The rather pale-looking photo attendant informed my father that he had called the first aid attendant and that she was on her way. My father, stoic and calm, perhaps too-calm given the situation, thanked him and continued to encourage me to cough.
And I coughed and coughed and coughed. Loudly and seal-like, I coughed. Other customers turned to see what was happening, curious to examine this domestic emergency.
I was choking. Or at least pre-choking, what many parents like to refer to as a “stuckie”. I had taken a bite of a Costco food court hot dog and, in attempting to swallow it, found that my esophagus felt that this bite was too big.
This was not the first time this had happened nor was it the last. I was born with esophageal atresia, a congenital anomaly where the top portion of the esophagus does not connect with the stomach. In my case, and in most cases of esophageal atresia, this diagnosis included a trachea-esophageal fistula. Tracheoesophageal fistula is a related congenital anomaly where the trachea (windpipe) is attached to a portion of the esophagus, in my case the upper portion of the esophagus. These anomalies requires surgery soon after birth and results in a narrowing of the esophagus which makes me prone to choking. My father knew all of this.
And there he was, my first-aid trained father, with the beginnings of a grin on his face. And I was coughing but I may as well have been laughing. Because it was silly and my dad was so confident that I was going to be fine that nothing bad could have possibly happened. Those things happened to other people not kids on a day out with their dad to Costco.
Rather undramatically I swallowed. I felt the bite go all the way down into my chest; an unpleasant, familiar, somewhat painful, feeling that was enough to bring tears to my eyes. But alas that was the end of that.
I tell this story for two reasons. One because so many families have similar stories of their children with esophageal atresia/tracheoesophageal fistula getting food stuck in their esophagus while eating. It is common and it is scary.
And two, because all these years later I realize that he was probably scared. Scared when I was born and unable to breathe, scared when I had to have surgery, scared when I was choking on a hot dog in Costco. But despite being scared he remained strong, and was always there to reassure me, to care for me. I tell this story as a way of apologizing for all the grey hairs I caused him. I tell this story to wish him, and so many dads like him, a Happy Father’s Day! But most importantly, I tell this story to say thank you for all he has done for me and continues to do for me. I am a better man because I have him as a father.