Whooping cough, at its peak, is like getting strangled while being kicked in the ribs. At approximately every eight minutes. All day and all night. You can even, with not much imagination, feel the leather fingers curling around your neck, the black boot tip plummeting a rib. Someone has a cough. But in this case, the cough has you. Dire as it sounds to say prisoner and captive and torture, by day two of the coughing paroxysms these descriptors might float quite naturally and easily into your head. It is confusing when your body beats you up. You think, I must save myself from this evil captor! I’ve got to escape this dark basement, with its little gleams of sinister weapons! But then you realize the captor is you. The basement is your own bed. The sun that you have waited for all fall and winter and spring is finally out there, sneaking into the room in feeble twinkles.
My sons are completely up-to-date on their vaccinations. I say this matter-of-factly, not to start a fight.
They are both brave about needles. Even as babies they were brave. As toddlers, when the nurse filled her needle, I always put my hand in theirs and said, Just squeeze when it hurts. Squeeze as hard as you need to. My hand would flex, ready, but no squeeze came. Sometimes I actually squeezed their hands during the shot. Just to remind me I was there.
A few years ago I stepped on a board in the woods and the nail on it went right through my flip flop, into my foot. I only knew it had happened because when I stepped forward one of my flip flops was heavier and higher than the other. The shoe had become suddenly stylish—black upper with a contrasting bronze sole, a fancy platform flip-flop. I was dazzled. And I forgot to get a tetanus shot, which would have also carried the booster for pertussis.
It happens easily, even naturally: my older son gets a cold, followed by a cough. I develop his symptoms a few days later. Even when our coughs get bad, we figure it’s another virus. The viruses on this island get passed around as fast as the gossip. I take to sleeping on a dismantled bunk bed that rests about five feet from my son’s. His room becomes a ward. A ward strewn with soccer socks, some flat (fresh) and some coiled (used). A room laced, on the slanted ceiling, with ripped superhero stickers. The bunting I made with Nelly Bly, when she was visiting her tiny grandsons and initiating me on the sewing machine, dips down from the curtain rod, one letter per triangle: B E B R A V E. The wall over my son’s bed displays the ribbons and medals he’s won, and when the fan blows they flutter and clank softly, as though rousing awake to rally him into action. The poster-sized Lionel Messi never looks back at us, no matter how hard we stare at him. He only looks at a ball. Will we die without ever having flown on Qatar Airways? The wooden floor of the ward blossoms white with Kleenex tossed towards the trash buckets by our cough-shaken hands. All through the night when one of us erupts in coughing fits the other answers back. It’s oddly comforting, having someone overlap your coughs with his—it registers as evidence your suffering is being heard and replied to. We become the relentless and unmusical versions of the owls out in the backyard, who duet deep into the night from nearby trees.