I think it's pretty universal that for most parents, we live a sort of parallel existence.
The one where we spend our days with our kids and spouse, run errands, do homework, make dinner, handle our own professional responsibilities, and find a little time for the occasional glass of wine, manicure (ha), or date night. While we are busy, stressed and overly-extended, we manage to get it all done (or at least pretend to).
Running concurrently with this chaotic life, however, is a set of inner, nagging fears that many of us do not voice, for fear of jinxing ourselves and our families, and with the deeply-held belief that if we say certain words aloud, or think certain thoughts, we might somehow make terrible things happen. And then who could we blame?
I'm talking about the kinds of things parents bury deep down, like the nagging fear that our children could be harmed, become ill, go missing, be in the wrong place at the wrong time (i.e., Sandy Hook elementary school just five months ago). We all think about these things, and then as soon as we can knock wood or whatever other superstition we use to ward away such thoughts, do our best to ward them away. Until they return again.
For me, one of my greatest fears has always been the fear that my son (especially when it was just Morgan and me, before I remarried) might choke and that I, inept and freaking-out mother, would not be able to rise to the ocassion and save his life. This comes from a personal experience of mine back in 2004, when on a crisp autumn night in September, my (now ex-husband) and I closed on our new home as a married couple and decided to celebrate by ordering in Chinese food for dinner.
We were staying in his studio until we could get into our house later in the week, and were excitedly talking about being homeowners while we counted the days until we could move in. Not 10 minutes into our dinner, I started to choke on steamed white rice. I never really understood what choking felt like and had assumed you could cough or make some kind of noise and at least have half a chance of dislodging the damn food yourself. Nope, not this time.
I could not get air in, out or make any sound at all. My entire airway was trapped. I never felt so afraid in my life. My husband began the Heimlich Maneuver to dislodge what we later learned was a small spoonful of rice.
As these moments quickly became a real life episode of ER, I was fixated at the clock on top of his DVD player as his Heimlich efforts passed the one-minute mark. He called 911 and kept the operator updated as to what was happening as he continued to Heimlich me. I was 100 percent certain I was about to black out and die just a week shy of my 40th birthday.
We lived only a few minutes from the nearest hosptial, so I had hope that help would arrive if he was unsuccessful in clearing my airway. But, in the back of my mind, as I watched the clock turn from one minute to two, and then, to three minutes without air, all I could hear in my own head was my then husband telling me months earlier that if someone was chocking, a first-responder had about a four-minute window of restoring normal oxygen flow to the brain. After that, brain damage could occur. And, how did he come to know this information? He's a surgeon.
As the three-minute mark passed and I felt my knees start to give way and pure panic set in, he said to me between Heimlich thrusts, "I can open your throat in the kitchen if I have to." Not exactly the words you want to hear, even if your husband has an MD to his name. Not a second later, the rice and what felt like a gallon of water became disldoged and I gasped pure, beautiful air. I immediately broke down as the paramedics came through the door. They checked me over, took my vitals and declared me fit. They told me I was very lucky that my husband knew what to do. I agreed and then noticed that he was nowhere to be found. My eyes darted around the tiny apartment again. Nothing.
I walked out into the hallway and found him. He was sitting on the floor, his head in his hands, with his elbows resting on his knees. He was white as a ghost. I think he may have looked worse than I felt. At that moment, I understood the terror of the situation was as much his as it was mine. I will never forget the sight of him in that very moment.
This happened exactly nine years and five days ago. And, believe it or not, it turned out to be a life-saving night in more ways than one. Because I had choked on such a small amount of food, literally a few grains of rice, my husband insisted I see a specialist to examine my entire digestive tract. Turned out I had something called a Schatzki's Ring, which is bascially a narrowing at the lower end of the esophogus. Think of it as an hourglass-shaped stricture that would clog up instead of an unobstructed tube. This diagnosis and some follow up procedures, along with my husband's first-aid, literally saved my life as I likely would have choked again.
Fast forward to just six days ago.
I am remarried and my husband and I have three children. We just returned from a haunting and beautiful Yom Kippur service at our temple.
The kids are tired and want a snack before bed. As I prepare platters of pastries and breads for the following evening, when our family and friends will join us after yet another service to conclude Yom Kippur and officially "break the fast," I give the kids a few cookies and cups of milk. I'm pretending not to notice as they sneak back toward me and the platters I'm trying to arrange and swipe more cookies.
In fact, I play along and do a loud silly voice, some cross betwen Mary Poppins and Margaret Thatcher, and declare that there must be a pack of bandits or cookie thieves who are trying to steal my platters! I raise my voice, proclaim a manhunt underway for said thief and keep the gag going until the kids are laughing and running back and forth, swiping more cookies while I pretend not to notice.
I'm so good at not noticing, that I don't notice that Morgan is choking.
The next thing that happens is one big blur.
He is standing before me, enormous blue eyes, open wide. He is pointing to his throat. He is terrified.
I spin him around and begin to give him the Heimlich Maneuver. Every single cell in my body keeping pace with a, "Don't let him die, don't let him die" chant. I scream "Call 911!" as I hear my husband Rob coming down the stairs. Fearing that our older boy, Aidan, is having another seizure, he quickens his pace.
My brain is shoulting "IN AND UP! IN AND UP!" and I thrust my clasped hands above my son's belly button and into his thin, six-and-a-half-year-old body. On the second or third thrust, a splutter of wet cookies and milk fly out from his mouth. He continues to cough up some more. He collapses against me, scared of what just happened and I hold him close. I can feel the sweat pouring down my back (for once, it's not a hotflash). As warm as I am, my teeeth are chattering together and I cannot make it stop.
My husband takes over and I go upstairs to our bedroom where I literally fall on my knees. Not 30 minutes before, I had been at Temple, praying for our children to be safe, healthy, and watched over. Every parent's prayer when faced with birthday candles, a religious event, or more awful news about another child abduction. Or worse.
The thought that this has happened just moments after issuing these prayers leaves me utterly confused and shocked.
One of the greatest fears of my life had actually happened. I have no idea how I was able to do the Heimlich on my child successfully. I simply have no idea. I can only think that I wasn't alone and that someone, perhaps my beloved father, so greatly missed, was there with me to adminster those hefty thrusts. I simply do not know.
Sleep eluded me that night and tonight, just six days later, I am still in shock that my son was actually choking in front of me. He later told me that he had tried to get my attention for a few seconds but I hadn't noticed. With all the fun and silliness, I simply did not notice anything wrong. That he had the sense to get up in my face and let me know he was in trouble simultaneously astounds me and increases my feelings of guilt.
He said he was about to hit me to get my attention and I am so grateful he didn't because I can imagine myself saying "Don't you ever raise your hands to me" and ushering him into another room for a time out. Had that happened, how many precious minutes might have been lost in helping him? I can't even allow myself to think about the answer to that question.
You should learn how to do the Heimlich or refresh your memory if it has been awhile since you reviewed the techniques and guidelines. G-d willing, you'll never need any of it.