Dick called when I was about to die.
I didn’t pick up because the phone was in another room and while I usually can hear it ringing I didn’t. My mind had closed down to that unique focus of an instant of surprise. The realization “This is it.” Followed by “what can I do specifically to survive?”
I’d been eating pieces of chicken. Actually gnawing on the white knuckle bones of a thigh. The meat had been torn off and placed in a small metal prep bowl that I’d filled with lettuce, red pepper, and carrots. It’s my typical morning meal.
But I had stopped to chew on the bone ends. A bit of cartilage and some skin stuck in my throat.
I noticed it on the swallow. It wasn’t budging. I could still breathe, my airway was still open. I also knew that piece of cartilage would shift and the flap of skin would seal the airway off. I needed to dislodge it.
The first swallow was involuntary and I recognized it immediately as a mistake.
I felt the cartilage and skin settle into a new resting point, not lodged, but layered and determined to stick.
I thought about Dick. He’d gone out on errands. In a split second I found myself wondering if he was OK because he had been gone so long. If I’d had the breath I would have laughed at myself, moments away from choking, worrying about him. I thought, he’ll come home and find me dead on the kitchen floor if I don’t do something.
I was at the sink; my glass was at hand. I took the smallest sip of water possible. I wasn’t thinking. It was the wrong thing to do. I could feel the cartilage and the flap of skin shift into a more embedded position.
Through the window in front of me I could see the neighbor, from the house behind us, coming out onto her deck. She was far too distant and too self-absorbed to see me standing at the kitchen window. Even if I waved and she saw me, she wouldn’t reach me in time. I wouldn’t be able to get to the sliding door to let her in.
I thought about standing very, very still, breathing shallowly for as long as it took Dick to return.
Dick is notorious for not returning when you hope or expect.
I knew I would not be able to remain calm for as long as it would take for him to return, 2 minutes or two hours. I wasn’t going to be able to stifle the need to swallow. I wasn’t sure I wouldn’t start to cough and clear my lungs of oxygen.
I was only sure of one thing. I’d either fix this or I wouldn’t. It was comforting.
I inhaled slowly and evenly, feeling the piece shift ever so slightly. I think the skin flap was drying off.
I filled my lungs as full as I could get them. It seemed to take an age. I tried to ignore the deep chest wheezing that was initiating a cough.
And when I thought I couldn’t fill my lungs any further I coughed as explosively as I could. (And if you’ve every been with me when I’ve been having a bout of bronchitis you know that is very explosively indeed.)
I felt a shift, but I didn’t gulp in more air and I didn’t dare swallow. The piece wasn’t out yet, and could easily be sucked down.
I knew I had a little bit of air left, that small bit of air you have at the bottom of your lungs when the nurse does the lung strength tests and tells you to keep on pushing, harder, just a little longer…
I gave one more small, but hard, cough and the cartilage was in my mouth. I could feel it on my tongue. Still not swallowing I reached in and pulled it out, the flap of skin coming along.
Then I breathed again, gulped. Took a sip of water. Felt that my throat felt fine, except a bit dry from the roughness of my cough.
“Well that’s done,” I said to myself, gripping the side of the kitchen sink for balance—I realized I was actually quite dizzy. But that’s been happening a lot lately. I think it’s the blood thinners.
I watched the neighbor move in her yard to feed her chickens.
I thought, “I hope Dick hasn’t had an accident. I’m not prepared to deal with that today.”
I finished putting my breakfast salad together in the bowl and sat at the counter to eat it.
I eat too fast. I always have. But I usually chew everything so completely. Lately I’ve been having trouble swallowing, especially pills and supplements. I told myself that going forward, no matter how hungry I was I would be extra careful.
But who knows?
After breakfast I went into my study to retrieve the phone and call Dick to check he hadn’t had an accident. The screen showed he’d called two times 20 minutes earlier—that’s when I realized Dick was calling me while I was dying.
My mind, focused on breath, hadn’t heard the ringing.
I find all this both humorous and comforting.
12.28.23—Postscript: I’m sorry if my ending wasn’t clear. I’m doing fine—since 2 seconds after pulling the offending piece out of my throat. It probably would have helped if I’d noted that I am really good in a deadline crunch. Always have been.
After I shared some of the concerned emails I received from blog readers with Dick, he quoted Chili Palmer, ““I was scared then, not now. How long you want me to be scared?” And I laughed, and Palmer is right you need to move forward.
But the reality was I wasn’t scared at all. At any point. I was hyper alert (which is saying something because I am always hyper-alert, so I must have been hyper-hyper-alert). Remaining calm allows us options. This comes with the realization that the options are not open ended so we need to act, before the deadlines.
About 30 years ago I cut off a good chunk of my thumb while preparing some layouts for a client. This never happened to me, because I was a professional. Sure I had trouble with sharp objects in “civilian” life, but not when I was in the studio. My first thought, as I grabbed paper towels and wadded them around the wound, was, “Great, not a drop of blood on the comps.” (“Comprehensive layouts,” was always shortened to comps.) I felt more pride than pain—but the pain was mounting.
I’d had first responder training (because I was training search dogs). I knew I had to wrap the thumb up quickly and not unwrap it. I actually then went out to the Bronco (one of those original truck-sized Broncos large enough to carry two large dog crates for the girls); got the tailgate down (no small feat with my wrapped hand being held elevated to stop the blood flow) and pulled out my first responder bag.
I returned to the house, carefully pulled all the outer dressings that were soaked with blood, leaving the first layer intact. I then wrapped the entire thing carefully with good pressure.
I write about these things, because it’s my life and I think these things teach us things about ourselves and give us moments to realign our reactions and retrain ourselves.
The day I cut a chunk out of my thumb I made one error—I called a friend after I was bandaged to talk to her. (Dick wasn’t home again.) As soon as I had explained what had happened she started yelling at me to call 911. I ended up calming her down and then I went upstairs to watch TV. It was a weird fantasy movie with Alun Armstrong, and since I can’t find it on his IMDb credits list I may have imagined the whole thing. That’s when I realized I was probably in shock.
So I added that possibility to the list of things I now check and assess, or assume will happen. And it worked because 15 years later I ended up slicing a bit off my index finger (again in the studio—the shift away from drawing board to digital has been hard on my hands in many ways) and I was able to wrap it more efficiently (with supplies from an in-house, not car, responder bag) and get to the hospital (Dick came home just as I was wrapping it up so I didn’t need to call 911; I would not have driven myself.)
We learn to understand our limits (not driving ourselves) and our capabilities. It’s important to be your own first responder. Even if that first response is to call 911. But remember, just because you can’t reach a phone, or 911 can’t get there in time, there are always things that you can do if you remain calm. That’s your super power. And you can grow it.
I can’t unpack everything in the piece I shared yesterday. For much of it you sort of have to know me personally, and since I enjoy writing amiable personal narrative that’s one of the reasons I write the blog—but your knowledge does depend on when you joined the “story.”
And regardless of when you joined me, a sense of humor is never totally explainable.
A couple days ago I sent a Far Side cartoon to a friend and she didn’t understand it. Try to explain Santa Ana, the Alamo, Davy Crockett, and childhood Christmas toy trends, in a logical way detailing the intersections and you arrive at something that is decidedly un-funny. (As it was even I found the cartoon “too soon” when it was first published, but that tells you much about my childhood fandom affiliations.)
The day will come when hyper-alert will not cut it. I’ll find myself in a situation I won’t be able to get out of, but what I will have is that calm. No one can take that away from you. It’s worth cultivating.
And I’ve always found holding on to my sense of humor has been the best way to nurture and build calm. I hope that for all of you in the coming years.
I hope you too find this choking incident both humorous and comforting, but additionally I hope you find your own calm.
One more thing: a friend sent me a link to an anti-choking device. Neither she nor I have used or tested it. I think it looks promising—the expulsion of air from the “pump” goes outside the device, not down the throat (where it would make things worse) so that’s clever. Sometimes the path to calm is being prepared with the right tools and if this helps you great.