A Hard Story to Tell-Part 2

A Hard Story to Tell  is a work of creative nonfiction that will be released in serial format. This is Part 2. Click here to read Part 1.

For M.–

Two years before Chase started choking, Haley, unfamiliar with the theories of gravity and buoyancy waddled up to the edge of a pool deck, took an innocent, unassuming step and sunk like a little stone.

Before I could spring my hands loose from my pockets, Cindy was in the pool fetching Haley and with my hands just barely out of my pockets Cindy was standing on the pool deck, holding Haley both dripping and shaking like leaves in the heart of a hurricane.

If you were passing by, you wouldn’t have thought much of me and my inertia. I guess, we’d like to believe in moments of peril, when we are wedged into moments of necessary decisiveness, of life and death, especially when our children are involved, we will act with great valor and courage like they do in the movies. Or at least that is what we want to believe.

Chase is choking.

Cindy screams. I grab him by his shoulder and spin him around.

Should I call 911? Should I call 911?

Breath Chase! Breath!

Should I call 911?

Come on breath!

Haley creeps into the kitchen. Her little eyes are wide and blue and confused. And she’s shaking like she’s on the pool deck again. “Death” has not penciled itself into her vocabulary book, yet her eyes announce that the definition is felt and somehow understood.

I smack Chase between his shoulders.

He’s choking! My son is choking!

There’s a rush of heat. The oven door is closed but I assume it’s open. And I assume we are stuffed inside and the heat stings my eyes and boils my organs and the blue ink on my hands, the stains of my labor, is starting to run across the folds of my fingers.


515 Stonybrook Drive–


Cindy drops the phone, looks at me and sprints out the front door.

I slam Chase’s back again. A hard, heavy slam charged with violent intent. Haley is in front of me. Half-covering her eyes. Afraid to watch. Afraid to look away.

I slam his back again.

Come on bud!

Outside.The rain pounds our little roof. God is somewhere, far away, tipping buckets of water on us. Move inside. The sharpness of the rain is muffled and there comes a silence that is sudden and fat like something you could almost feel, like the hand of God when he’s not far away tipping buckets of water on you.

It’s strange the things you think in moments of sheer panic. When thought, which usually unfurls like a finely packaged sheet is suddenly working in hot quick machine-gun bursts. This is a hard story to tell because even now, two years later, I can’t forget the bursts–a black limousine, a little blue suit, yellow roses, a silver casket and a huddle of balloons rising like rainbows, then drifting and vanishing in the brilliance of a pure blue sky.

Hold on buddy!

Chase is deflating in my arms.

Don’t let go buddy! Don’t let go!

I told you earlier, this story has a happy ending. In fact, as I tell you this now, Chase in the backyard. He’s swinging on a swing. Breathing. Smiling. Rising and returning to us.  But it’s still a hard story to tell. Because imagination can be an absolute killer. Because sometimes when I walk the yard, I see that swing empty. No promise of motion or force. Just hanging, waiting for his body to fill its seat. And I find myself fighting tears, thinking of the emptiness he would have left.


I pull Chase tight against to my chest, his back to my belly and wedge my right fist between his ribs, cup it with my left and it barely fits and I worry about hurting him.

A few years earlier I spent a Saturday afternoon at a Red Cross site learning safety procedures. The instructor was an older woman with thick ankles and serious eyes. She told us that if you ever had to perform the heimlich on a child don’t be afraid to break their ribs. Consider it collateral damage.

“You may have to hurt the child to save the child.”

The air is thick and wet and boiling my organs.

I pump my fist between his little ribs.


“Hurt the child to save the child.”

I pump my fist deep into my son’s chest, splitting his ribs, hitting the important things inside.  Nothing.

“Hurt the child to save the child.”

Haley is watching and not watching. Cindy is gone. God is gone. I kiss my son on his cheek and whisper, “I’m sorry. I love you buddy.”


Be sure to check back next Friday for Part 3 of A Hard Story to Tell.

If you enjoyed this serial story, please share with your circle of humans!

Also checkout “An Incident on North 20th Street”. This is another work of creative nonfiction. “An Incident…” recounts the time I found myself alone on a Philadelphia city with my favorite author, Tim O’Brien.

An Incident on North 20th Street


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