Memoir, Personal Essays

5 Seconds Worth, Please

Forty one years later, the anguish over what could have been still remains as horrifying, if not worse. Disaster did not happen – there was only a five second period in which life and death hung in the balance – yet that five seconds is indelible and undiminished in its intensity. How different these past forty one years would have been had the balance tipped toward death.

My two-year-old son, Josh, and I were home alone playing on the living room floor of our rented house in South Minneapolis. As a young doctor I had wandered from the normal path. I had not established an office practice, rather, full of indecision, I developed an itinerant internal medicine practice in rural MN, three days a week. I had lots of time to spend with my family, my wife Kathleen, four-year-old Gabrielle, and Joshua. Both children were happy and healthy. Aside from my indecisiveness, family life was good.

One of my joys was to wildly tickle my children. I had become a master tickler, knowing all Josh and Gaby’s’ “weak” spots. As Josh lay on his back, I rapidly countered his every move to cover his armpits, his belly, his knee caps, his neck, the soles of his feet. He writhed in joyous laughter.

Suddenly, a look of bewilderment mixed with fear came over Joshua’s face. His breathing stopped. Faced with sudden immediate death they say your whole life flashes before you in an instant. Josh was lying in my arms. A riot of thoughts pushed through my brain. Contact! I plunged my right index finger into Joshua’s mouth following the inside of his left cheek into the back of his throat. There blocking his bronchus was a hard object. I dislodged it. Josh gasped once or twice and then his breathing returned to normal.

Five seconds, no more, had elapsed.

Yes, Josh admitted he had been playing with a nickel in his mouth when I took up tickling him.

Had Josh died at age two we would have never lived in Truk Lagoon, where I taught him to swim amongst the coral gardens and tropical fish, and to appreciate and not fear the ever so graceful reef sharks. There never would have been those fishing trips to the Florida Keys to catch Tarpon, snapper, trout and red fish. No Bar Mitzvah at the University of Minnesota Hillel, no tennis matches or high school acting career, no Children’s Theater School, no living and growing into manhood in Barcelona, no wife named Lisa, no granddaughters, Ruby and Ava, no talking about the meaning of life.

Years later, my cell phone rings: “Hi, Josh. Would you like to come to Minneapolis for a few days and help the old man rehab from hip surgery? Can you get away from Lisa and the kids for a short stay?”

“Sure, Dad, I love you. See you soon.”

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