Whooping Cough Chronicles: Ten

intosun

After five days of taking the antibiotics we’re no longer contagious.  Even being assured of this, when I see a baby-in-arms near the school my body bucks back and strides the other way, the wrong way.  The right way.  Our coughing fits diminish—first in frequency, then in power.  They only happen when we run.  They only happen when we lie down.  They only happen when we laugh.  I ask my son one evening how his coughs were that day and he says, Good. I only had a few chuckles.  I never would have believed, while in the throes of it, that he would describe our whooping cough as chuckles.   I try again to tag suffering, to tag it firmly in my head as a transitory thing.  I can’t catch it, though.  Because we’re chuckling.       

Every night when I’m reading a story to my younger son my voice cuts out.  It doesn’t fizzle out but stops suddenly, completely, as though by flicked switch.  It feels like painful work to get it going again.  Why, even better, do I keep thinking of the dead?  I think: maybe they take my voice.   Maybe this is the pay-back for no longer serving as their messenger.  I might fall more and more silent.  I might, it occurs to me, just stop with the story.  If my son’s head wasn’t beside mine on the pillow beside, waiting.  If his blue eyes inside that round white man-in-the-moon face weren’t skittering over the page, piecing together what might happen next.  How hard it is to stop, when you’re sick.  To give up participating in this thing and that thing, to let all things go one by one until giving up is as easy as breathing out, or loosening your hand.  But then.  How hard it is to get going again, when you heal.  Maybe because the body, when not racked by coughs—feels so perfect when it’s still.  Why try or rush or care?  Why not just watch what unfolds, mustering no movement but marvel?  Under the comforter my son’s bony elbow jabs into my side, subtle as always.  I gargle, drudging up my voice.  I go on with the story.   

**

My older son has waited a few years to compete in his swim meet’s lake swim.  Endurance is his thing.  Plus I may have mentioned to him a couple times, from a young age, that no problem or worry can outlast a swim to the horizon.  This year he’s finally old enough to take part.  But now: he can’t race a lap of the pool without feeling like he’s going to pass out.  The day of the lake swim dawns, sunny and busy, and we move out into it, like other people do.  The boy in his seat of the car is tall.  He looks like he has never been a baby.  The heat feels good.  I stand in the grass penning numbers onto swimmer’s biceps with a Sharpie, and the arms are warm, full of muscle.  We’re alive.  I sneak glances at my son, who is sits at the end of the dock in his dry clothes, watching swimmers dash in and fall to their stomachs.  A younger boy on the dock accidentally drops his goggles into the water, and that begins their own race of sorts—to see how many older kids they have to ask to pick up the goggles before one of them finally does.  It turns into a long race.

My son spots a water snake in the shallows, off to the side, and later he will tell me its stripe—neon green with a yellow glow—went so perfectly with its very very black, maybe the most dark black I’ve ever seen body.  After weeks cot-side in our ward he appears, down at the dock,  so separate from me.  So far away.  He’s watching and smiling and listening, covering his mouth sometimes to cough.  And when he looks out to the middle of the lake, at the swimmers there, his posture stiffens to alert.  Ever at the ready.  I’m struck with a sudden lump in my throat that finally isn’t mucous, or an impending cough.  It’s pride.  I’m more impressed by him than I’d be if he were all kicks and elbows, speeding out across the water.  Because isn’t disappointment the ultimate endurance sport?  The grit, when dismay or sickness bears down upon you, to watch and to listen, to notice the stripe on a snake.  The boy he’s sitting with springs up suddenly, prancing barefoot along the dock, back into the grass.  And when my son catches up they do what kids—the healthy, lucky ones—are always doing.  They disappear into the sun.   

Whooping Cough Chronicles: Nine

tumblr_nd103b5BUy1suhwyqo1_540

Photo by John Menapace

When I was young I had a case of staph pneumonia that went too long undetected, became dangerous, and required time around doctors.  I remember one eager doctor who would always tell me something wouldn’t hurt–right before it did.  What a job, I think now—now that I’m a parent seeing it’s dicey to even help a fallen child that’s not yours on the playground.  My mom really liked this eager doctor, who had never jammed her with any needles, or pulled too roughly on her IV.  When he swooped into the room where we waited his white coat—so not sailboat, so not parachute—flew out behind him.  ,

Oh look!  My mom exclaimed, one of these times, Doctor X is wearing a tie that’s exactly your favorite color! 

I snuck a peek at it.  It was, indeed, the perfect color: at once bright and quiet, a pink that smiled without needing anyone to notice it.

That’s not my favorite color, I said flatly.

My mom held her smile.  It’s not? But pink’s always been your favorite color!

I shook my head.

The eager doctor took his cue.  Well, he said, looking up from his tray of menacing silver instruments.  What is your favorite color?

I remember the moment so well, maybe because I looked right into his face as I lied.

Black, I said.

**

The medical resident doesn’t hustle.  He talks to my son like they’re the same age, pointedly asking him questions, pausing while my son thinks.  He listens to our deepish breaths—as deep as we dare—to better rule out bronchitis.  And when we have coughing fits he waits silently until we finish, which—I will discover when we’re well enough to be circulating—is rare.  Most people keep talking: a sentence started must be ended.  Or they remark, as we’re coughing, how bad it sounds.  I would probably do the same.  But I’m learning so much from this illness—learning, anyway, about what things I want to learn.  How to give space to people, for their suffering and everything else, with silence.  How to treat a person—even when you’re on a schedule—like time has stopped.  Finally the doctor turns to his computer and types some things into it.  Then he swivels to us and says:  Well, I think you have whooping cough.   

He doesn’t say:  I believe you.  But that’s what I hear.  And because I instantly feel lighter, I realize not being believed is its own sickness.  You might not even know you have it.  But, inflicted with it, you could bury a talent, accept a hug from an oppressor, or end up confessing to a crime you didn’t commit.  Maybe it can’t even be diagnosed until you’re cured of it.  From across a garden I once watched a wasp alight on someone’s shoulder and sting her—one, two, three angry welts rising—before she raised her hand slowly, even fluttery, to see if something was really there.

**

The doctor goes on to say my son’s test could have been a false negative.  I didn’t know there could be such a thing.  I get stuck on that, the odd concept of a false negative.  If pregnancy tests could be false negative.  If someone said he didn’t love you and then later said that was a false negative.  Swim meets have false starts but a false negative start would mean the swimmer gets disqualified for not moving right on the whistle.  A false negative moustache would indicate someone caked skin-coloured makeup over the bristles.  My brain is so busy churning over the weird concept of false negative that it takes to long to grasp the words nasal swab and again.

Wait, what?

I’m going to have to test you both again.      

Can’t we just assume we have it and get the antibiotics?

I can give you antibiotics.  But because pertussis is a highly-contagious and dangerous disease, I’m required to test you if I suspect you have it. 

Um, I say.  I look at my son.  Panic and stoicism battle on his face.  Was that my voice earlier, saying he wouldn’t have to have the nose swab again?  Of all the broken promises parents give, are the said worse than the unsaid?  The best parent might be a silent one.  Or one that jabbers on so much she includes all possibilities.    

What if we refuse? I say to the doctor.  It’s clear I’m no longer dreaming him up

It won’t hurt, he says.

It’s me looking at him, but it’s also a child.  Black, I could say again.

It really hurt, I answer.

It should feel uncomfortable, he says.  But it shouldn’t hurt.

It really did, I say.  We’re not total wimps, either, I add feebly.

I believe you, he says.  Then he says: Hold on. I’m just going to get the paperwork. 

**

I’d like to say when the doctor leaves the room I become a serene parental pillar.  That I apologize to my son for falsely reassuring him, and then I focus on calmly distilling his fears.  But really what I do is, I notice how the doctor’s empty desk chair is about four feet beneath the window.  We’re on the ground floor.  The window looks like an easy open.  It leads out to the parking lot.  Our car is right there, a thirty second sprint.  Well, a two minute cough-filled gallop in our case.   I think:  Why would I notice such a perfect escape, if we were not meant to use it?  Even as I suggest the plan to my son, I’m gauging how to step on the desk chair to keep it from swivelling.  Its cushy seat is covered in loose black leather, and I can imagine the doctor’s eyes landing on the sneaker-shaped dents in it when he walks back into the empty room.     

**

But Mama, my son says.  We have to. 

My eyes are still glued on the window.  It’s like a toy window, just put there to be shimmied through.

We’ll just do it, he continues.  And then it will be over.

I turn to him.  In the weeks, the eternal days and nights, of this whooping cough we’ve been downed together in a way we haven’t since he was a baby.  And as a baby he was, like this sick boy, still and serious.  Steady and watchful.  Nursing him brought me under the most intense scrutiny I’d ever been subjected to.  While getting his diapers changed he resembled an old man perusing a stamp collection, while a puppy licked at his ankles.  I loved that baby so much.  But I knew I had to be dignified about it.  Now I try to again.

You’re right, I say. It’s got to be better this time.

He sighs.  What if it isn’t? he poses, offering me back the role of parent.

It will be. 

I go first, like I should have the first time.  I can’t look into points of comfort–my son’s eyes, or the doctor’s socks–because I have to tilt my face at the ceiling.  The doctor eases the wand in very slowly, and he stops it seemingly right on the zone of violation.  I only see one star.  It feels uncomfortable.  But it doesn’t hurt.  After my son takes his turn—a slight squeeze of his hand, no water pooling in his eyes this time—relief seeps into me.   Apparently it takes over my entire body, because for a whole minute or more it forgets to cough.     

**

The next day I get a phone call from our new doctor saying that my test—the first test—has come back, and it’s positive.  So I have whooping cough.

And, the doctor says, your son must have it too.

Yes, I say.  It’s a good word.  Small, but you can pack so much of yourself into it.

Whooping Cough Chronicles: Eight

 

ocean

On the seventh day I get a call from the doctor’s office, saying my son’s test for whooping cough has come back negative.  Mine hasn’t come in yet, since the lab is backed up—but we can presume it’s negative too.  The receptionist goes on to say that my father—who I thought was my father—is not my father, and that my real heritage is Arabic.  No, no, I’m not that shocked.  Our whoops and gags have progressed, but I lack the energy for skepticism.  I’m fairly relieved.  Whooping cough is known in Asia as the 100 day cough, so this call is a gift, the gift of time.  However, while holding the receiver to my ear I look over at my son, who is so still and thin, barely there.  The word drawn comes to mind—if he were drawn in pencil and being erased.  And my relief shifts to dismay.   To lack a diagnosis is to lack any treatment, or tries at treatment.  I manage to say, without coughing, that our coughs are much worse.  That we would like to figure out what we have.  We would like, most of all, hopefully, some medicine.  Our old doctor is booked, and our new doctor is booked, but the word luckily is again called for here, since some people on my island can’t get doctors.  Because we have one, we are able to get an appointment with a medical resident that very day.    

**

During the drive there my son worries he’ll have to get another nose swab.  I tell him no, we already did that test.  I tell him there might be other tests, but they won’t hurt like that one.  My mind rushes ahead to what other torturous tests they might give us, that might make the nose swab seem like a tickle under the armpit.  Is this an undisclosed part of the job requirement for parent, this easy progression into the contemplation of worst-case scenarios?    

It’s been over a week since I’ve gone anywhere except to take my younger son to the school bus stop.  (Younger son has been noticeably absent in this narrative, which is an indication of how thoroughly the cough has taken over.  You can imagine him, though, after school with a TV set flashing on his zombie eyes, the crunch of Cheerios he’s pilfered from the cupboard competing in his ears with the never-ending coughs issuing from the mummies who used to be his brother and his mother).  I drive really slowly, ready to coast to the side whenever a coughing fit threatens.  It’s a summer day in June, the first steady showing of the sun since last November, and people along the road are walking and running and biking and milling about at food and coffee stands.  Even the ones standing still seem like coiled springs, poised to move on.  How can they manage to wave their arms while also talking?  Out on the harbour, sails ripple and scoot along the ocean.  The sea is exhausting, how it keeps moving up and down in so many peaks, and how it won’t stop skittering light.

It’s strange to find the mere sight of something I love—like the sea—so wearing.  Just days before, in one of my delirium dreams induced by refusing to lie down, I was living in a beach hammock that I’d woven little mesh compartments into, to hold my toothbrush, my book, and my other bathing suits.  On this dream morning I’m so eager to run into the sea that when my feet touch the sand I start sprinting.  For some reason I’m wearing my calf-high tube socks with the green and yellow stripes, and I completely forget to peel them off.  When I dive into the sea I realize the socks are shimmying and hoisting me along at great speed.  It turns out they are fins that got cast under an evil spell into tube socks.  The frog hopes, but never expects—because really, what are the chances?—to be kissed by a princess.  And these tube socks.  They long ago stopped hoping someone would break the spell by running them into surf.  Even as the dry sand beneath them gives way to wet sand, gives way to an inch of salty sea, the socks decide they’re dreaming.

Everyone is so busy, my son remarks from the backseat.

I tell him that was just what I was thinking.  Even the ocean is way too busy.

**

The medical resident says to call him by his first name.  He is young and good-looking, even by television doctor standards.  He has on socks the same bright green as my lucky sneakers, which regrettably I just left on the shoe rack at home.  We start to tell him about our symptoms and he listens intently.  The more closely he listens the better-looking he becomes.  Maybe it’s how I look to my dog when I suddenly lie down on the floor, at his level.   How fast he rushes over then, to land on my hand or my hair, whatever flat part he can flop on.  The doctor asks lots of questions, which I may answer eagerly, in too much detail.  In the beam of his interest–anyone’s interest towards our diagnosis, I like to think–I may get close to lively, not sick at all.  I never quite realized a doctor has to lift up your shirt to press a stethoscope to your back.  He tells us to take deep breaths, and just as my son and I exchange worried glances—because deep breaths are the devil, the thing that really sets off our coughing fits—he adds:  And if you feel like a deep breath will make you cough then you don’t have to take a very big one.  I’m wondering if I’ve made up this doctor, if I’m dreaming this visit.  Or am I the tube socks in an inch of ocean?