I was sucking on a quarter. It caught a ride with my saliva and sailed down my throat. I was nine, or something. Following the panic incited by my choking noises, my sitter's husband came to the rescue, hitting me square between the shoulder blades and ejecting the coin. I picked it up and probably spent it in some jellybeans. Later that week, I was sucking on a loony and the same thing happened.
The fact that I almost died twice within a week meant very little to me then. Death for us as children was an unidentifiable concept because we had a limited understanding of the nature of mortality. Once we grew older and more aware of our role in the universe, then the gravity of such matters began to settle. For a child, choking on quarters is the pinnacle of hilarity.
Mathew certainly found it funny. He'd use it as his go-to potshot for months afterward. We'd been best friends for a couple of years by then and so were taking the piss out of each on the regular. We lived 10 houses apart in those days and would spend most afternoons ignoring our homework and exploring the forests surrounding the neighbourhood instead.
We'd pretend we were a pair of gumshoeing movie stars named Joshua and Michael who wore earrings in our left lobes because in real life our parents wouldn't allow such fashion. No, in real life we were a pair of nine-year-old dweebs toiling in the fleeting heedlessness of pre-adolescence, united by a close proximity and a fondness for spandex bicycle shorts.
Mathew died when we were 12 and I still don't know how. My parents said it was an accident while the kids that knew him said and continue to say that the cause was more deliberate. The facts don't matter to me now and they certainly didn't then. He was gone, is gone, will be gone and that has always been enough for me to deal with.
Naturally, I cried myself to sleep every night for a week or so, maybe a month, while maintaining absolute composure during the day. Everything seemed the same on the surface - I was still ignoring my homework, still cultivating a deep love of music that may have been accelerated by the loss of a friend. It happened at a time when most kids are coming into awareness and the sudden death of someone so close and so young was a rude and sinister eye opener. Traumas like that are like a boulder splashing in a pond. The bigger the stone, the bigger the splash and the longer it takes for the ripples to settle before all is calm and the reflection is what it was.
It took about 15 years for the complexity of that event to be fully understood. I graduated from an almost crippling fear in my teens of other people dying, to a complete indifference toward my own mortality, to an absolute certainty in my early to mid-twenties that death was lurking around every corner.
But as the great sage Roseanne Barr once said, "If you spend all your time worrying about dying, living isn't going to be very much fun," and I spent a lot of effort between shifts and between classes finding ways to settle what had been a lengthy rippling in the pond. Eventually, over a series of trips both geographical and psychotropic, through the comforts of music and literature, through conversations with family and strangers alike, and eventually escaping the city life, I found the perspective I had been fighting for. Finding contentment is difficult work and don't let anyone tell you any different.
The final step, of course, happened while in Whistler, while chewing on a piece of over-cooked steak. The piece was a little too big but I'm careless by nature so I ate it anyway. The meat cube slid on a stream of saliva much like an incident 17 years previous, and into my throat. After pulling the lodged meat from throat with my left hand, I sat panting at the table, wondering what it would have looked like for my roommates to find my corpse on the floor and a steak on the table.
I laughed then - a short, refreshing laugh while contemplating for the first time without fear what it would have felt like if the steak had succeeded in killing me.