids should be especially diligent in warning the parents of its potential consequences? "Keep away from children" just does not cut it - I had jokingly laughed about small kids getting hooked on the gum!
Thanks for your comments Bethany and ji! I just now saw them, many months later. And wow Mike, I had no idea about the nicotine gum! Scary! Definitely needs stronger wording on the label, I would never have thought you'd need to be so careful with that stuff. (Then again, I'm the one who managed to let my kid get into sleeping pills, so there's that.)
Loved this - so funny but at the same time thought-provoking.
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