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Life's a gas 

It would have been a perfect day for my funeral. Although it was nearly winter, the ground still would have been soft and spongy—and easy to dig. The weather was unseasonably warm, so even my 85-year-old grandmother would have flown in from Indiana to attend. My friends and colleagues would not have left for the holidays, so they would have breezed by the funeral home yet still caught flights out of RDU to their Thanksgiving destinations. Shaking their heads as they plopped mashed potatoes on their plates, they would have told their families about how some people they knew went to sleep one night and never woke up.

That's how I imagine the day would have gone down, had we not installed the carbon monoxide detectors that saved our lives.

One day last week, I had gone home for lunch and turned on the heat to shoo the chill in the house. Within 10 minutes, I was assailed by two shrieking alarms, their red warning lights pulsing. I sped to the basement and, upon opening the door, immediately felt sick with an intense headache that would linger well into the evening. I flung open the upstairs windows, turned off the heat and checked on the cats. They seemed bewildered by the noise but were still breathing. I fled, leaving my half-eaten bowl of edamame on the kitchen counter.

The serviceman from the gas company later arrived, wielding a carbon monoxide monitor. The levels were "extreme," he said, and had they been any higher he would have evacuated the house. He told my husband that had we not installed carbon monoxide detectors—and heeded the alarms—we would not be alive. We were lucky, the serviceman said, after he turned off the gas. "Now go upstairs and blast every window fan you have. Immediately."

We learned that the chimney lining had crumbled and clotted, blocking the airway from the furnace to the outdoors. A colorless, odorless, deadly gas had accumulated in the basement, seeped through the vents into the house—and into our blood, our brains. We had been exposed to lower, yet increasing levels for several weeks since we had turned on the heat for the first time this season. Yet until the alarms sounded, we had no reason to suspect anything was seriously wrong. My husband occasionally had complained of a scratchy throat, which we now know can be a symptom of long-term low-level exposure. An incurable insomniac, I didn't feel sleepy, but I had developed headaches and dizziness, which I attributed to stress and a lack of rest. The cats slept, but no more than the usual 18 hours a day.

It would be overdramatic to say we cheated death, although we flirted with it. But I'm here. I've pinched myself and I'm sure of it. Turns out, the day that was perfect for my funeral was also a perfect day to be alive.

  • It would have been a perfect day for my funeral.

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