When your child’s life is threatened, it is not scenes from the past that flash through your mind or James Bond maneuvers that might save the day. Instead, it is questions that roll in, one after another, with the fluid speed of light. Do you throw a choking child over your knee and pound his back or do the Heimlich Maneuver? If you can’t dislodge whatever is choking him, do you call 9-1-1 or rush for the hospital? And, as a last resort, do you poke a hole through his windpipe with a ballpoint pen like you saw on some long ago episode of E.R.? These options tumbled around my brain while Adrian stood in the kitchen, his small hands at his side and his face turning a dingy, surprised red. I wish I could say that the option of him dying never occurred to me, but that thought stuck in my own throat like wet cement.
Ado has always been a.) mischievous b.) careless and c.) hungry. So I guess it isn’t surprising that he grabbed food off the kitchen counter and stuffed it into his little mouth when I wasn’t looking. Remember, this is a kid who sneaked onto a jumbo jet, evading all security, at the age of two and climbed a camellia tree two hours after undergoing hernia surgery. Adrian is a junior Energizer Bunny who can only be stopped by… well, a large piece of New York steak.
When I got to my son, no air was coming from his mouth. I turned him around, put my fist to his diaphragm and yanked backwards. The room filled with silence–still no air! Daddy and Griffin were somewhere far away, blissfully unaware and unable to help. In this lonely moment, the awareness that the outcome could swing either way sent panic jolting down my spine.
Adrian didn’t move, as if the lack of air had paralyzed more than his vocal cords. I yanked again, harder now, not worrying if I hurt him. A sob ripped from my own throat when I heard a tiny gurgle. Air! Movement! Hope! Please God, Please God, Please God, YANK! Another strangled sound came from his throat, but no projectile flew across the room. Time whooshed around me, running out fast–don’t panic, don’t panic, DO SOMETHING! I put my finger into Adrian’s mouth, searching for whatever was there, and in my head, some long ago CPR trainer yelled, WRONG MOVE! And then I touched something. I dug into it. I pulled. And out came a slimy, deadly, three inch long piece of meat.
Throughout our lives, moments come by which we define our worth as human beings. For me, these are the moments that I manage to do the impossible–and I’m not talking about saving my child from choking here, as every parent would have done their best. In this case, the impossible was keeping it together in the aftermath of terror. The impossible was acting as if the angles of my world, for thirty gritty seconds, had not become unbalanced to the point of collapse. The impossible was finding a smile to reassure my scared child. Time slowed down as I hugged Ado, led him to the couch, popped in a “Cars” DVD, and walked into the other room. Only then did I allow myself the luxury of the shaking and sobbing and thanking and praying that comes with a near miss.
Afterwards, I lay down on the couch and took my little boy into my arms, needing the reassurance of his warm body next to mine. I told him not to put things in his mouth unless he asked a grown up. I explained what choking is and said that if he ever felt like that again, he needed to find a grown-up—fast. And I reminded my son that it was important to be more careful—but not more fearful.
When I finished my lecture, Adrian looked at me with serious green eyes.
“I need to ask you something, Mommy,” he said. Here it comes, I thought– questions about death, fear, and the realization that no one is invincible.
“Go ahead, baby,” I said, ready to tackle these grown up topics as best I could. “Ask me anything.”
“Well,” he said, “you know in Scooby Doo, when Scooby says ‘Ruh-Roh’? Do you think he really means “Uh-oh?” I nodded and started to laugh, a bit envious of the elastic, uncluttered mind of a four-year-old.