top of page

To Digest


Digestion is a complicated series of voluntary and involuntary actions, but once food reaches the throat, the system is largely involuntary. Properly processed food travels from the throat to the esophagus. Insufficiently processed food may enter the trachea instead, causing the eater to choke.


I was in my forties when my next-oldest sister Emily dropped what was to her a small factoid about my childhood but was, to me, profoundly significant. “When you were a toddler,” she said, “Mom and Dad would give you those little Vienna sausages which were perfectly-sized for choking. So, every once in a while, one of us would have to yank you out of your high chair, turn you upside down, and smack you on the back until you coughed it up.”

I was beyond horrified. “Why did they do that?!” I asked. “I have no idea,” she said, in the tone we often use when recalling our parents’ foibles. But besides my alarm at their infant-feeding choices, I was appalled that I had never heard this story before, especially in light of one of my most memorable childhood neuroses.

When I was eleven, I developed a fixation on choking. My fear was—at least ostensibly—triggered by an instructional video on performing the Heimlich Maneuver, shown to us in school for what reason I do not know. For months after seeing the video, each time I put something into my mouth, I was certain that I would choke on it and die.


In my first year of graduate school, I made fast friends with a poet named Jason. We were pals; we went to movies together, got takeout together, complained about classmates together. I had never once considered him romantically or sexually until one day—whoomph—he sat in my living room chair as we discussed the movie we’d just seen, Happiness, and, out of nowhere, the way he crossed one leg over the other, the way he moved his hands and forearms when he talked, the flash of crooked teeth when he laughed, coalesced to form an inexplicable magnet, and I suddenly wanted to climb on top of him.

What followed was months of showing up at each other’s doors (we were, conveniently, neighbors), raising our eyebrows in suggestion, then following the other into their bedroom and shedding clothes without a word. It was sex at first, and then I found myself in some sort of love. We—I believed—found ourselves in some sort of love. He lit up when he saw me; my friends said, “He adores you.” And though our relationship was untitled, I felt happy and something very close to secure.

Then he went off to a writer’s conference; we kissed goodbye, he said he’d miss me. He sent me longing emails for four days or so, followed by radio silence. When he came back, he knocked on my apartment door, but this time, stood still in the doorway, and said, “I can’t do this anymore. I met someone else.”


Fourteen months later, on a Saturday evening, my father kissed my stepmother goodnight and went to bed. Within an hour he suffered a massive stroke. He was taken by ambulance to the hospital, where he lay unconscious. My sister had left two messages on my answering machine before I heard the phone ring on her third attempt. “Dad had a stroke,” her first one said. “The doctors say he isn’t doing too well,” she said in the second, sounding completely disconnected from her words. I flew out of bed, drove to the hospital in a haze alternating between drowsiness and terror.

When I arrived at the hospital, I found him in a curtain-enclosed partition, looking like a man imitating my father. My sister and stepmother had stepped outside to make more phone calls so he was alone. I did not rush over and say, “Dad, I love you! You have to stay with us!” Instead, I stood apart from his bed, awkward, like I was at a party where I knew no one, and not beside the man who had almost single-handedly raised me, as he lay in what would turn out to be his deathbed.

Soon enough, my stepmother and sister were with me, the nurses moved him into a room, and the doctor delivered the news to us, in a quiet though not altogether compassionate tone, that my father would never wake up. “Go home,” she said. “Call your family. He’ll probably hang on another few hours. You have time.” So, we did. Two hours later, she called and said, “Come back. Hurry.” When we returned, he was gone.


Before being propelled back to the throat by the tongue, the food is chewed. The teeth break it down, physically, while saliva does so, chemically. This step is referred to by some physiologists as “Stage I Transport.” It is voluntary but necessary.


Beginning with dinner after my sixth-grade class watched the Heimlich Maneuver video, I began chewing my food slowly and carefully. One bite of burger took roughly twenty rotations of the jaw and as many seconds. I had to get all that substance down to a fine, smooth puree with no un-uniform or misshapen lumps that might get stuck on the way down. Each swallow was like throwing myself in front of a moving car. My mind froze in that moment, unable to focus on or receive new information; I only waited to see if I’d lived through another bite.

My choking obsession caused only shaking heads and raised eyebrows at the dinner table for the first couple weeks. But then, on a road trip to Alabama with my eighteen-year old sister,