Few moments stand out so clearly in my mind as the moment I saved the life of my best friend and most favourite poet, Cheryl Clarke. We used to live together in the good old days and were like two peas in a pod except she got up really early and I did not.
She'd get ready for work at what felt, to me, like dawn as I tried to rouse myself to enough coherence to say "Have a good day!" This was pre-Rachel Maddow, so as she ironed or ate a piece of fruit she'd watch the Today Show, turned down to low tones which means almost inaudible since the show is so low key anyway. It was a relaxing way to get out the door before her hour drive to her job at Rutgers University. Until one morning I awoke to the sound of gagging!
I thought: what could Hugh Downs have said that was so offensive? I hadn't watched the Today Show since Dave Garroway retired so what did I know?
I struggled to clear the sleep from my eyes and finally saw Cheryl waving her hands in what looked like a symbol for victory. I thought I was dreaming. Then I remembered a camping trip with a group of friends years before where we'd been trying to figure out (after too many glasses of wine since we were only rolling into our tents not down the road) if there was a universal symbol for choking. "V"? "Clutching your chest?" "Grabbing at your throat?"
I'd never done the Heimlich maneuver before and have fortunately not had to do it since. But I have paid attention. And the most important thing I remembered was that sometimes you have to do it more than once!
By the time I deciphered Cheryl's frantic gestures she may have been gagging for a minute, maybe more. I lept from our bed and grabbed her in my best approximation of what I'd seen in the pamphlets and jerked in with my clenched hands. Nothing happened.
I did it again, afraid because I now remembered something else...I could crack her rib. Nothing happened. Except her knees started to buckle. We were around the same height and weight but nothing is heavier than a person who's incapacitated. Partly their inability to maintain their own stability and partly your own panic - whatever - I was feeling less confident by the pound.
Her knees were giving way and my upper arm strength is only suitable for carrying a laptop, so I felt her life AND my life flashing before my eyes. Maybe it was sheer terror that I was watching the person dearest to me dying. Or maybe it was just that different angle as she slipped down toward the floor that helped. I did one more great clutch into her diaphragm and a piece of a wedge of an orange flew across the room and she gasped for air.
Tears filled our eyes and we held each other for a few minutes before she went on to work.
When we visit each other now, 20 years later, it sometimes comes up and we laugh at ourselves...not knowing that simply pointing at your throat would do!
I still feel a tingle of anxiety if I happen to encounter an ad for the Today Show and every poem Cheryl writes means the world to me.