It has only just come to my attention that Henry Heimlich, inventor of the Heimlich Manoeuvre, passed away in December 2016. I wrote a poem earlier in 2016 inspired by the deliciously ironic story that Heimlich had been called upon to perform his own manouevre at the age of 96 in a nursing home. The story, like the doctor himself, caused controversy, with some reports suggesting it was the latest in a lifetime of publicity stunts. But I guess we all need some poetic licence to practise. I myself situated the nursing home in Texas because I needed the rhyme. The idea that the tale might have been a tall one only adds to the idea of the poem. I thought it was the story of the year, and found myself wondering just how the doctor might have lived his life in the shadow of his creation…
HEIMLICH’S MOMENT OF DOUBT
They’re not joking,
Not playing some mischievous game with the
Illustrious name of their regular Senior Living dinner guest.
Me. The Great Heimlich. Inventor of the Heimlich Manoeuvre.
A life-saver 50,000 times over,
But theoretical, not practical,
The inventor, not the dispenser,
Not a physician, but a fading magician
As likely to raise a body from a sarcophagus
As to squeeze a plugged piece of burger from an old lady’s oesophagus,
Past my sell-by date, past my Sunday best.
She’s really not faking,
And they’re all taking
The opportunity to look at me and pointedly
Ask two questions with their vicious eyes:
First, would it not be a delicious irony
If the Great Heimlich, he who lives so vicariously
Dining out on all those lives he saved by proxy
Turned out to be some poxy stuffed dinner shirt,
Who doesn’t like to press his fingers into the dirty mouth,
Who’s gone south and is all washed up among the dishes?
Perhaps those are their secret wishes.
Second: ‘What if she dies?’
She’s turning green,
Imagine how they’ll preen
As they reveal the esteemed Heimlich to have been a dick, a poser,
A trick recyclist of the blocked Hoover,
A damned fraud, a fake, a flake,
A dinner party bore on the take…
Wait! Er, I see I’m pushing back my plate,
With a lump in my throat, on the edge of a knife,
Multi-tasking, considering they’re asking me to save a life
While simultaneously wrestling
With one of history’s most ironic questions:
Can I remember my own manoeuvre?
‘There he is,’ they used to laugh,
‘The Late Heimlich,
Always last at the table,
Unable to rush a mouthful,
Of the gobstopping sprout,
The doubtfully filleted trout,
The fish bones, wish bones,
Lying in wait on the plateful of choking hazards:
A minefield of sharp shards and
A ticking time bombe in every dessert bowl.
A nibbler, a fiddler,
A plodder, a prodder at the fatted beast
A spectator at the always potentially fatal feast,
Cogitating on and on the instructions he suggested
Every restaurateur and bon viveur ordered up and digested,
Touching his fidgeting tongue from filling to filling
Unfulfilled, unfilled, unwilling
To swallow anything whole.
How they all snicker at this pernickety bone-picker.
Taking a salivating age to pick and chew
Every mouthful, every morsel, every word.
It’s true, I’ve lived in mortal
Fear of choking on a bony shard,
Of being hoisted from the table by my own petard,
The biter bit, succumbing to a coughing fit,
Bear-hugged by some untrained thug,
Breaking glibly a spare rib,
Fate double-crossing me,
As he doubles the Great Heimlich over,
Performing, badly, my Manoeuvre!
Suffering the ultimate indignity as he
Takes my name in vein, just imagine the shame:
Held up to the public gaze like a paradigm not to follow,
Too much for any man to swallow,
An eye-popping final indignation
That leaves me red-faced as it consumes my reputation.
Taken by gastronomic surprise,
To an ignominious, spluttering demise,
My unjust desserts rendering
My life’s last course absurd.
My mind’s not playing tricks
At the age of 96,
Struggling with senility, fading virility and a choking emergency,
This could be not just some delicious irony but my crowning glory,
My piece de resistance!
My final slap on the back!
If only I could stop thinking and remember how to act…
And now, it seems, I’m on my feet,
Riding into battle to greet tonight’s errant piece of meat,
Hugging an old lady from behind in a care home in Texas,
My fingers bunch and flex as they punch her in the solar plexus,
Reinventing the greatest invention since the surgeon’s knife,
My breathless kiss of life,
I’m doing it, I’m mastering my own Manoeuvre,
And as quickly as it started, it’s over,
Miss Patty Ris, 87, is granted a deferral
On her stairlift to heaven,
And I’m taking my bow and my seat once more
To pick painstakingly at my meat just as before,
Dining out on another life saved by the Great Hiemlich’s eponymous act,
With a reputation unblocked, unblemished, replenished:
Deliciously, ironically intact.
Copyright © 2016 Jason Hook