It's been six days since I held death in my arms. The memories, still vivid and hyper-real, replay every time my mind looses focus for even a second. Fear loiters around the edge of my consciousness waiting for any deviation from the norm to remind me that death is waiting and won't be denied.
Last Monday my wife choked. It wasn't one of those movie moments where there is a dramatic buildup and then a rescuer steps forward with the confidence of years of experience to save the day and win praise from a room full of diners; instead, we were eating lunch and in the blink of an eye she couldn't breathe.
Choking has always been a problem for my wife. It goes all the way back to when she was a girl. I'm not sure where the choking problem comes from; perhaps it is left over from childhood nerve damage, or maybe there is a genetic quirk that causes an abnormally restricted esophagus. The one thing I do know is that there isn't anything that the doctors have been able to do about it.
The moment she choked almost seemed to be a non-event. There was no outward sign that she was choking. There was no coughing or choking noise. One moment she was fine, the next she could neither draw any breath or let any out. Since she couldn't breathe, she also couldn't make any noise at all.
Her actions almost looked like someone that just ate something that was too hot for them. The only difference seemed to the the increasing void of silence. I realized what was happening a moment later and rushed to help.
I had to perform the Heimlich maneuver twice. The first time wasn't effective. The second time dislodged the food and allowed her to begin barely breathing again. There was a part of me that wanted to perform the Heimlich maneuver a third time to try to further dislodge the food, but I was taught that if the person can breathe even a little on their own, you let them try to clear the obstruction themselves so you don't do more harm than good.
The funny thing about the Heimlich maneuver is that it puts your mouth close to the ear of the person you are trying to help. I remember talking all the time I was performing the Heimlich maneuver on my wife. But I wasn't talking to some god or being that religious people keep insisting I will call on in moments of need, instead I was talking to my wife.
That's what makes me an atheist. It isn't that I think there is a god there and I just don't like him. I don't think there is a god there at all. I am as sure that there is no god there as I am sure that there is no hot cocoa shop with a tourists welcome manned by aliens waiting on us to reach Pluto.
Not once have I seen any indication that there might be a god out there. Every advance that has been made has been made by humans. Even the Heimlich maneuver was named for the person that, arguably, discovered the technique (Henry Heimlich, via Wikipedia). If I had chosen to sit across the table and pray to these nonexistent gods, I very much doubt I would have had any more success than the people that had to watch their loved ones die before the discovery of the Heimlich maneuver.
There is a line between life and death. We will all die someday. But as atheists, it is important that we do everything we can to make this life the best life possible for ourselves and others that share the world with us. There isn't a better place waiting on us as a reward for suffering or misfortune. This life, and the people in it, rely on other humans to make it worth living. Anything less and we are only cheating ourselves and others.