A few days ago I was visiting New York for my brother’s birthday—a big one, but I’ll not reveal the exact number. The official celebration was at a wonderful restaurant in a private room, featuring one of those tasting menus where all the ordering is done for you, and all you have to do is sit back and eat each beautiful and tasty morsel as it’s brought in and placed in front of you.
I don’t even recall half of what we ate. But everything was delicate and wonderful and a lot of it was green, in honor of spring. Although I’m not a drinking person, the wine was so fabulous that even I could tell it was something special, and I drank about three tablespoon’s worth rather than my usual one.
Asparagus. Avocado. Hearts of palm. A small piece of salmon that was more meltingly delicious than any I’d ever eaten before. A pasta with tips of rhubarb (or buds of rhubarb? I have no idea which). And on and on in a succession of very light and succulent tiny dishes.
My grown nieces and nephew were there with significant others, as well as the woman who’s been my sister-in-law for over forty years. There were joke gifts and serious gifts, funny cards and touching cards. I had prepared my usual bit, which is to write a multi-verse poem for the occasion. I’d practiced my delivery and figured out the best way to recite the lines I thought might draw laughs, and my plan was to wait until the pause just before dessert and coffee to read it.
The last course prior to that was a supremely tender steak with some wonderful sauce and morels. Till then, all the courses had been very small. But this one seemed more daunting. I was mulling over whether I might not just take it home in the upscale equivalent of a doggie bag when I noticed a commotion to my left, where my sister-in-law sat at the foot of the table.
It wasn’t clear at first what was happening. But she appeared to be ill, perhaps nauseated. A slender woman, she ordinarily has a very small appetite and usually eats quite sparingly, and she had certainly not overeaten that evening, although she probably was the only one there who could have made that claim.
After just a few seconds it became apparent that she was not sick to her stomach; she was choking and could not breathe.
“Choking” is actually a misleading term, because our common conception of such things is that the person undergoing the process would be making a great many sputtering and strangling noises. But, like all true choking victims, my sister-in-law was quite silent—in fact, shockingly silent. Her son sprung to action and performed the Heimlich maneuver several times, but (and this is where the merely frightening turned to the terrifying) it did not work.
The only previous place I’d ever seen the Heimlich maneuver done was in the movies, where it seems to work perfectly. A few heaves, and out would pop a chunk of meat. But my usually-stoic sister-in-law remained disturbingly silent, and her eyes widened in fear as various people took turns working on her and then some of the staff came in and said they were calling 9/11.
My brother went white as a sheet. One of my nieces turned away, put her head in her hands and could not watch. The other started shaking and looked stricken. I wondered whether I was going to stand and observe my sister-in-law expire in front of the whole family.
And then the head chef began to do the Heimlich on her and I heard the blessed sound of stricken wheezing. It was slight but unmistakable; there was now some air exchange. After a few more Heimlich thrusts from the chef she was breathing well enough for him to stop, and then she managed a few words—the first of which were apologies for having caused such a fuss.
And just like that, the evening became a normal celebration again. Except it was not. For one thing, instead of eating more, we packed up most of the rest of the meal to take home. For another, everyone had become pretty emotional. We took turns giving my sister-in-law a hug.
She was relieved and embarrassed and exhausted. We—well, we were just relieved and exhausted. We invited the hero chef in for a glass of wine and chatted with him about his life—including the fact that he had once been a park ranger and had gotten first aid training in connection with that job. I finally read my poem, which was very anticlimactic but good for some comic relief.
And we went home thankful that we had not made the pages of the Times, but aware of how thin a line divides life from death and celebration from tragedy.