Though the doctor has said my son can attend school, we quickly take a down-turn, and go down from there. He stays home with me, where we cough. Our strings of coughs often sound like geese honking, like seals barking—animalistic. And sometimes they are wetter and deeper—more identifiably human, if human-on-the-way-out. When the coughing fits grip us my son and I do some of the following: pull abdominal muscles, burst blood vessels in our eyes, pee our pants (just me, he would want me to clarify), get bloody noses, slobber on our clothes, spit on the floor, choke, gag, throw up a mix of mucous and bile. Because lying down brings the fits on harder and faster we dread nights. Nights, of such solace to some sick people—when the world like them stops moving.
All day we alternate between holding completely still, to keep from coughing, and drifting around the house aimlessly, coughing our heads off. I keep thinking if I go to another room I’ll feel better, my son says. We are trying to get away from our bodies. They keep following us. Our coughs double us at the waist, and the gesture—if you panned out and muted the sound—could be one of bowing deeply, reverently. We bow to cabinets and trash cans and scarred flooring. We bow to each other.
The lack of sleeping and eating (choking on swallows of phlegm doesn’t mix with food) soon inspires minor hallucinations. It makes sense that after so much time in his cot, his only movement coughing, my son’s medals on the wall become fuzzy, ghostly with cobwebs. But then some of them begin to corrode at the edges, as though a rodent has scurried the wall and taken select nibbles. The ribbons fade before my eyes from royal blue, scarlet, emerald green, deep purple to barely-there color, the kind you get from staring at the sun. They’re like the strips on a rainbow windsock which has hung in the desert, unwaving, for ten years straight. One afternoon an Oak Bay Invitational Swim Meet 2nd Place ribbon the color of pink chalk slips off the wall and flutters to a stop on the floor. It s aligned perfectly between our cots. When we are blinded in twin coughing fits a muscled, speedoed Playmobil guy we don’t even own freestyles across the floor and collapses right inside it.
As we worsen the phrase he could have gone to school he could have gone to school replays in my head, as will the refrains of songs that cause us to cringe. In attempt to make it go away I venture deeper into it. I imagine how my son would slump down the hallway to his classroom, his backpack shaking when he coughed. He’d shuffle right past the kindergarten room, where many mothers (sometimes resembling, in their exhaustion, peeling stickers of superheroes) stand at the doorway, excited and relieved to have a day ahead with “just” a baby. Let’s say my son stops to look at one of these babies—maybe the one he insists is already so cool!—and he starts to cough. Let’s say the baby lurches out to my son, cool tagging cool. Let’s say the baby is perched on a tall mom’s hip, which puts his nose and mouth right in line with my son’s.
When I’m well enough to advise, I may mention the Tdap vaccine like I’m speaking into a megaphone. Step right up! Don’t be shy! Get your tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis here! But no one, I discover anew, will agree on vaccines. Everyone wants to explain why to, or why not to. Voices raise, eyes well up, hands fly and feet stomp. If you don’t get them you’re a brainwashed fool. If you do get them you’re a brainwashed fool. For every video clip on the internet of a baby dying of whooping cough there is a video clip of someone saying a vaccine damaged her baby. For every article scientifically debunking the myths surrounding vaccines there is an article identifying vaccines as the way pharmaceutical companies slip us dangerous chemicals. It becomes easier, when you’re sick, to give up on the idea of herd—herd immunity, herd sanity, herd generosity. I might start to murmur the word Tdap. I might start to conjure a dead child’s father, dressed as Robin Hood, breaking into sleeping houses at night with dosed needles. Soon whenever I say the word vaccine I picture a field of cows running strongly and loudly in all different directions. Then I blink and in the spots where each of the cows had been standing before, just peacefully eating, lies a coffin the size of a clarinet case.