In the early years of parenthood you worry about things your offspring might mistake for food, put in their mouth and swallow. Especially when you're married to a doctor, everything morphs from "benign little knick-knack" to one despised item known as "the choking hazard".
That makes sense in the baby years. You shouldn't have to worry when they're six!
Here's a warning. This story involves the digestive system and things that come out of it. If you're reading this while eating, drinking or making love, perhaps put it down til later.
Our six-year-old daughter swallowed a coin. And our seemingly happy life changed utterly. I've no idea how or why. All I know is that it happened on my watch. Worse still, it happened on my lap.
We, among the Australian expats living in Beijing, were Skyping my nephew in Toowoomba. Perhaps I should blame him. Since daughter and I were facing the computer, he should have seen the whole thing, officer, and raised an alarm. But being 17, he was presumably also texting, and thus distracted. (The same youth was actually bitten by a brown snake once whilst walking and texting at the same time. True story. Made the papers.)
In any event, our chat was interrupted when my daughter spun around and said: "I've swallowed something I shouldn't!"
I thought of a piece of paper, some cardboard at worst. Parenthood is never that simple.
"A coin," she said. She really did.
I made sure she wasn't choking. At least it had gone down the right hole -- or slot I suppose -- if there is a right place for a coin to enter a child.
My next stage was incredulity. That this had happened was unfathomable, something you just can't accept, like watching a footballer miss an open goal, the ending of Thelma and Louise, or any Beijing intersection.
But it had happened. Despite our parenty warnings, she'd had the coin in her mouth, had moved suddenly, and down the hatch it went. This I had to relate to my wife, who of course came home from a bad day that very instant.
I was heartened that at least it was a Chinese one jiao coin. "It's tiny!" I said, adding with a hitherto unknown spirituality: "This too shall pass".
A one jiao coin, yesterday, when it was believed to be worth a little more than it is today.
But you don't get off that lightly when your wife's a doctor.
"What is it made of?" she began. "Zinc can corrode the stomach! How big is it? Anything over 20 millimetres is likely to get stuck."
My reply was swift.
"D'uuuh," I said.
This didn't cut it. I confessed my parenthood training hadn't broadened my knowledge of Chinese coins beyond the fact some had a funny hole in the middle.
I found a helpful coin collecting website. It said the one jiao coin was precisely 19 millimetres across. Better still, it was aluminium. (The zinc issue has been a known problem in America since 1982, when the US mint began making pennies with a 97.5 percent zinc content, just to corrode the stomachs of stupid children).
I emailed the website. They elaborated that one jiao coins had been made of nickel-plated steel since 2003. I was marveling at the amazing things you learn through your children when Dr Wife jolted me out of it.
"We'll have to go through her poop until we're sure the coin is out," she said.
This poo-check directive was really not what I wanted to hear. By contrast, our daughter thought it sounded hilarious. Likewise every parent who thought they'd left The Poo Years behind years long ago.
My wife went first, the next afternoon. Deep down I felt this was far too soon -- both for the coin to have passed, and for my wife to escape suspicion she quite liked this sort of thing.
Her method was to have our daughter poop into glad wrap laid over the toilet bowl, and then lovingly, tenderly, fondle it through the plastic. From my safe place in the backyard I soon saw there was only black smoke in the chimney.
When my turn came I used a plastic stick. I gritted my teeth, thought of England, and poked and prodded as if making soup. For her part, our infant culprit sat there chuckling maniacally. Still nothing.
A coin nears the end of its journey.
Many days and poos went by -- unrewarded. One day, whilst literally "knocking them back with a shitty stick", the thought occurred that the coin may have been passed at school, and that I was now just doing this for fun.
"No," she insisted. "It didn't feel like anything shiny came out." This seemed like a definite no, for another old saying holds that you can't polish a turd.
The anecdotes came out. One parent told Dr Wife their kid incubated a coin for TWELVE DAYS. Another's daughter had swallowed a British pound and, finding that went quite well, promptly threw down four more. (Parenting tip: The pound: Not a bad coin to swallow. Small and heavy, they pass quickly. Within only a couple of days this couple had that mythical 'perfect child' who poops out pounds).
I was heartened slightly by an American friend's tale of a bachelor party involving the drinking game in which a quarter is flipped into a beer. The loser, sculling his beer, also swallowed the quarter. He was a drunken adult male. A six-year-old should know better.
Finally, on Day 16, our daughter had her first ever X-ray. It was good news, though a little bittersweet. The coin had been passed. I'm not even going to ponder when.
This blog first appeared at www.thetigerfather.com