Sunday, April 24, 2011

Giant Green Gumdrops

Giant Green Gumdrops

Someone must have opened a window upstairs. A cool breeze tiptoed down as I rocked back and forth, back and forth; my eyes, fixated on the television. Our parents had projects going on, resulting in the unlocking of the TV. We were watching wonderful summer re-runs of “The Greatest American Hero”. Outside, one stalwart sprinkler held its course. Krrsh. Krrsh. Krrsh. Krrsh. Ratatatatatat. Krrsh. Krrsh. Krrsh. Opening up my delectable bag of giant gumdrops, I peered inside, inhaling the sugar that had fallen off from rumbling around. Dad had gone to a hardware store that morning for his project. I had a handful of change currently not doing me any good. A hardware store is as good a place as any to spend hard-earned nickels and dimes. Especially when they sell gumdrops.

It was the summer of 1986 and I was working hard on 13. My two little sisters had given up trying to get me to share my goodies and were content to watch a curly-haired thirty-something in tights jump around and fly, trying to save the world in his own quirky way. Back and forth, back and forth I rocked. Not going anywhere, but not really trying.

I heard my mom switch a load of laundry and the successive whir of the dryer kick on. I reached my fingers into my stash and pulled out a perfectly-shaped green gumdrop. It was a nice, appealing sort of green, sharing a shade with baby snow peas and spring leaves. Determined to suck the marrow out of each piece, I slowly stuck it in my mouth and willed myself not to bite it. I was going to dissolve each delightful sugar granule with my tongue. Back and forth I rocked, sucking patiently at the gelatinous glob, enjoying it in slow motion. Then, just as I achieved total smoothness, my giant green gumdrop turned and slipped down my throat, coned-side down, lodging perfectly in my esophagus.

Every nerve in my body spiraled into high alert. Clear, urgent alarms coursed through me. I silently tried to cough, but couldn’t make even the smallest movement to the gumdrop. Help! I jumped off the chair, amazed that my body could still function properly when everything was awry. I had learned about the Heimlich maneuver in school through a cheesy video. I knew the international sign of choking was to cross your hands, palms out, facing yourself, overlapping your thumbs and bringing it all up across your neck. I knew that, but did my little sisters? Hopefully. I vaulted myself in between them and the television and quickly made the international choking sign, the distress more than evident in my eyes.

Both my sisters started yelling at me. Viki asked if I was choking. When I fervently and desperately nodded, she bolted out of her chair and ran screaming and shouting upstairs to my parents. Emily’s reaction was slightly different. She yelled at me too, but she said, “Get out of the way, you’re blocking the TV!”

I actually moved out of her way, realizing quickly she was too young to understand what was really going on. My life was suddenly and blaringly too short to hold on to blame.

Everything became very defined, as if blocking the oxygen from my brain was like turning the lens and focusing my understanding into stark detail. I understood perfectly that I had about a minute to live as I knew it. I did not want to die. I did not think I was going to die. But, I knew something had to change to my existing circumstances or I was going to die. My memories quickly scanned through the images of the video. There was an overweight, bald man who was choking on a chicken bone in a restaurant. Too proud to get help, he went to the bathroom and subsequently died. A lady with feathered hair showed the correct position and instigation of the maneuver on a dummy. They showed her shove in slow motion over and over from various angles. A man, living alone, used the end cap of a stair rail to dislodge something caught in his throat. A disembodied deep voice warned against ever doing the Heimlich maneuver on yourself as you could become seriously injured. It was a means of last resort. Only to be done if desperate.

Was I desperate? Only a second or two had passed for all of those images to play in perfect lucidity. I could still move my arms, my feet, walk, think, hear, see, feel. Viki had ran upstairs to get my parents, but we lived in a rather large house. I had no idea where they were upstairs, or how long it would take them to get down to me. Should I run upstairs? Even though my muscles operated normally, I was too scared to go anywhere. Tears started to well up in my eyes. I let them fall, sweeping my gaze around the room to see anything I could fall on to displace the giant green gumdrop. Nothing. Instinctively, I fisted my right hand, with my thumb facing just above my belly button. I covered my right with my left hand, to give it direction and force. I couldn’t speak, or I would have prayed out loud. But, I knew I could pray in my head. I voiced one word. “Help.” Then, I thrust my left hand into my right fist in an inward and upward motion. Nothing.

I had to try again. The disembodied voice from the videos replayed something regarding possible broken ribs, and I hesitated. But I had to breathe. I could survive a broken rib. But I couldn’t survive not breathing. I felt like I should bend over and mimic throwing up at the same time as I shoved my fists into my stomach. So, I shouted up my one-word prayer and tried again, propelling my fists as hard as my underdeveloped arm muscles would allow.

As I shoved inwards and bent over, the giant green gumdrop shot out of me. It didn’t just come up in my mouth again, it catapulted several feet. The next thing I remember, I was lying on the ground not wanting to move, or do or think or feel anything but the flow of oxygen in and out of my mouth. I don’t know if I actually passed out for a few seconds or not. One moment I was attacking myself and the next, I was lying on my side, relishing every breath as my tears fell unimpeded.

The way I was facing, I could see the bottom half of the staircase. Often, we would stand on the third-from-the-bottom stair and jump all the way to the bottom. Then, as we got older, we’d move up to the fourth-from-the-bottom, and so on. The record was the fifth.

My mom is not a very fast person. She is methodical and does everything with meaning and purpose. She speaks clearly, pronouncing each syllable. She irons clothes meticulously and in smooth, unhurried motions. She kneads dough calmly, over and over, with no haste or pounding. When it is her turn to read scriptures or say the family prayer, we all inwardly groan, because she takes forever! She thinks deeply about each sentence she utters, giving it meaning. She pauses in between sentences in the scriptures instead of racing through the allotted verses like the rest of us. No, my mom is not what I would call fast.

My dad, however, has a competitive side to him. He played football all throughout high school and is still an avid tennis player. He is the parent you want in the three-legged races at the reunions. About two steps into the race, he just hugs you up to his side and races full speed ahead. You end up with rope burns at your calfs, but a first-place finish as balm.

So, when I saw my mother’s feet flying down the stairs first, I was astonished. Then, she broke all our stair records. From the sixth stair from the bottom, she jumped! Gracefully clearing all those steps, she vaulted herself around the corner and was kneeling at my side before I could figure out how my mom had moved that fast. Milliseconds later, my dad was hovering over me and they both were asking questions and prodding and lifting and listening as I breathed out a ragged response.

Lots of hugging, explaining and reenacting followed. By this time, Emily had joined in to see what all the fuss was about. Apparently we were finally more interesting than the show.

When I re-tell this family story, as I have often done, during late game nights over common bowls of Peanut M&M’s and Red Vines, and sometimes even gumdrops, I like to take it slow. Viki and I team-tell it, building and building the story until we get to the part about Emily’s innocent, but ridiculous declaration “Get out of the way, you’re blocking the TV”. We all laugh and laugh, wiping away the tears. Courteously, eyes turn to me for a quick one or two sentence recap. But, when I relive it in my mind, as I have often done, I savor different aspects of the story. I recognize the miracle that happened. I stagger at the overwhelming love I felt when I saw my steady, methodical mother leap down six stairs at once and rush to my side.

Someone passes me the bowl of gumdrops. We’ve moved on to another exciting episode of memories by now. I reach in for a gumdrop, avoiding the green ones, bring it to my mouth and promptly bite it in two.


Liz said...

Wow Jennie - this is incredible! I vaguely remember hearing about one of the "little girls" doing the Heimlich on themselves but didn't remember any details. I think I missed a lot of family news during my years in Houston. Thanks for sharing this. You are an amazing writer!

VikiViki said...

Nice Job will have a whole book of our childhood adventures soon! I always tell people that story of how my sister did the Heimlich on herself! I do remember running fast and being scared and still wondering how you got that out so quickly! Glad you are still here to tell it!

Diana Waite said...

okay, that WAS amazingly told. I agree I would have only been able to tell that in about a paragraph--this brought back some unhappy memories of a watermelon stuck in my throat and my brother pounding me to pieces....

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