An older couple sauntered hand in hand into the grocery store. I shoved my cart into the parking lot, aiming for Jeff’s truck, wishing he’d been able to join me on this shopping trip.
My head snapped up.
A woman was reaching through the side door of her minivan. She tossed aside a lime green sippy cup and a candy box. It rattled. A toddler stood, looking on.
“Call 9-1-1!!” she shouted.
I pictured my phone, sitting on the coffee table at home.
A man and woman rushed toward her.
“OH MY GOD!!!!!” she screamed at the top of her voice. “KEVIN!!!!!!!”
The first responder was already on the phone. “He’s not breathing,” he told the dispatcher calmly.
A small boy, around age five, was yanked from the back seat of the minivan, his face flushed, his body limp. I saw his face from where I stood frozen across the parking lot clutching my keys. He was dying.
My stomach dropped. I hauled my eyes away. He was choking. Airway cut off. Just like Dad.
God, please don’t make me see this, I pleaded silently as I put groceries into the truck.
Go over there.
I knew that Voice.
But I told you to go into all the world and preach the gospel.
But he’s dying Dad’s death. Please don’t make me watch.
I couldn’t not watch. My eyes stole back to the scene. More onlookers. A strong woman had wrapped both stout arms around the boy’s middle. She jerked her hands into his diaphragm again and again. He flopped around, unresponsive.
I shuddered and looked away.
Avoiding the crowd gathered around the tragedy, I searched for a cart return. It was across from them. I would have to get closer before I could flee altogether.
I couldn’t make my legs move.
Looking down at my fists gripping the cart handle, I took a breath and started pushing. Somehow, my body followed. I peeked again. Four adults had the boy upside down, trying to borrow gravity to save his life. His face was purple.
See? They’re doing everything they can. There’s nothing I can do.
Shoving my cart into the return, I noticed one of the bystanders staring at me. My mind interpreted her look as reproachful, as if she silently reprimanded, “How can you go on like nothing’s happening…”
I began to tremble as I made my way back to the truck. I glanced again. The boy was upright now, still limp, knees buckling as someone tried to see if he could hold his own weight.
The truck seemed miles away, but I got there eventually, fumbling with my keys.
Go over there.
No. There’s nothing I can do. I can’t watch him die Dad’s death.
My key danced all around the truck’s keyhole before it finally went in. Snapping the handle up, I jumped in, clattered my seatbelt into the buckle. Dizzy. Breathe, Becky.
Turning the key in the ignition, I revved the engine and cranked the shifter into reverse. I knew I would have to look behind me to back out. Gripping the steering wheel, I held my breath and turned my head.
The cluster of people was too large. I couldn’t see the boy anymore. The same onlooker watched me. My tire found the curb and rolled up onto it. Concentrating on steering, I finally got the truck pointed in the right direction.
I drove away without another look.
Following the car in front of me, I made the left-hand turn onto the main road. My head felt floaty. I knew I couldn’t hyperventilate. I tried to steady my breathing.
One white-knuckled hand clutched the steering wheel. The other curled stiffly around the shifter.
Suddenly, I felt his presence next to me. He knew what I’d seen, why I was sad. I felt his hand cover mine where it lay on the shifter. I felt the compassion emanate from his spirit.
I don’t deserve this comfort, I thought. I ran away. I know I should have stayed, but there was nothing I could do. I couldn’t watch, and there was nothing I could do…
Suddenly a form flashed to mind. The toddler. The brother! He’d stood watching, comforted by no one, alarmed, scared, alone.
My trembling intensified. Oh, Abba! I could have held the brother!
My heart broke in anguish for that little brother.
Again, the compassion, the feeling of the hand covering mine on the shifter. Mercy.
I couldn’t get home fast enough. I needed to see my boys. See them breathing.
James stood in the driveway, waving. Standing upright on his own two feet. Smiling brightly. Breathing.
Jonathan ran toward me. Grinning ear to ear, full of life. Breathing.
I shut the truck off in the middle of the driveway and stumbled out. Jeff walked toward me, grinning. He studied my horror-stricken face as he approached, and his grin faded. “What’s wrong?” he asked, alarmed.
I couldn’t talk. I buried my face in his chest, clutching at his t-shirt and ripping out bits of his chest hair as I gasped rapidly for air. “You smell good,” I mumbled. Of woodsmoke. He’d been building up a fire in the fire pit for our evening hot dog roast while I ran to the store for fresh veggies and s’more stuff.
The boys came over, hugged me, curious. I squatted down, concentrating on breathing, staring at the ground. Ivy. Pine cones. Needles. Chocolate brown earth. I couldn’t find any words at all.
I broke suddenly away from my bewildered men and strode abruptly to the truck’s passenger door. Jerking it open, I grabbed six bags of groceries in one hand, the milk jug and two more bags in the other hand, and walked too swiftly toward the house.
The logical center of my brain pointed out that I really couldn’t carry that many heavy bags of groceries at one time, ordinarily. They seemed weightless to me.
Jeff kept pace with me, trying to help with the groceries, shadowing me into the house. I dropped the bags in the kitchen, kicked off my sandals and made a beeline for our bedroom, wanting to compose myself before I worried the boys further.
I collapsed to the floor and buried my face in a giant stuffed bear taking up temporary residence in the corner of our room. Pressing my hands to my forehead, I tried to push the images and sounds out of my brain. The flushed face. The mother’s terrified cries for help. The limp body. The 9-1-1 call. The Heimlich maneuver. The body suspended upside down in midair. The face turned purple.
Jeff waited. Finding my voice, I muttered raggedly, “I just saw someone die.”
“What?!” he demanded.
“A little boy. In the parking lot. He was choking. He couldn’t breathe. Just like Dad.”
Between gasps for air, I pieced together the story. Jeff was speechless.
“I have to check the fire,” he finally said. “I’ll be right back.”
I sat up, cross-legged. A tear finally escaped from the corner of my right eye.
Jeff returned, joints popping and cracking as he lowered himself next to me on the floor and wrapped his arm around my shoulders.
The tears came freely. I blubbered, “I should have stayed! God told me to stay, but I couldn’t watch! There was nothing I could do! And then, partway, home, I remembered–”
My voice broke. Jeff hugged me tighter.
“I remembered th-the brother!” I wailed, shaking with sobs. “I could have held the brother!”
Leaning into Jeff, I cried myself out. He held me strong.
Finally, tearfully, illogically, I asked, “Are you mad at me?”
“Of course not,” Jeff replied, shocked. “Why would I be mad at you?”
My face crumpled. “You would have stayed! You would have helped! You would have realized what was going on and been the first one there. You would have known what to do… You could have saved him…”
He couldn’t deny it, of course. Jeff is great in a crisis.
“Am I in trouble?” I asked again.
“But… I’m overreacting. Am I overreacting?”
“No. This is a normal response for what you saw.”
Calming slightly, it finally occurred to me that I wasn’t 100% sure the boy had died. My head snapped up. “Maybe he survived,” I said.
“We’ll watch the news later tonight and see.”
Later tonight? I needed to know now.
“Would they report something like that on the news? Maybe I could call WinCo…”
“Maybe…” Jeff sounded doubtful.
I didn’t want to ruin our evening. The fire burned bright, the hot dogs were ready to roast. I chopped up fresh veggies and arranged them on a platter, numb to my own actions, watching the horror again and again in my photographic memory. Dumping the ranch mix into the sour cream, I left my task half-finished and marched to the living room.
My cell phone indeed sat uselessly on the coffee table. I snatched it up as I googled the phone number of our local WinCo. Punching in the numbers, I perched on the edge of my chair, breathing. In. Out. In. Out.
“WinCo Foods,” a female voice announced pleasantly.
What to say? I hadn’t thought that far ahead.
“Hello?” she asked.
“Ummm… hi… I’m calling about the little boy in the parking lot. Did he survive?”
“I have no idea,” she said with compassion. “I wasn’t aware that anything had happened.”
Good sign, I thought.
“Would you like me to page a manager?”
“Umm… there was an employee who went out… very tall… blond… maybe a mustache?”
“Okay,” she said, and put me on hold.
A male voice picked up, “WinCo Foods.”
“Hi… I’m wondering about the status of the little boy in the parking lot. Did he survive?”
“Uhhh… I’m not sure. Daniel is the one who went out there. I can page him for you if you’re curious.”
“Yes, I would really like to know,” I said quickly.
On hold again, I argued. I’m not curious. I’m… what am I? I’m not just curious, am I? I need to know if I just saw someone die Dad’s death.
For the third time, “WinCo Foods.” But he added, “This is Daniel, how can I help you?”
“Hi… I’m wondering about the little boy in the parking lot. Did he survive?”
“I think so,” he responded gently. “He was cryin’ pretty good when the paramedics took him away… so that means he was breathing. And he had swallowed a malt ball, so it wasn’t a hard candy. It was dissolving the whole time, and eventually it opened up his airway.”
“Okay… Good… Thank you for telling me.”
Still holding my phone to my ear, I stared out my living room window, across the fields to the distant hills beyond, more numb than ever.
Jeff came into the living room. “Well?” he asked.
“He survived,” I breathed, tearing up again. “I’m so glad.”
“Good,” Jeff said, emotionless. All business.
“Are you sure you’re not mad at me?” I asked yet again.
He hesitated, trying to figure out what he was projecting. “No… but I have no idea what to say… maybe you should call your mom and talk to her about it?”
“Maybe later… I don’t want to ruin our evening,” I mumbled. Or Mom’s, I added mentally.
“Okay, well, the hot dogs are ready. Go sit by the boys. I’ll finish mixing up the dip.”
James grinned at me and reached for a hug. Thank you for breathing, I wanted to say, but that seemed silly.
Jonathan wormed his way under my other arm to give his own comfort. Two boys. Breathing. Alive. Whole.
Thank you for sons who are breathing, I prayed silently.
We had a wonderful evening, roasting hot dogs and marshmallows, chatting, laughing together, playing tag with the smoke.
I had to take AdvilPM. Not because I couldn’t shake the near-death experience. Not to continue to manufacture a crisis already averted. But up until then, my mind had purposely steered clear of imagining what it actually looks like when someone’s airway gets cut off. When their face changes colors.
I know this sounds totally odd, but watching asphyxiation happen brought a small sense of peace. The boy was limp, lethargic, unresponsive, unaware. The part of my brain that ran the comparison noted that maybe Daddy was as unaware during the part that would have hurt the most.
Had God’s mercy carried Daddy into unconsciousness as his lifebreath ebbed away?
God loves to pour out His mercy. Even in death.
Maybe I could have been a help to the situation in the parking lot. Maybe holding the brother, maybe offering to follow to the hospital in the mom’s car, maybe praying aloud, maybe laying my hands on that little boy’s head and beseeching God to spare his life.
God didn’t need me, obviously. He had the situation well in hand. As always. But He allowed me to witness it, and wanted me to get closer, to see it more clearly. To be part of it. I think maybe to give me peace about my daddy’s suffering.
But not just that.
God didn’t want to show me pain. He wanted to show me joy. To show me Himself. To show me that He is mighty to dissolve malt balls. He is mighty to open airways. He is mighty to restore. He is mighty to heal the brokenhearted. He is mighty to bind up their wounds. To bind up my wounds. To bind up that boy’s wounds. To cause him to suck back into his lungs… lifebreath.
My God is mighty to save.
“Who among all these does not know
that the hand of the LORD has done this?
In his hand is the life of every living thing
and the breath of all mankind.”