A doctor, a medical doctor, and there I stood, powerless to help my daughter, two, turning three, flailing her arms, and then grabbing me, my daughter, perhaps, however inconceivably, about to die. A moment before, we were sitting, my wife and I, enjoying our evening meal, our two young children dashing toys about the table, impersonating cartoon characters, staging their usual theatrics as we considered aloud the day’s events. I never actually saw the grape, the wicked one among the others. I only saw my daughter rise from her chair, her head craned forwards as if she wanted to speak. I almost told her to sit down, almost wanted to laugh, she looked so funny, her face scrunched up, large. Then it was clear. She couldn’t breathe.
In such moments, for me at least, there’s an odd calm. I could count the ordinary strokes of my heart. I could hear my own cavernous respirations. I could account for my hands at the ends of my arms. I could feel my legs, a little weak, but obedient as I rose and lunged for her. My wife watched, patient, silent. I was, after all, the one who’d forked over eight years of his life to anatomy professors, interns, gruff surgeons, jamming my head with data for just such occasions. And in fact, the part of me that approximates silicon, artificial intelligence, as in binary code, this or that, yes or no, as in here are your instructions— had me spinning her like a little dancer, embracing her belly from behind. The Heimlich maneuver, a voice inside lectured as I expertly pulled back.
On video with actors and mannequins, this choice works every time, the offending bolus expelled with triumphant verve, the stranger saved. It’s always someone at the next table in a restaurant, someone who only matters in the philosophical sense, in the worthy service of human kindness, sputtering back to life. But with my daughter, fate refused to comply. Despite all training, I’d done it somehow wrong or pitted good technique against bad luck in that rare exception the rules ignore. Again nothing. Again nothing. Again nothing.
Then I was all hands. Then I was furiously alive, and turning her back around with willful arms. I was William Carlos Williams in his story of the recalcitrant little patient who refused the tongue depressor’s introduction. Except this was no patient, this was my daughter, and I was the one refusing to comply, the one whose anxious hands were going beyond contemplating the blind sweep the books frowned upon. It was I ignoring my reportorial inner voice, which insisted that this was too dangerous, that the literature reported fatalities, that the obstruction would only lodge more firmly, ball and valve, doom sealed.
Then I was acting, simply acting, begging with my sightless fingers, letting them do what only made sense and was wrong and was all there was. Then I was no longer at an impasse. Then I was groping and desperate, not thinking, though calm, still calm, always calm. My hand had become its own thought, its own hope, the fingers still confident, in control. Set loose, they took over, found the smooth round thing, the marble, the small stone, and pushed it aside, enough for a way in.
If I’d saved a stranger, I’m sure I would have enjoyed being recognized, singled out, at the very least thanked for my accomplishment. Yes, here I am, the great one, the brave one, the hero. But saving my daughter earned me no congratulations, no medal, no photo in the local section of the paper, only a bookmark in my life, a nagging reminder of how thin the veil is between is and isn’t. I wanted—still want—to erase the memory, extract the object from my own windpipe, the imaginary one through which I breathe thoughts, words. I still choke on the knowledge that my child can die, will die eventually, somehow. There’s no life which has ever been saved, only a chance to spend it less quickly, day by day.
That night I sat back down at the table after my daughter ceased her crying. My wife and I ate in silence. Our other daughter gabbled about the things which concern five year olds. How desperately I wanted to pretend nothing had happened, that the word almost would never return, that it would recede into hardly and not even close. But I’ve thought about that meal often. This is the way memory works. It has a mind of its own. Each time, I feel intruded upon, questioned. How could this have happened? How could the ordinary turn suddenly merciless, treacherous? Surely if I had failed, if…and I just can’t go there, though I know that under those circumstances memory would be far harsher. But even succeeding, I’m scarred. My daughter barely remembers, only that for a while we sliced all her grapes in half. She’s ten now, and if she’d let me, I’m sure I’d still be taking her bowl and performing my tiny surgeries. In our house, I’m no hero, only someone too stubborn to let go.