By Rachel Cavell
Exactly one week after I almost died from choking on a piece of steak, my daughter sent me a link to a dress she wanted to buy for her law school summer internship. “Lovely, but does it work for court?” I ventured, deeply flattered that she wanted my opinion at all, but aware that it might be outworn at a moment’s notice. It was then that I allowed myself a moment of cosmic flattery: “I am meant to still be here,” I mused. My son, coming up the weekend after I was released from the hospital, startled when I so casually asked him if he had ever gotten a bagel stuck in his chest after swallowing it. “No,” he stated flatly. And later, while walking to Sunflower Health Foods to pick up something for dinner, he joked: “Mom, do you think you’ve been a choke hazard your whole life? Are your bites just too big?” What I might have said is that a plate of food is like an invitation to disappointment — a riddle my philosopher father might have asked me when I was a child– “What vanishes the more you love it?” Answer: “Your dinner.”
It happened two weeks ago on a Monday night in mid-February. I had taken my husband’s place at an event hosted by the august President of Bard College. We had gathered at his house late, having walked across campus in the February snow after a reading by Greg Jackson, a talented young author and the year’s recipient of the Bard Fiction Prize. The reading had, in fact, been some kind of rumination on the perils of eating. As I recall it now, the protagonist believes his girlfriend may have just eaten some kind of obscure poisonous fruit during a hike in an undisclosed exotic location down a perilous, inactive volcano. We are provided the nascent symptoms of this mortal reaction, symptoms both horrifying and inexplicably amusing; this no doubt, due to the macabre skilfulness of the author’s writing and to the reader’s growing suspicion that the anticipated gruesome death of the girlfriend (her symptoms uncannily coming to mirror the Google description he has quickly undertaken while she showered) is one that he secretly desires. And since the symptoms seem to afflict only her and not him – we are told by him that they both ate the offending fruit — we begin to wonder whether we are not being spun into the web of a the protagonist’s ghoulish fantasy or worse — as we are left clinging to the precipice of the impossible cliff that we have become unwitting witnesses, accomplices perhaps, to an event that he had more than just a little agency in bringing about –.
As his story ends amidst the possibilities of this excruciating death to come or not, the assembled guests at President Botstein’s comfortable home had ample time in which to chew over the delicious possibilities. It was this that my table-mates and I were exploring when we were served dinner. “I love eating late because I’m so hungry”, remarked my beautiful French friend to my left. “I hate eating late because I’m so hungry”, American-me thought to myself as I looked at the steak when it arrived as a distinct thought formed in my head, like a cartoon bubble: It is very rare and it is very round. Inexplicably, I felt ill at ease upon seeing it, so delicious and so dangerous (what invites you and rejects you at the same time?…) But this wasn’t the first thing on my mind. What I was really thinking was that the room was very loud and that my lovely friend to my right (also French, as luck would have it), was saying something articulate and perspicacious about this short story — about all fiction perhaps? And that as I stared down at the steak and looked at its symmetrical dullness I wondered whether I had anything to say that would be as clever as my dinner companion’s. And I know I thought: “I can’t possibly muster up anything intelligible at this late hour, amidst the clinking of silverware and glasses, and the time being so late, and its being a cold February night and I’ll be driving home alone down Route 9 and snow will get in my boots on the way to the car.” The next five minutes unfolded like a series of images through a kaleidoscope, all of which feel still distinctly clear and completely unreal.
There is me, getting up from the table with my purse over my shoulder and heading to the bathroom and realizing that I am unable to breathe. There is me leaving the table and feeling ominously that I am unable to breathe when a friend at a corner table asks me if I need help and without my responding yells out: “Does anyone here know the Heimlich?” There is me feeling horrified and mortified as I leave the room and hear it grow quiet and a large man that I know comes forward and reaches around from behind me with a jolt, as I realize to my growing horror that I am still unable to breathe and that there is something deeply pre-ordained about this experience. There is me, in the living room and past the foyer where I have spent many holiday and faculty parties drinking white wine, now lying on a rug, Oriental surely, and aware that I must resemble a sea mammal washed up on the shore and pining for oxygen. There is me hearing President Botstein call for “911” and someone else with a pained comment “what is taking them so long.” There is me in a state of absolute mortification, in all its ungainliness, clumsiness, gaucheness and inelegance, feeling sad for my husband who was probably walking the dog on our block unaware that his life was skidding out of control just down the road. There is me feeling sorry for my kids, my daughter so happily engaged in her first year of law school and my son, just embarking on his professional life, and me thinking “who needs this?” This grief? This getting over it? This stopping of normal life? This moving on in spite of? This figuring out the details of a life stopped in mid-sentence? And as I lie on the floor struggling for breath and also gazing down on myself with curiosity at this grounded adolescent-sized dolphin on the dry shore of Leon Botstein’s living room, the medics storm in with a “who knows this woman” and a flurry of movement that heaves me into the ambulance to the local hospital’s emergency room where I had before only ever taken children at risk of having injured non-essential body parts — elbows, knees, thumbs and toes.
Somewhere along this drive, hearing the siren blaring over-head and looking at the young medic beside me, I realize that there is now a cool rush of oxygen forcing its way into my nose and mouth and a clearness of breath that I had forgotten could be, is mostly, so effortless. It was then that I coughed up the obstruction and with an equanimity that I never knew would proceed these words, said to myself “So, I’m going to live after all.”
It turned out that it was not quite as easy as that, as I spent the next three days in the hospital (2.5 of them in the i.c.u.) where I was pumped full of antibiotics and steroids; where my heart, lungs and blood were continually monitored; where a doctor I had never met before would occasionally walk in and pronounce that I had “almost died,” like it was something I should somehow be grateful to him for; and where a succession of nurses and techs commented on how “healthy” I was “for my age,” while clearly old enough for the x-ray tech to smirk to himself when he asked no one in particular if I was still ovulating. And then there was the hospital’s speech therapist, whose approval I needed before I was allowed to eat again at all. She came in, all shiny brown haired and well-groomed, and asked me if I had any questions in general about eating or chewing. I didn’t. She then insisted that I chew on a graham cracker and that she watch me while I chew and swallow. This all felt, in no particular order, extremely significant, extremely irrelevant, and extremely funny. But as I suppressed a giggle while she watched me chew I also felt suddenly self-conscious, aware of a fact I have thought of before but never dwelled on — that swallowing is one of those functions that is automatic as long as you don’t think about it; and I had a momentary panic that I would be unable to ever swallow solid food again and that maybe I harbored a secret, a latent defect that was only now being found out. Who hasn’t felt like they might at any moment be discovered as a secret invalid? A basket-case in disguise? The walking wounded? “What daily event reveals to the world the fraud you always suspected you were?” “Your dinner.”
After three days of sitting in my freezing hospital room (I became fast friends with one of the lab techs when I joked to her that I felt like an iceberg lettuce in cold storage), being bored to a level of existential proportions, and wondering whether I had terminally wounded myself and would never go home, I was pronounced healthy by a doctor and two nurses so lovely they might have flown in from chirping on the shoulders of Snow White, and my husband and I were sent home into the early Thursday evening darkness of late a February in Dutchess County.
Over the course of my short time at the hospital, I clung to a need to make sense of this event so entirely random, to hear the tune within the hum of the vibration. I reflected that of the reasons I went to Leon Botstein’s house for dinner that night, one was to have a brief moment with him (and I did) before dinner began, when I asked him if my father’s archives might find their place at Bard; I reflected that ten years ago my father had once headed to this very President’s house during the course of which he slipped on some wet October leaves and broke his hip, an injury which ushered in a long (unrelated) halting illness and decline from which he never recovered; I reflected that the last medical test I ended up having that Thursday night in the hospital, the one just after which I was pronounced healthy and sent home, is the very one that my father writes about having at the very beginning of the last book he wrote, his memoir; and it was this memoir that he had just completed that October night ten years ago that he drove with my step-mother to Leon Botstein’s house. Add here that a beloved cousin who has never once called me happened to leave a voice message on our home phone the very week I was in the hospital about a book she was helping to coordinate on our great-grandparents from Atlanta; and that her mother, the wife of my father’s first cousin, is the only person I have ever known personally who died many years ago choking while eating alone. As I write this, my eyes glance down to a journal entry I scribbled on January 8, 2019, my first entry of the new year. It said this: “I was thinking this morning that I have often rushed through things – reading, writing, eating – and that I would do well to slow down, particularly writing and eating. Weird yoking of things I realize…” is what I wrote.
Of all the images and memories that might have stayed with me during the weeks after, there is one that I have replayed over and again in my head, its memory becoming more, not less, distinct with time. When the steak was placed in front of me that night, I cut a bite that I knew at the time was too big. I knew it was too big and I was aware both that taking the bite might taste good and that it would also be so large that it would quite literally quiet any impulse on my part to say something silly, half-baked, or unsophisticated. And as I chewed this bite too big I also knew this: I knew that I should spit it out into my napkin, and that by spitting it out that way I would remind myself of my grandmother, my father’s mother, who so often did that with chicken when I visited her as a child, and how it had always slightly disgusted me, and I knew that by not spitting it out I had quite literally I put myself in a position where I both shut myself up and fed myself at the same time; and as I tried, and failed, to swallow this bite I got up from the dining room table with the sinking feeling that this now, this choking, was a feeling that was new, one whose sensations flooded my body for the first time. And I also knew that it wasn’t the bite, or the choking, or the steak, or anything as much as it was knowing all I knew all and that knowing it all I had acted anyway, and that I was now headed someplace for the first time, towards an experience just beyond that split second between tasting and swallowing, where gluttony and silence used to exist peacefully together.
The afternoon before the night I was discharged from the hospital, I was handed a brown paper bag from one of the nurses, enclosing stuff I had come in with, she told me. I was confused at first, because my husband had I thought carefully taken home all my belongings that first night, so he must have missed this. I opened the bag and laughed as I unraveled a long lacy thread of what had been a lace brassier, my nicest one surely, and one I had decided to wear to boost my confidence the night I ventured out alone to the reading and to the dinner afterwards at Leon Botstein’s house, remembering a comment from my mother so long ago that while others won’t know what you’re wearing underneath, you will. Somewhere amidst the chaos of that evening, in the emergency room, the ambulance perhaps, on a stretcher or in the bed, a medic or a nurse, I won’t know who and remember none of this, must have taken the time to find a pair of scissors and cut it off me, figuring the seconds saved by this act might be the seconds that made some critical difference. This colorful remnant now swirled in unbroken loops like the peel of a blood orange as I removed it from the brown paper bag and thought about all the little acts it takes to make a lifetime, and what in the end is worth bringing back home, or hanging on to.
About the Author:
Rachel Cavell is a Faculty Associate with the Bard College Institute for Thinking and Writing. She also teaches a course in Essay and Revision in the Bard College undergraduate program, and she teaches with the Bard College Prison Initiative program. Rachel is also a practicing attorney, representing children in neglect and custody cases in the Family Courts in Ulster County, New York. This is her second contribution to Adelaide.