There is a lithograph hanging in my bedroom entitled "Nine Lives." It is a pyramid of stylized cats in shades of blue, with the cat at the top of the pile nearly white, presumably representing the ninth life. I have cheated death eight times, including twice in one summer while working on offshore oil rigs. Last night I used up my ninth, and I fear my guardian angel is back on Prozac.
Later, after my brush with death, we had a discussion about whether you got a tenth life after using up nine or whether nine was the limit. Derek (stepson) and I thought it meant you got a tenth while Kathleen said nine was the limit.
(She is more the "glass is half-empty" half of our marriage, or in other words, the outrigger of sanity who anticipates danger.)
Should I list my other eight brushes with death? No, in keeping with today's infotainment cycle I'll relate only last night's occurence.
I was cooking a tough steak and sampled it before serving. I got an especially grisly piece, or should I say fascia-laden (fascia is the tough, translucent-white covering over muscles; think of it as a cellular girdle. Without fascia our muscles would relax and we would be weak and uncoordinated, finding it difficult even to walk. Just imagine all the rubber bands holding the joints and skeleton together gone limp.).
"Gristle" ought to officially refer only to cartilage, that darkly translucent yet incredibly rubbery-tough stuff that lines joints. Lacking a good common word for fascia, I'll substitute gristle. (Forgive this bird walk of medical semantics.)
In sampling the steak I swallowed a gristly piece of elongated meat. I swear it was sliding toward the right pipe when my epiglottis failed me and it slimed like a slug in a U-turn down my trachea. my first thought was, "Is my trachea truly occluded?" That was confirmed by my inability to speak. Yet because of the shape of the piece of meat, if I am not mistaken, I was still able to take in a little air around it. Maybe I could breathe, maybe I couldn't; the point is my trachea was plugged.
I reached for the back of my throat but could not reach the meat. At this point Kathleen and Derek noticed I was in trouble. Kathleen bravely attempted the Heimlich maneuver, but as I am 6'6" and 270 lbs, she couldn't get her arms around me. I was trying to give Derek instructions in how to do it with hand gestures, but he hadn't been trained. Yet he could reach around me while Kathleen coached him. So I wrapped my hands over his in a combined fist and pushed hard under my sternum to force my diaphragm up and we made a little progress, as I reached back and briefly touched the edge of the meat before it dived back into its snake hole. Instinctively I bent over, tried to cough, and finally snagged the tip of the meat with my fingers and pulled the little alien out. I breathed freely; I was a little light-headed but nowhere near passing out. I remember Kathleen saying, "That was a long piece of meat!"
People often ask what you were thinking when you come near death. I wasn't thinking; I was instinctively seeking survival, prepared to ram my belly against the top of the spinet piano next. I didn't panic; I didnt think about anything except the meat in my throat and how to get it out.
Afterwards Kathleen and Derek went to pieces, literally, tears and all, not just because of my escape but because they had been discussing the death of her first husband, Derek's father, earlier.
The first thing I said to Derek, whose face had turned almost white with terror, was, "C'm here boy, let me give you a hug." I pulled him close. In his right ear I said, "Thanks for helping save my life." In his left ear I whispered "Damn you!" --as for many years I have longed to die, to free myself from depression and pain, though I think it better to stay and try to help. "Put on the apron of life!"
Back to the revelatory moment. After I had dislodged the meat and observed its sinewy nature stretched on the linoleum, my only thought was:
"What a tough piece of steak!"
Later I ate more but sliced it very thin. It wasn't the meat's fault, after all.
"Get back on the horse, get back in the plane, go chomp on the steak again."
It tasted good, though it was a little tough.