When my son and I gasp for air at the end of each choking cough, the sound isn’t the airy whoosh movies give when, say, a nearly-drowned person pops to the surface. This whoop carries a strange clunk at the end, something like a manhole cover clanging shut. It is low and leaden like that, and seems not to come from me. Later I read this about whooping cough: Its name comes from the first breath patients take when a paroxysm ends, an urgent crow that sounds like nothing else in medicine. My whoop, with its indescribable hollow and solid mix, sounds so strangely it astonishes me, even in my panic for air. It feels like I’m speaking in a language I don’t know. Perhaps some person or thing who is not me is using my body to convey something vital. During one evening fever I start to think our whoops are from dead people attempting to reach back to earth. It is them, the ones the whooping cough got. They are using our weakened, empathetic bodies to quickly—timed just perfectly—clunk out messages. The words are unknowable, of course. They’re scrambled by long travel from that other realm. And they’re not meant for either of us anyway. But when I believe my whoops might be important messages, that instead of just straining for air I’m delivering something–I’m a child’s chosen messenger–the leaden gasps don’t seem to go on as long. Or anyway, they’re not as scary.
If you want to see what my adult feet would be you can look at Aunt Maddy’s. I don’t need your love anymore but it feels good. Like I’m running full speed again and I’ve got a cherry candy in my mouth because I’ll never choke. Don’t waste worry on that. Whoa, that shirt is so not your style. My little sister has the same baby hair I had. I mean, she’s bald in the same places I was. Don’t waste fear on that. Why do you treat my brother like a flower instead of the bruiser he is? Look at him hitting the cat. He’s going to live forever. You can’t stop feeling by moving faster. Enough sorries now. The apologies got boring ten years ago. There was nothing you could do. There is no one to blame. I got a cough, that’s all. Did you feel that? I just asked a blue jay to swoop so low it rearranged your hair. Don’t waste hate on that. That chocolate chip cookie would taste better in bed. You know that’s still my bike, right? But he can ride it if he wants.