Yesterday, I had to perform the Heimlich on Liam.
I had scanned the floor before I put him on it. His sisters were playing nearby. I was near, just in the kitchen doing dishes. I could see everything they were doing. And then I turned my back, heard a scream and a gurgle, and immediately sprinted to my son. Scooping him up in my arms, I took in his wide, panicked eyes, his mouth open, tongue thrusting outward, gagging, gagging, gagging. Nothing coming out. Nothing going in.
A video I fortuitously watched a few months back must have somehow made a deep imprint in my mind, because without even thinking I swept his mouth with one finger. Finding nothing, I immediately flipped him onto his stomach, tilting him downward, and began smacking him firmly just below his shoulder blades. Five smacks. He managed a gasp, and a cry. I turned him over and swept his mouth again. Nothing. He began gagging again, choking, his eyes filling with tears. He looked at me helplessly, begging for relief, and I began to panic. I screamed for Sienna to find my cell phone so I could call the ambulance. I flipped him back over and began the process again. This time he managed to gag heartily. It sounded like he was vomiting, and I anxiously held my breath, hoping to see something, anything, come out of his mouth. Nothing. I turned him over, swept his mouth again. His face was red, so I knew he was getting air. But not much.
Sienna flew down the hallway, my phone in one hand, her eyes wide and her face pale. “Call Daddy!” she shouted, throwing the phone into my outstretched hand. I knew there was only time for one phone call, and it wouldn’t be to Daddy.
One more round with the back thrusts. This time, he vomited. Thick, sticky mucus poured out of his mouth. Nothing solid. I reached my fingers into his mouth, praying to find something, and immediately felt the unforgiving edge of something plastic.
I pulled it out. It was a plastic clasp, the kind that holds flip-flops together. It wasn’t big enough to obstruct his airway, which is why he was able to get some air. He began crying in earnest and I collapsed back into the couch, pulling him to my chest and shaking. Sienna and Charlotte stood just in front of us, silent, hands outstretched as if to help, unsure if they should still be afraid.
I’ve had my share of frightening parenting moments. Sienna has fallen off every surface she’s ever set foot on, into every pool she’s ever seen, spurted copious amounts of blood, knocked out teeth, and eaten every potentially poisonous substance she’s ever managed to get her little hands on. There was a time when I had poison control on speed dial, when they recognized my voice, when I lived in fear of CPS showing up to inquire why my child was eating the silicone packets in shoe boxes or drinking the whole bottle of Tylenol every other day.
Just last week, Charlotte fell down the steps at my parent’s house. The Ogre’s quick reflexes stopped her head just before it slammed into the hard wood corner of a step.
But this was different. Liam was choking. If the object had been larger, if it had been lodged further down, he could have died. And it was up to me, in that moment, to stop death from taking my son.
Accidents are one thing. Having your child’s life in your hands, literally being the only means by which your child will escape death, is terrifying. I know, objectively, that God is there. That I wasn’t alone. That Liam’s guardian angel was with me, guiding my hands, helping my little man gag that plastic up. But in the moment I felt very alone, and very inadequate. I was terrified that I would fail, that my son would die in my arms, and that it would be because I didn’t do the right thing at the right moment.
There are two deep, abiding fears that I have become familiar with in my short years as a mother. One is the fear I tasted yesterday, the fear of losing your child to pain, suffering, and death. That fear is real, palpable, and bad enough. But for me, despite yesterday, the more terrifying fear is the fear of losing my childrens’ souls. The fear of not teaching them enough, or the right thing, at the right moment. The fear of not setting the right example. The fear that this TV show, or that song, or that friend will start the chain reaction that will end with my child turning his or her back on God.
That is the fear that consumes me. I’m reading Story of a Soul, and I’ve taken to praying to Blessed Zelie Martin as I read, begging her for bits of her mothering wisdom to leap off the page. She died early on in St. Therese’s life, but her influence is everywhere, particularly in the wonderful character of the older girls who mother Therese after their own mother has passed away. That is the kind of mother I long to be…the mother who raises saints. Above all, I want to lead my children to God.
But I have no idea how to do it. How do you catechize a child? We say prayers before meals, and before bed, but we never pray the hours. We never pray the rosary together. I pray it with Sienna sometimes, but we never do it as a family.
I’m bad at reading to my kids. We don’t read all the time, and the most religious our books usually get is The Clown of God. Is there a children’s version of the Lives of the Saints? I hate my kids’ picture Bible, because it summarizes the Scriptures in ways I find sloppy and incomplete. Is there a better version?
And what about songs? We’re not a musical family. I wish we were, but we’re just not. My kids don’t know any Catholic hymns because I don’t know any Catholic hymns. Where can I find them? How do I learn them? Which ones do the kids need to know?
As I’m writing these questions, I feel a bit frantic. Like I’m looking for the answer to a solvable puzzle. Like I’m looking for the perfect key to fit an obscure lock. It’s as if I’ve come to believe that if I teach my kids the right prayers, if I give them the right answers to their questions, if I raise them with the right books and the right songs and the right atmosphere, they’ll never stray from the hand of God.
But really, isn’t it true that they’ll never stray from the hand of God anyway? He’ll always be there, ready to protect them, ready to love them, ready to welcome them into His arms.
I guess the only thing I can really do is teach them to love Him, and let Him do the rest.
I don’t think I ever truly understood just how difficult having faith in God can be until He gave me children. The instinct for self-preservation is strong, but it’s nothing compared to the instinct to protect our children. To keep them safe from every danger, real or imaginary. Tangible or intangible. And finally accepting the knowledge that I cannot ever keep them totally safe, that at some point I must, like Hannah, turn them over to God and pray for His mercy and protection, is nearly impossible.
Yet it must be done. It is one of the heaviest crosses a mother must bear, but I have to let them go. Just a little bit now, but more fully as they grow, until one day they will walk out of my door and only return as visitors. Their lives will be somewhere else, somewhere where I am not.
I’m not ready yet.