It’s OK, dad — I’m still here.
I choked on a piece of Brach’s watermelon candy when I was young. Twice.
The first time, I was running around outside our house, giddy at the prospect of sunshine after a long spell of rain. I didn’t trip. I didn’t fall. I wasn’t even running that fast. But the slippery lozenge somehow dug itself into the back of my throat and burrowed down my esophagus. I could breathe, so in reality I wasn’t actually choking. But the breath came in heavy, hoarse wheezes and I remember something instinctual clicked inside my brain: Don’t cough. Just swallow. And so I clenched my fists, squeezed my eyes tight and, impossibly, swallowed the penny-sized candy.
The second time pretty much happened the same way, except I was at a friend’s house — and I was more or less sure I was going to die on the spot, a little boy struck down by a piece of candy he knew was going to kill him but ate anyway. Of course, I couldn’t talk when the candy lodged itself in my throat, so the irony would have been lost if I didn’t repeat the process and swallow this piece as well.
I recovered after a few minutes and told my friend’s frantic mom not to worry. “I’ve done that before,” I told her.
“On the same kind of candy?”
I stared at her blankly for what must have been too long, because she seemed pretty angry when she put her hands on her hips and said, “And you didn’t learn anything?”
My brother Jeff died when I was 12. He hanged himself from a tree on the soft sloping banks of our neighborhood creek. He taught me how to ride a bike. He taught me how to catch crawdads. He taught me pretty much everything I imagine I’ll want to teach my daughter someday. He also taught me something I’m not sure anyone really wants to learn — especially at a young age when up to then loss meant misplaced toys.
Not long after Jeff’s death, I developed a code with my mom. At the time, it was just me, her and my other brother, Tom. I had heard her coughing exceptionally loud one day, and I jumped up from the couch — running headlong into the living room to see if she had found her way into my Brach’s candy bag. She waved me off, motioning with her hands and her lips, “I’m fine, I’m fine.” But I remember it scared me like few things ever had — the specter of something painfully familiar hanging in the air.
“Can you do me a favor?” I asked. “If you’re ever choking and you can’t talk or breathe, just bang real hard on the table or the couch or whatever, and I’ll come running.”
My mom promised she would, and I promised her I would do the same.
Dana and I started solid foods with Emmeline just like all our doctors and food books said: rice cereal at six months. It was Dana’s job to offer the first spoonful. I made sure Emme was never strapped into her high chair — only the tray itself held her in, just in case she needed to be yanked away, turned upside down and beaten on the back to unlodge a swollen morsel of porridge.
At the first bite, Emmeline gagged, her head rearing back and her mouth instinctively gasping for air. All at once, I reached for the phone to call 911 and removed the tray to pick her up — but then she did something remarkable. She chewed a bit, swallowed slowly and then moved on to the next bite. And the next. Dana and I soon offered peas. We tried to force green beens down her throat. Emmeline developed a taste for apples and blueberries mixed together in a purple medley of sweet and delicious. When she was hungry, she could devour just about anything set in front of her. Sweet potatoes. Squash. Bananas. Canteloupe.
I made sure each vegetable or fruit was not only mixed with the proper amount of fortifying cereal but also blended to such a consistency that she could have simply drunk the whole bowl as if from a bottle. She continued to grow somehow, and Dana soon insisted on cutting up small pieces of banana or fruit for her to play around with and, if she could, consume.
“She needs to practice picking them up and eating,” Dana said. I began leaving the room at feeding time, afraid of something I couldn’t put my finger on.
It’s not difficult to make your own baby food. Cut. Steam. Puree. Done. It’s just time-consuming and messy. Dana and I spent an evening not too long ago cooking batches of carrots and broccoli, blueberries and apples, pears and sweet potatoes. We put the food in ice cube trays and later moved the smooth, nutritious blocks into freezer bags. As time went on, the freezer bags slowly shrank, and we must have grown weary at the prospect of messing up the kitchen again because we suddenly decided that Emme was ready for more substantial fare.
“I bet she could have Cheerios,” Dana said. “All kids like Cheerios.”
“Oh I don’t know — making our own soft, pureed food isn’t so bad.”
Once a month my Tuesday playgroup invites a pediatrician to come and answer questions. Not lecture. Not test. Just simply be there in case any of the moms have any questions. Usually the questions involve sleep or food. All the other kids in the group had been consuming Cheerios for months — even the children Emme’s age. But I just wanted to make sure she was old enough to start.
“They’re not dangerous?” I asked the doctor, remembering a mother from an infant CPR class I took before Emme was born. The mother said her first child choked a multitude of times on Cheerios and she vowed never, ever to give them to her second child.
“Dangerous?” the doctor asked. “Sure, I guess so. A baby can choke on just about anything.”
I was relieved. Cheerios would just have to wait. Emme would have to grow a little older, a little wiser, a little more physically mature before she could have any solid foods that were, actually, solid.
“But,” the doctor continued. “That’s how baby’s learn. I think choking is good for them.”
I looked around the room, searching the faces of the other parents for clues that they, too, thought this doctor was a loon, a “Dr. Nick” disguised as a family practitioner. Instead, I saw only nods and Emme’s drool-happy peers munching on crackers and biscuits — things I had insisted she’s too young for. Emme was the only one her age without a cracker or some munchable goodie, and I began to wonder if it wasn’t her own skills holding her back but her dad’s fears. Would it be like this with everything?
On the way home from the playgroup yesterday, I stopped by our local Whole Foods and bought a box of organic Cheerios. They didn’t actually say “Cheerios” on the box. They had less sugar. More whole grain. More hippy fairy dust. I don’t know. They looked the same — a small, crusty doughnut of puffed grains and vitamins — but promised more nutrition. I figured if she choked, at least she’d have vitamins.
When we got home, I put Emme down for a nap as always — a bottle, a book and a warm hug as the warm afternoon sun poked around her window shade and painted her nursery in a zebra stripe of soft light and hard. I couldn’t bring myself to put her in the crib. I held her for a minute longer than usual, my nose lingering in her hair. “When you wake up, ” I whispered, “I’ve got something special for you.”
I didn’t strap her in the high chair with the buckles. I used the tray to hold her in place, just in case, I told myself. And then I shook free a handful of fake, organic Cheerios and placed them in front of her.
“Look,” I said, picking one up with my own hand and making a show of putting it in my mouth, “You can eat them.”
Emme’s fingers crawled over the Cheerios, searching her new play toys for the perfect, crispy doughnut. Eventually, and without much encouragement, her fingers found a small doughnut and lifted it toward her mouth. She gagged a little at the taste of cooked wheat and hard minerals, but I could see her drool soften the lozenge into an edible, swallowable paste. Her throat twitched. Her eyes widened, and then, impossibly, it was gone. She smiled a little, and I clapped, willing myself to create a new code, one that didn’t equate choking with loss but rather with learning. For her. And for me.
“You did such a great job!” I sang, reaching for another handful as Emme opened her mouth for more.
I try to find the best humor in the blogosphere each week and repost it here for your enjoyment, but as tends to happen, I get sidetracked by some extraordinary writing and emotion. So here’s to the funny — and the poignant.
Baby on Bored does it again — best writing, that is. You have to go buy her book now. But only after reading this.
Chicken and Cheese does it again as well — sue her, she’s human.
Chicky Chicky Baby brings back the funny — really, really funny.
How About Two? starts off all Star Warsy but gets pretty fucking good at the end. (Link trouble here — make sure you view the “Anakin Skywaker for Father of the Year?” Post on Oct.t 13, 2006.) A little old, but well worth it.