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.