When my son’s school sends notice that a case of pertussis has been diagnosed, we go in to see the doctor. But we can’t see our old doctor, because he’s moving away. Our old doctor makes western jewelry and lives on a farm he calls Ragged Azz Ranch. I’m pretty sure his pick-up truck has the Zs written backwards—so stellar an aesthetic decision this keyboard won’t let me replicate it. I used to run by Ragged Azz Ranch while training for marathons, and always I would wave back at the scarecrow placed in the seat of a dead tractor at the end of the driveway. The first time I waved at the scarecrow my pace picked up considerably, and so it became a lucky thing I did. Sometimes I wondered if I’d go even faster if I ran over and high-fived the scarecrow, whose upraised straw arm ended in a sturdy garden glove. But I was still a crazy marathoner training to the millisecond at that point, and it would have taken like forty-seven seconds just to reach the scarecrow’s hand. Now I only run in the forest, no watch but the sun. I follow my dog on all kinds of detours. I like to think the real estate agent, on her initial drive into Ragged Azz Ranch, glanced over at the scarecrow and dictated a note—not to remove it—but to put it in some classier clothes.
Our new doctor calls my name as she’s clicking down the hallway, before she even appears in the waiting room, and the effect is of being cued by a backstage percussion instrument. As we walk to her office I notice my athletic son watching her high-heeled shoes–items he seldom sees on this island–and wonder if he is properly impressed at her pace. One could believe, watching her, that high heels make a person faster. Then we are inside her office. Is admiring freckles perverse and prejudiced, because they’re on a person’s skin? She has really nice freckles. She speaks at the pace of an auctioneer. My son and I seem, in comparison, like people who have been hit over the heads and then submerged in a giant aquarium. We seem, actually, like scarecrows slumped on dead tractors. I remember to say that at night especially our coughs plummet us, that we whoop and gasp for breath. I remember to ask for antibiotics. But she doesn’t think we sound like we have whooping cough. As soon as she says it our coughs sputter down into nothing. They skitter away like invisible friends when a parent asks who you were talking to.
The doctor agrees to do a swab on us, to send off to the lab. If it comes back positive we will get the antibiotics. My son goes first. We hold hands. His hand has long skinny fingers now, a hand of bones. I would never know it was his chubby toddler hand if I hadn’t been holding it all along. The doctor brings forth a long wand with a padded tip and slides it up into his nose. Evidently she plans to access his throat via the back of his nose. I watch. The sinister silver handle of it keeps disappearing and disappearing into his nose, like a magic trick. I wait for a dove or a line of silks to emerge from his other nostril. His hand tightens in mine. After a small eternity she eases out the wand. My son’s eyes are watering, but he smiles at me. The smile is one of disbelief. His face is full of things he doesn’t say.
Then it’s my turn. The wand goes in. It keeps going. Even after it should have stopped it pushes on. My hearing fades out. I see stars. The pain! I think of accidental lobotomies, of babies being raped. When at last the doctor eases out the wand, I drop my son’s hand. He rattles it in the air because I had been squeezing it so hard. That was so, so terrible! I exclaim, and shake my head like a wet dog. My son smiles and nods, embarrassed for me but also maybe pleased to hear it said.
The doctor is filling out the label, and seems to forget we are there. I’m completely in shock. For about three whole minutes I feel more shocked than sick. I’m shocked about how painful the swab was, yes–but mostly I’m shocked about my son. I know we’re not supposed to confuse bravery with stoicism, that we’re supposed to raise boys who talk easily and loudly about their feelings. I know, too, that I wouldn’t be admiring my son’s silence if we hadn’t both endured, within minutes, the exact same pain. In this way the swab provides a revelation of a non-medical sort: how deeply runs my son’s quiet. He didn’t cry out and he didn’t say stop. His face, afterwards, did all the speaking. Decades ago, during a french film, I may have wished for a certain boy I saw on the big screen. If I had been younger I would have wanted not for him but to be him. He had maybe ten lines, tops. His brain and face whirred, clicking everything into place without the help of his mouth. We long for things in the dark and think nothing will come of them. But he stayed with me, that boy. That quiet boy watching in the doorway, unblinking under his dark bangs.