Paternal Paranoia

When you are about to be a father, it’s hard to know the line between what’s paranoid foolishness and what’s responsible caution.  On Saturday night I had the opportunity to explore that mysterious border country. 

My wife and I love to play board games with friends, and we returned home late Saturday evening from a game night.   As we got ready for bed, my wife detected an unusual odor in the bedroom.  After the usual jokes and jibes about where an unusual odor might come from, she started to get worried.  She thought the smell was like something sulfury or like rotten eggs.  My first inclination was that the smell was similar to the smell of burning dust when a furnace first starts working for the winter.

Google, of course, has the answer to everything – or so we’ve been lead to believe – and a quick consultation suggested that the most likely cause of the problem was a natural gas leak.  Our furnace, hot water heater, and stove are all natural gas-powered appliances.  If you have a look at that link, you’ll see it’s pretty serious.  A rotten egg odor is one of the most common signs of a gas leak.  And while the natural gas itself is explosively dangerous, an even more insidious danger of a gas leak is Carbon Monoxide poison.

You would think the obvious thing to do, then, is to call the gas company and report the leak, but there’s a slight wrinkle in this tale.  About six months ago, we had a similar “leak” in our kitchen.  We noticed the sulfury smell of gas around our stove, even though everything on it was off.  It was late in the evening at the time, and we called the gas company just in case.  They came out, confirmed the leak on our stove, and shut off the gas to our house.  Then we had to wait a few days for a contractor to come out and fix the stove.  In the intervening time, we were without hot water.  But that was during a warm time of the year, so this was only an inconvenience.  When the contractor came out, however, he found no leak to fix, he turned our gas back on, and we’ve been leak-free ever since.

This time, however, we’re in the middle of a particularly cold winter spell that has blanketed the entire eastern seaboard, from Florida to the North Pole in freezing temperatures.  With that memory of a gas-leak that wasn’t running through my mind, I faced a real dilemma: do we call the gas company, knowing that there’s a non-zero chance there’s no leak at all, but that they think there is, and shut off our gas?  Or do we stay cautious because the alternative – that there is a gas leak and we don’t call – is too dangerous to consider?  For a while, I started to feel paranoid.  It was particularly intense because, without gas, we’d have no heat, and it would quickly become unbearably cold in our house, while on the other hand, with a pregnant wife, I wanted to avoid anything that might possibly hurt either her or our unborn son.

We were about to go with a third option: set our alarms to wake us up in an hour, and if the smell had not dissipated by then, call the gas company.  But then I went back into the bedroom and found that the smell had intensified.  My brain switched over into over-protective, worried-father mode.  We called the gas company.  They instructed us to leave the house and wait outside – despite a temperature in the teens.  We bundled up, grabbed our dog,  and waited in the car.  For over an hour.

When the gas man finally did show up, it came as little surprise that, lo and behold, there was no gas leak.  In fact, the smell had largely disappeared over that hour spent outdoors.  The gas man also checked with his CO detector and found no carbon monoxide leaks.  He checked our furnace thoroughly.  Satisfied that we were in no mortal or immediate danger, the gas man left, and we went to bed, well past the witching hour.  Lacking anything even remotely resembling a full-night’s sleep, we ended up late to Church on Sunday.  But we asked around with a few friends there, and did some more Google research.  What else could that rotten-egg like, sulfur-smell be?  The answer: most likely Hydrogen Sulfide gas from a sewage leak. 

A little crawling around in the crawlspace beneath our 80-year-old house confirmed that the pipes around the sewage pump – located directly beneath our bedroom – were leaking, releasing a foul odor whenever we ran the water.  The likely culprit: sub-freezing temperatures causing the water in our sewage line to freeze up, leaving the sewage nowhere else to go but to backwash into our crawlspace if we flushed our showered.  Finally satisfied that we had identified the source of the problem, we called a plumber, who came out Monday to have a look and fix it.

Finding the problem gave me a real sense of mastery over the house – even if I lacked the tools and skills to fix it myself.  But the lead-up to that moment was my first real brush with what I suspect it will be like, constantly, to be a father: the fear of danger that might harm my family, concern at seeming like a paranoid parent over something that was probably nothing, and the anguish of not knowing the right decision to make for my family.  Over time, I expect I’ll learn to diagnose the dangers out there a little better, and I’ll gain a little experience and comfort with these things, but until I’ve learned what I’ll need to know as a father, I expect still other run-ins with the dark-side of “paternal paranoia”.