Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Choking on the fragility of life

When Isla emerged from her swimming lesson at Crystal Beach, her lips were blue. Her skin was a carpet of goose bumps. She’d been in the water for an hour. The sky was overcast, absent of friendliness or warmth, a quilt of steel gray.

I wrapped her little, shivering body in a towel and sent her straight to the car. “Go on the grass,” I said. “Follow the lawn until you see our car. It will be nice and warm in there. Don’t go through the parking lot. I’ll be right behind you.”

It didn’t occur to me to say, “Don’t eat any candy!” because I didn’t know she had any candy.

I walked across the short, empty beach to where Esther and her friends were sitting on a blanket under a tree watching YouTube videos on an iPod Touch, the gateway drug for handheld gadget addiction. We hesitated a moment to admire a family of fuzzy baby ducks waddling across the grass.
“C’mon, Esther,” I said. “Isla’s already in the car.”

Esther jumped up, picked up her things and headed toward the parking lot. I followed her and, as socially-deprived parents tend to do, stopped to chat with several other moms along the way. When I got to the car I opened the back door and put my bags into the back. I rummaged around to find something the kids could snack on while we drove home, so they wouldn’t beg to stop at Dunkin Donuts like we did the day before.

Before I could do anything, Esther said, “Isla’s choking on something.”

“What do you mean, something?” I said.

“I don’t know. She’s choking,” she said, a recognizable edge of panic in her voice.

I went around and opened Isla’s door. She was in her booster seat, struggling to breathe. She coughed, once, twice, but then I only heard gurgling.

“What is she eating? What on earth is she eating?” I yelled, unbuckling her seatbelt and lifting her outside. I pried open her hands and found three soggy Dots candies.

“Where did she get these?” I shrieked as I pounded on her back and bent her over.

“I don’t know,” Esther yelled back.

There’s no way I can tell you everything that happened next. I suspected I should be doing the Heimlich, but wasn’t sure if Isla was too small. I got behind her and reached around, all the while looking around,wondering if it would be better to yell for help, or keep doing whatever pathetic thing I was doing.

I do remember the trajectory of my emotions, from fear, to anger, to disbelief to anger, to  fear to eventual panic once it occurred to me that if I didn’t do the right thing, Isla  could actually die, right then and there.

But she couldn't die right here, right now in this beach parking lot, wearing only her bathing suit, with her mother smacking her on the back. Could she? She wouldn't die like this. Would she?

There's a surreal quality to the moment when you realize that, yes, your child could die right in front of your eyes, right in front of all those people standing there watching you, some friends and some strangers, all with concerned looks on their faces, and cell phones poised, as you try to remember how to do the Heimlich maneuver.

Lucky for me, and for Isla, a friend, a young woman who looks after one of Esther’s friends when her mom is busy, a woman who works with  kids with development issues and special education needs , a woman who also works as a lifeguard, a woman who is so confident and comfortable in times of crisis, she later told me she has saved an untold amount of kids, and adults, from choking, appeared.

When she saw me pounding Isla on the back, she ran towards us and grabbed her from me. She did a few Heimlich moves. Then she also tried some back blows. Isla started to cough and coughed up a small piece of chewy candy. “Is there more in there,” Jen asked. Isla nodded yes. Her eyes were getting bloody and  a horrifying gurgling sound escaped from her throat.

Esther started to scream. Someone took her away. I remained strangely numb. Stoic. A woman standing nearby asked if she should call 911. My head reeled. “This can’t be happening. This can’t be happening. This isn’t happening.”

Isla started to gag and cough and spit up some more. Then she spoke. “Am I going to the hospital?” she said.

Then the gurgling noise again. Then another big gag and then, there on the blacktop, lying in a puddle of spit, was a completely intact yellow Dot candy. When it was over, 911 calls retracted, and  Isla could speak again, and Esther had calmed down, we sat in the open back of the car and hugged and laughed nervously.

“Where on earth did you get that candy?” I said, desperately grasping for something tangible. “I have never bought you Dots.”

“Daddy bought them for me yesterday," she said. "They were in the car.”

“Were you trying to eat them fast before anyone saw you eating them, by any chance, Isla?”


“Do you think choking on Dots is better than being scolded by mommy for eating candy at 11 in the morning?”


"Death to Dots!” I said out loud. “Death to fucking Dots!” I screamed on the inside. Death to the constant fear of death. Isla’s not a toddler. She’s seven years old for crying out loud. Seven. Who on earth would imagine a seven year old choking to death on a piece of candy. Will I never, ever be able to let my shoulders relax and feel sure my children won’t die or be maimed somehow, every day of their lives? It appears not. 
Motherhood is relentless.

Then we got in the car, backed out of the parking lot, pulled onto the highway and headed home as if nothing had happened. Nothing had changed. Life goes on.

Nobody spoke. That car was stone silent. I tried to focus on my driving, feeling suddenly vulnerable on that narrow road with nothing but a guardrail between our car and the short cliff that dropped down to the lake. I reached back and held Isla’s hand. It was cold. Then I reached for Esther’s hand.

That poor girl carries such a burden when it comes to her little sister’s suffering. 
My mind kept returning to that place, that moment when I was unsure that Isla would breathe again, when I felt the most complete absence of control over life and death, over anything. And the tears finally came. They came from someplace deep, hot and familiar. And their source seemed endless.

There was no sobbing, or urge to sob, accompanying those tears. Just hot liquid pouring forth through my eyes. Crying is so strange. It feels so animalistic, yet I know of no other animals besides humans who do it.

I cried the entire 20 miles back to our house, keeping my eyes fixed firmly to the road for fear if I turned my head even slightly, Isla and Esther would see me.

For some reason, I didn’t want them to know just what a wreck I would be without them.

This happened nearly a month ago. I only just now have managed to be able to put it into words. I've been feeling a bit floored by the fragility of motherhood. I'm also kind of obsessed with the thought that there is only so many accidents your child can have on a mother's watch before someone wonders what the heck is wrong with that child's mother. I know, I know. Balderdash. Right? 

(More than 12,300 kids per year visit Emergency rooms for choking on food. I posted about this over at BabyCenter as well. )

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Mom's almost never grouchy at the lake

We survived a week-long heat wave. We came to our senses one hot afternoon and moved into my family's tiny camp on the shore of a not-too-tiny mountain lake and stayed there, hiding out,  and didn't consider leaving until we felt a crispness in the air, cool enough to send our arms flying up and around our own bare shoulders in an attempt to hug ourselves warm.

Lake life suits me. Who wouldn't it suit? Life is pared down to the essentials at the lake. We get hot, we swim. We get hungry, we eat. We get sleepy, we nap. We get overwhelmed by the ceaselessness of the natural scenery, we read.

Most appealing is existing, feeling perfectly content and fulfilled, with one one hundredth of your belongings around you. Bathing suits, perhaps a favorite pillow or two, three to four selected items of clothing, a scarcely- used fridge containing only those food items you all chose together just hours before, a good book, a magazine.... what else.

What few drawers and closets exist in the lake camp are not stuffed with clutter that anyone would claim. Therefore no one feels the need to organize that clutter, to harness it lest it swallows us. We just let it all be, as it is, and as it has been for close to sixty years.

Aside from the occasional sweeping frenzy to pick up all the pine needles and dirt carried in on wet bare feet,  very little, if any, time is spent on housework at the lake. At a temporary shelter I am liberated from the persistent nagging, oppressive nature of my permanent home.

"Live in me, enjoy yourself, be happy, go outside and jump in the lake," the lake camp seems to say.

"Clean me, harness me, sew up these rips in my seams, take control of this place, maintain order lest you are exposed as someone who's, gasp, messy, and take a look at all the crap you've accumulated over a lifetime, all the stuff you claim you "need" to make it through your days on this earth," my home seems to scream.

There is no harnessing the lake house. The lake house harnesses us in the most underhanded of ways. 

Lake life suits my children. They move through their days at the lake needing no guidance. With the water calling them constantly, a beautiful, shimmering thing just outside the window, I don't need to tell them what to do. They are in that water, in one way or another, for hour upon hour.

Esther, with her new fancy swim goggles Ian bought her, and her subsequent newly-discovered love of deep-lake diving, is inseparable with the water. My heart comes into my throat each time my eyes scan the lake's surface and don't find her. Then, seeming lifetimes later, I catch a glimpse of eyes, nose and mouth popping up just long enough to take in a fresh supply of oxygen before disappearing under again and leaving only a vague footprint. Sometimes I see a foot, or half a leg, that breaks the the surface and gives her location away. Sometimes it's just her swirling footprint, remnant turbulence, as if a predator fish is chasing down its dinner.

I had no idea, until now, how at one she was in the water. And it makes sense to me, now, that she might just be of aquatic background, of fishy persuasion. As long as she has been able to talk, this girl has complained of the feeling of too much air coming into her nose. I've never been able to use heat in the car without getting an urgent request to turn it off because she "cannot breathe."

Anyone who knows her will attest that she often has a hand over her nose, especially while sleeping, as a make-shift filter for what her body perceives as suspiciously-dry and empty air.

Watching her in the water, hearing her talk about how natural it feels, as if she can almost breath under there, made me realize my daughter is indeed part fish. As she was in the womb, before her lungs took in their first gulp of air, her little respiratory system still longs to be. What she's missing is gills.

And Isla, whose swimming style instills me with fear, tries on her new-found swimming confidence eagerly each day. She knows when to ask for a noodle. She knows when she doesn't need one. She follows her big sister and the occasional friend around  from float to float, to Henry--the huge, moss-covered rock that sits on the bottom calling children to stand on him--and back with persistent, somewhat dog-like, motion.

And each night at the lake, in her sleep, Isla battles with her superhero self. She talks the night through, fretfully tossing, turning, sitting up, doing the crawl, rolling on her back and gasping for breath, re-living every pirate adventure she has with her sister or maybe cousin Rudy the day before. Fluctuating between aquatic species and land-dweller has never come easy to Isla. She swims, and splashes and thrashes  as if she is dreaming about swimming to a surface that never appears. A visceral child, she lives her life, re-lives it, through her sleeping body.

And my mother, she relives her childhood in the water. She spent an afternoon sitting on the lake bottom with Isla, who taught her, or refreshed her memory,  about the joys of letting out all your oxygen and sinking as deep as you can.  Again and again she held her nose and went under, only to pop up laughing moments later.

First Esther, then Isla, then even my 89-going-on-8-year-old mom would all disappear under the water's surface as if taunting me, all of humanity's lifeguard, for being such a nervous worrier.

It's cooler now. We're back home in the meadow. Back to the lawn that needs mowing and pile of mail that needs sorting and, "I don't have any clean underwear or shorts and I can't find my iPod charger" problems that need solving.

In some ways it's nice to be back to normal, to see my kids feeling listtless on the couch and experiencing "the boredom." In other ways, it makes me want to bust free again, and see just how long we could survive living on lake time before we started to crave the creature comforts and routine of home.