I thought I knew fear, but I didn’t. Not until last night when my daughter, Sienna, was choking.
The entire incident lasted 35 to 45 seconds, but it’s going to be with me for I don’t know how long. I’m trembling as I type this, so please forgive the spelling/grammatical errors.
My sister, her husband, my parents, my wife Elaine, Sienna and I had gone to brunch to celebrate my mom’s 65th birthday. We then headed back to the house for a bit. Sienna didn’t nap until a little after 3. She woke up around 6 screaming from hunger.
She was inconsolable, of course. I tried to give her Cheerios as Elaine got some real food ready, but she pushed the Cheerios away; she wanted something more substantial.
Elaine came in with a warmed-up plate of leftover pizza cut up into little pieces and Sienna grabbed for them, wolfing them down. Elaine then heated up some corn and Sienna went after that, too, as if she hadn’t eaten in weeks.
Suddenly she was choking.
No sounds. Really choking. Mouth wide open. Eyes closed. Tears forming. Hands to her neck and mouth.
I saw the pizza sticking in her throat. I tried to get it, but Sienna flailed. I yelled for help and Elaine came running.
She ripped the tray from the highchair, yanked Sienna out, fell to the floor with Sienna on her belly over her knee, and somehow got the pizza out.
Sienna cried as if she’d just been born.
I sat frozen throughout. Helpless. Elaine broke down and would break down periodically over the next few hours. I think I cried a little, but mostly I was in shock.
Sienna was fine once she stopped crying. It was like nothing had happened to her. She was right back to smiling and laughing and babbling.
My little girl was choking and it didn’t even occur to me to get her out of her highchair. I was too scared and stunned. I just yelled for help. I didn’t know what to do. I can’t shake this feeling that if we’d been alone, she might have died. I can’t stop blaming myself.
I told Elaine she was the hero and I was the paralyzed onlooker, but Elaine said she got lucky the pizza was still sticking out of her throat, and that she’d blanked on what to do. Her reaction was instinctual. She kept saying she was lucky. We were both very, very lucky. And then she’d break down again.
It was the most traumatic 35 to 45 seconds of my life. I almost lost my beautiful little girl. I’m OK, but I’m not OK. Sienna’s laughing and crawling or all over me, showing off her stuffed monkeys, but my impotent calls for help sear my mind. I see Elaine struggling on the floor with Sienna. I see the coughed-up piece of pizza on the floor. Sienna’s cries ring in my ears.
This was terror like nothing I’d ever experienced. As we lay silently in bed a few hours later, each of us reliving the experience, Elaine and I reassured each other as best as we could, but we both knew how close we came to losing our little girl. We were lucky. Elaine said we should take a child CPR class. I’m with her.
I don’t know when this feeling will go away. Sienna’s life already has returned to normal. I don’t know when mine will, when Elaine’s will. I don’t even know what normal is. For now, I’m just clutching my little girl extra tight.
A version of this post first appeared on Raising Sienna.