I was seven. I sat at the kitchen table with the relative supervision that came with early 90’s parenting. “Relative” meaning there was an adult in the house. There was not, however, an adult in the kitchen with me. This meant that I didn’t have the backup I required 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 remember thinking I was pretty cool for being able to swallow a fourth of a strawberry without chewing it. Whether my instinctual competitive nature was taking over or my need for vitamins and nutrients surpassed the importance of chewing, I knew I had to strive for more. 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 made the transition to “almost dying” that much more difficult.
I decided that strawberries were a rookie’s game. If I wanted to make it to the big leagues of unchewed fruit consumption, I was going to have step it 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. Pushing a trash can down a hill at a Fourth of July picnic with Johnny Ball. Kissing Noëlle Fischer in an assembly at Hubbard Woods Elementary School. Passing out in Ms. McKenzie’s class after winning a “who can hold your breath longer” contest. As the memories became more faint, I sincerely worried that my grape-related hubris would lead to my untimely demise. At least, I would have if I knew what “hubris” meant.
Then, my babysitter walked into the kitchen. I didn’t know the “hands across the neck” motion for choking so I was unable to effectively alert her of my worsening condition. Luckily, she knew something was wrong when she noticed I wasn’t talking, something I did quite a bit as a curious seven-year-old. 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. This grape shot out of my mouth with all the force of a bullet and unceremoniously splattered on the window over the sink and 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 high the laws of biology would allow a fruit-swallowing Icarus to 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.”