My two-year-old daughter Maria and I had a scary moment last week.
It was a perfectly average Tuesday morning, although I don’t remember exactly how we spent the time. I do remember lunch. Maria wanted chicken nuggets, so I heated some up in the microwave, along with some peas, which these days is about the only vegetable I can sometimes cajole, plead, beg, threaten, browbeat, exhort and/or extort her into eating. As had become usual, I let her eat in the back room where she liked to watch Caillou. Statistically speaking, that was most likely what she watched; I honestly don’t remember now. She ate contentedly for fifteen minutes or so.
“Daddeeeeee, more chicken nuuuuuuuggets,” she called out from the back room. She hadn’t touched her peas on this particular day, so we bickered about that for a minute or so, and then I took her plate to the kitchen and served up two more chicken nuggets. I set her plate down on the coffee table in the back room, and went to the living room to check email or something equally irrelevant.
Five, maybe ten, minutes later, I heard a faint gurgling sound behind me. I figured it was Chubby, our dog, who sometimes makes sounds like that when she’s about to throw up. I spun around in the chair, ready to grab her by the collar and hustle her to the door, and instead saw Maria standing at the intersection of the kitchen and the living room. She had her hands up by her face. She made another gurgling sound. She was choking.
Oh God. I jumped out of the chair, and lifted her from the floor. I looked at her face. There was fear and confusion in her eyes. “Are you choking?” Aside from being a stupid question, it was kind of a cruel thing to ask, because it’s exactly the kind of question that someone who is choking is totally ill-equipped to answer. Maria managed a weak little nod. She cried, heavily muffled, as though she had a stack of pillows on her face. Okay, I thought, that’s a good sign. If she can cry, it means she’s getting air. I watched her cry for a moment. Then she tried to breathe in. The sound cut off, her body tensed in my hands, and her eyes filled with panic. Oh God. I spun Maria around, hugged her between my arms, brought my hands together to make one large fist in a kind of reverse golfer’s grip, and moved the fist until it was positioned below her little sternum. I pulled her into me, trying to force her to expel what was stuck in her throat. I pumped a couple of times, and then a couple more. Nothing was happening. This wasn’t working.
What was I doing wrong? Okay, okay, okay. Remember what you learned in your Red Cross class. You need to put the bent knuckles of your thumbs into that soft spot just below the center of the rib cage. I adjusted Maria so things lined up more directly. I pumped again, and again, each time a little harder. I didn’t want to hurt her, but…I pumped again, harder than I thought I should have to. A chunk of food popped from her mouth and splatted on the floor. I turned her around. She started to cry. Still quiet, distant, smothered. That wasn’t it. The Red Cross class Elizabeth and I had taken years ago showed us an alternate way to handle a choking infant. Maria was two, almost three years old. I couldn’t remember if it should be used on someone her size or age. Who cares? I flipped her upside down. I held her face-down on one of my arms, tilting her toward the floor, while striking her back with the heel of my hand. I struck her once, again, again. Again, again, again. Another burst of chewed-up food plopped onto the tile.
I turned her around to face me. I looked at her. She seemed okay for a moment, but then started turning blue, beginning around the mouth and spreading. Oh God. I thought of the phone. Do I call 911? If I call now, will they get here in time? Instead, I decided to try again. I reached my finger into her mouth, and pulled out another wad of food, reached back in, and hooked more. My God! I had only given her two nuggets. What did she have in there, the whole chicken? I couldn’t feel anything else with my finger, so I turned her around, and quickly readied for another run at the Heimlich. I leaned forward this time, so she was almost horizontal to the floor. It may not have been proper Heimlich protocol, but I was very scared, and getting desperate. Again I pulled my fists into her belly, hard. Harder. Harder. A huge glob of sloppy food flew like buckshot from her mouth and sprayed onto the floor. She gasped, emitted several raw-throated coughs, and started to cry. Loudly. Oh God, she’s okay. I looked at the wet piles of regurgitated chicken. That was two nuggets? I couldn’t believe how much was on the floor.
Immediate relief was swept almost instantly away by an uncorked rage. I turned her towards me, and brought her close to my face. “You stuffed both of those nuggets in your mouth! Don’t ever do that, Goddamn it!” I yelled into her face. I had never gotten so angry so fast. It surprised me. My anger was alive, and growing at the speed of light. Then I saw that I was scaring the hell out her all over again. It stopped me cold, and I pulled her into me as tightly as I could. She grabbed my neck with her hands. “It’s okay,” I said. My legs were shaking, and my heart was bouncing uncontrollably off the walls of my chest. “It’s okay,” I repeated, over and over.
I took her to the back room and we sat down on the couch. We sat there for at least twenty minutes, watching TV. I have no idea what was on; although, as I mentioned, the smart money was on Caillou. In my mind, I reeled back over what had just happened as though it were a scary ride in an amusement park. I saw us coming back out of the darkness of the house of horrors into the bright light of day; but I also saw a place inside where the tracks split off, the other set leading deeper into darkness before disappearing around the corner to an unknowable future. I’ve seen enough in my life to know where that track could have gone. I’ve had to ride on that track before. But not today, thank God. I kissed Maria’s head. Thank God for the close calls in life.
Maria gradually settled down, stopped coughing, stopped whimpering. We sat there quietly for a long time, melded together. Exhaustion hit both of us. My legs felt dull and heavy. She was ready for a nap. Walking through the kitchen, I looked at the floor. It was clean. I looked at Chubby. Great, I thought. I’ll probably hear her gurgling later. I laid Maria in her crib, and covered her to her neck with blankets. She immediately rolled over onto her side, and closed her eyes.
I don’t remember everything I did while she slept. For a time, I terrified myself with freaky side-show thoughts about what could have happened, how the switch that would have put us on that dark track in the house of horrors could have been tripped. What if I had been in the bathroom? What if I had been at the other end of the house? Could she have made it down the hallway and found me? Would I have been able to hear her through the bathroom door? After that, maybe I fell asleep, or did mindless chores, or just stared at the TV. What I do remember is the thrill I felt when she woke up from her nap; the connection, the closeness, the warmth of her body in my arms. We laughed together while I changed her diaper and prepared her usual after-nap sippy cup of half water and half apple juice. There was a freshness in how I saw her, a bright newness, like the shininess of metal that always exists, and reemerges whenever the rust is brushed away, when the veneer of the everyday is stripped off to reveal the true magic upon which our lives are built. I savored the feeling as we got ready to go pick up Jessica from school.
I have a friend, someone I’ve known since just after high school, with whom I stay in touch on Facebook. Every day she writes lovingly about her three-year-old son. Her son has had serious medical issues since he was born. Scary, life-threatening stuff. Her words reveal the scars and the fatigue of a drawn-out, ongoing battle for her son’s life and health, not because she’s looking for sympathy or attention, but because she has always been brave enough to simply be who she is.
Going back to before her son was born, she spent years trying to have a baby. I’m sure I’m not even aware of all the trials and tribulations she went through as part of that process; I do know that the situation was difficult for a very long time. Now that she has a son, every day she posts a message about him, or an update, or relates an experience she had involving him, or something he did. The love and the passion she has for her boy is front and center in her life every single day. The joy, the pain, the hassles of being a mother, of having this precious gift to care for and nurture and raise to be a good and strong young man spools out of everything she does and says.
And the thing is, there’s a part of me that’s jealous of her because of that. That’s insane, right? She has had to struggle so mightily just to have a child, and then deal with all of the health concerns and medical problems, the doctors, the appointments, the hospitals, the specialists, the care, the questions, the not-knowing, the uncertainty. And here I am, with two perfectly healthy daughters that I can assume will be as healthy tomorrow as they are today, and were yesterday; two children that I can afford to take for granted. Yet she lives with that joy that I rediscovered only because my daughter began to choke. Isn’t it funny how it takes a crisis to remind us to remember what we value most, to force us to reevaluate our priorities? A life lived without adversity is a life in which everything is taken for granted. And somehow, this is what we strive for, what we say we want. But is it? That afternoon with Maria I felt more full of life, more intensely full of love than I have in a very long time. Call it the gift of the close call.
The kicker is, even in the moment, even as I was recognizing the gift I had been given, and even as I was wallowing in the happiness it brought me, I already knew it wasn’t going to last. I understood that it wouldn’t be long before the feeling would begin to fade, pulling away like a sign on the interstate, smaller and smaller until it would be lost on the horizon. Life is a highway, and we’re always on the road to somewhere. My focus would inevitably shift. I would become preoccupied once again with the details of everyday life. I would go back to being annoyed, and short-tempered, and complaining. I would wonder to myself, “How am I ever going to get anything done around here when she won’t leave me alone for five minutes.” The shiny will dull, and the rust will begin to accumulate all over again.
The beauty and the curse of the human mind is that it is infinitely adaptable to its circumstances, and mine is an exceptionally flexible model, even for a mind. That means mine will once again fill itself with the daily grind, the trivial pursuit of trivial objects, the tedious process of overcoming an endless array of obstacles to gain the time I crave to do the thing I most want to do – write. The veneer will be restored, the magic underneath obscured, layered over. Even she will become an obstacle. It will happen tomorrow, or the next day, or maybe even sooner. Who knows?
Yet something else followed those sobering thoughts. Even as I was certain that I wouldn’t be able to linger long in this place, I was just as certain that I would remember being there. My memory would tell me how much love I felt in those grateful, tender moments following our near-miss. It will be there to reassure me that as much as I think I take my daughters for granted, that my heart and soul can’t really be fooled into believing it. And maybe, if I’m lucky, it won’t take another choking to help me find my way back again.
Much as I hate to say it, last week’s incident didn’t have a dramatically huge impact on me and how I live my life. Maybe it should have. Maybe I’m just too dense to take the hint. But it has changed a few of the details, that much I can tell you. Maria’s not eating lunch at the coffee table in the back room anymore. She sits in her chair at lunchtime. That way I know where to find her while she eats. I don’t just drop whole chicken nuggets on her plate, either. They, and anything hard or solid, gets cut up into small, bite-sized pieces. Yes, I know this doesn’t prevent her from gathering up all the pieces and shoving them in her mouth at once, but that’s why she’s in her chair. And lastly, I maintain a direct line of sight with her while she eats her lunch. She sits in a spot where I can see her from either the back room or the living room, as well as the kitchen and dining rooms. And no more potty breaks during Maria’s lunchtime for Daddy.
The experience has left an impression on Maria, too. When
got home that evening, Maria insisted that I tell her about “the lunch,” as
Maria put it. Then she made me tell it again.
She seemed fascinated by hearing about it. When we went to Grandma’s house on Thursday, within
a few minutes of arriving she asked me to tell Grandma and Grandpa about “the
lunch.” When I described to them how she
started turning blue, it must have sparked something in her imagination. For the next several days, she would come up
to me randomly and ask, “Am I blue, Daddy?” Elizabeth
“No, you’re not blue. You’re perfectly fine.”
On Friday, she asked if she could have chicken nuggets for lunch. I hesitantly replied that she could. She responded, with a very serious expression on her little face: “Don’t worry, Daddy. I will only take small bites.”
Small bites, please. No more close calls for awhile, okay?
PS While reading this story, during the part where events were trending towards the tragic, you might have noticed that I made a few references to “Red Cross training.” That’s because Elizabeth and I took a Saturday course in CPR and First Aid several years back. Yes, it took a big chunk out of an otherwise perfectly good Saturday; however, the training we received that day happened to come in very handy last week. Now, I’m no evangelist, but I do believe in spreading the word about what is useful, and what works. It’s possible that I may have been able to successfully muddle my way through this little episode. Fortunately, I’ll never be able to know for sure.
By the way, this isn’t the first time I’ve applied the First Aid training I received from the Red Cross to help somebody. I was once helped a woman in a similar predicament at, of all places, Costco. She was at one of the sample tables, eating some cheese, or a cracker, or a tortilla chip, or something like that, and began to choke. She looked around for help and caught my eye. I applied the Heimlich as best I could. Now, she was a rather large woman, and I am a rather small man. It probably looked a little ridiculous, and perhaps slightly inappropriate. After trying several times, I wasn’t sure if the object in her throat was out, and some guy much bigger than I came over and stepped in. After making sure she was breathing again, Elizabeth, Jessica and I continued our shopping. Somewhere around the paper goods aisle, the woman found us and told me that I had been the one to dislodge whatever it was, and that she wanted to say thanks. While it felt good to know that what I did made a difference, the real thanks goes to the Red Cross for teaching me what to do. That’s three lives I can say were positively impacted by their work.
So I say to you now what Hamlet once said to Ophelia: Get thee to a Red Crossery!
Well, it was something like that.