Conor Cawley: My First Experience With Mortality

I was seven when I had my first experience with death. I agree, that seems a bit early. But even at that age, it’s hard to ignore your ultimate fate when it keeps getting stuck in your throat.

I was at the kitchen table. I was relatively supervised. “Relatively” meaning there was an adult in the house. There was not, however, an adult in the kitchen with me. Which meant I didn’t have backup when I started to cut up strawberries and swallow them whole. After all, there are no “Choking Hazard” warning on that particular box of strawberries… and I was seven.

I very clearly remember thinking I was pretty cool for being able to swallow a fourth of a strawberry without chewing it. My confidence swelled and the pieces kept getting bigger. A third of a strawberry. Half a strawberry. Three fourths of a strawberry. I felt like I was the king of the world. Which is a rough way to feel right before your first experience with mortality.

I decided that strawberries were a rookie move. If I wanted to make it to the big leagues of un-chewed fruit consumption, I was going to have step my game up. Strawberries, as you probably know, are fairly asymmetrical. They’re a little squishy and not perfectly rounded so even when they got stuck, I was always able to muscle them down. I needed more of a challenge.

Luckily, the grapes in the fruit bowl were calling my name. Unluckily, grapes are the exact size and shape of my esophagus. The second I tried to swallow one, my throat closed. Air tight. I couldn’t make a sound if my life depended on it. And, as I quickly realized, it did.

My short life started flashing before my eyes. Playing Pac-man on Super Nintendo until four in the morning with Johnny Ball. Kissing Noëlle Fischer in an assembly at Hubbard Woods Elementary School. Passing out in Ms. Mackenzie’s class after winning a “who can hold your breath longer” contest. I sincerely worried that my grape-related hubris would be my untimely undoing. At least, I would have if I knew what “hubris” was.

Then, my babysitter walked into the kitchen. I didn’t know the “hands across the neck” motion for choking but she knew something was wrong when she noticed I wasn’t talking. I did that a lot.

As the expert child care specialist she was, she immediately administered the Heimlich Maneuver. Which meant she had either taken classes to learn this complicated life-saving procedure, or she had recently watched Mrs. Doubtfire. There is a lot of choking on food in that movie.

After a few seconds, the grape came free. I wish I could say that it did so in a less cartoonish way than how it’s depicted in movies. Unfortunately, I cannot. The grape shot out of my mouth with all the force of a bullet and unceremoniously splattered on the window over the sink. I watched my first experience with mortality slowly slide down the drain.

My babysitter wasn’t mad at me. She was, however, the kind of freaked out that seems like you’re mad when it’s directed at a seven year old that just found out what death is. Her voice shook as she yelled, “What were you doing?!”

I could have said that I was a victim of my own confidence; that I was trying to go where no seven year old had gone before; that I was testing my limits and seeing how far the laws of biology would let this fruit-swallowing Icarus fly. But my immature and oxygen-deprived brain had neither the physical energy nor the psychological prowess to tell her anything but the truth:

“I thought I could swallow a grape.”

[Dear Readers: You wrote in and we listened! For the next two weeks, we will be featuring a variety of pieces on “firsts,” based on your suggestions. Want to participate? Just fill out this very short, nine-question survey and enjoy! ]

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