It was a typical cafeteria scene. My assistant and I sat in the midst of that crowded and noisy room with our students, a self-contained class of kids who’d been identified as behaviorally and emotionally disabled (called BED, back in the day). My daughter-to-be was in that class. We were racing our way through lunch, always ready to leave after exactly seven minutes. That was the time it took for my kids to finish picking at their food and start getting antsy. Most of them were on medication for hyperactivity, which wiped out their appetites.
Those were also the days when real food was prepared and served by talented cooks throughout our district. Even teachers enjoyed those lunches. But I did not select my favorite foods. I always chose something that could be scarfed down one minute before the kids were on their “count-down to lift off.” On that beautiful autumn day, where walls of windows opened to views of brilliant orange and red trees, I took a huge bite of hot dog. OK, I always take huge bites. This class was really my finishing school for a lifetime of dreadful table manners. But that chunk of hot dog did not slide down my throat. Instead, it lodged neatly in my throat like a cork in a wine bottle.
It took less than a second for me to realize I was in deep trouble. I could not breathe. I could not cough. And I was terribly invisible. My first thought was, “Don’t upset the kids.” They’d had enough school trauma in their short 6 or 7 years. But I didn’t need to worry about upsetting them because even the kids sitting next to me never once looked my way. How odd was that? My next thought was, “Get help. Without upsetting the kids.” I turned to my assistant, who now had her back to me, chatting with another adult. NO ONE saw me. The physical world seemed to change. Time slowed down to a crawl, noise disappeared. I looked around the cafeteria and observed how pleasant it was. Laughing faces, busy conversations. I was still amazed that no one could see I was dying.
Then another thought: “Relax.” My body was clenched like a fist. My throat hurt badly, like a jagged stone was lodged in it. I was desperate to breath. I was choking to death without a sound. “Relax. If I relax, my throat will loosen. Then the hot dog can slide away.” I relaxed. How did I relax? Why did I relax? I believe it was divine intervention. The hot dog slowly and painfully edged downward. I forced myself to sit still. The sounds of the cafeteria started to return. As the pain worsened, I bent over, clutching my raw chest. That hot dog felt like a brick as it moved, but I could breathe again! I tried to stay relaxed but I wanted to scream, “Look at me! I almost died!” My assistant was now facing me. I said softly, “I almost choked to death on that hot dog.” She looked at me skeptically. After the worst of the pain had subsided, before the kids lifted off, I lined them up and we headed for our class.
Did you know there’s a universal choking sign? Did you know that if no one is looking, that sign means nil, zero, nada, nought?