Whooping Cough Chronicles: Eight



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?


Whooping Cough Chronicles: Seven


Late 1940’s: A British hospital attempts to treat whooping cough with a decompression chamber.

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.   

Whooping Cough Chronicles: Six


photo by Andre de Dienes

It’s a busy end-of-the-school year.  My voice doesn’t work for the telephone.  A few rushed emails and texts trickle in daily, asking how we are.  The effect is, I suppose, of receiving a telegram from a seaside palace when bandits have tied you up for torture, face-down in the dust.  If only the palace reports were amused and amazed.  If they offered the kind of description that could transport me momentarily out of the ward.  But the missives read like this:  I FEAR THE PILLOWS IN THIS PALACE MAY HAVE LOST A MILLIMETER OF FLUFF—(STOP)—GOTTA DASH OR I’LL BE LATE TO THE BALL—(STOP)—.   The telegrams are brief and waver between worry and hurry.  The worry seems to be over luxuries—possible sore throats, for instance.  Worry—I vow to remember when I’m better enough to do it—is selfish.  It’s like even out among people you’re sitting under a cloak with Silly-Putty stuffed in your ears, knitting a sweater for yourself that is way too small.  And the rushing off to this or that seems incomprehensible in in its luxury.  That the body could glide unthinkingly, without glitch or pain, from house to car to work to trail to school to meal to bar to concert to house.  Still, hurry carries a sheen the sick can almost ride.  The way, when the last sparkler gets granted, you might run alongside the kid who got it, trying to wave your hand in a stray spark.    

Everyone grappling with sickness has different needs.  It’s kind and thoughtful to wonder if a bed-bound person is stocked for necessary supplies.  If I hadn’t been, a box of Kleenex without pain-enhancing patterns (Kleenex box artists clearly aren’t designing for the sick) may have been so preferable to a recounting of some funny incident.  But can we also treat being amused as a basic human need? Can we agree that being fed a surprising narrative is as important as being fed liquids and broth?  I wondered about all the people sicker than me who had given up on expecting someone, or a mix of funny and thoughtful someones, to get them away from themselves through their ears.   I wondered if they, like me, were lamenting not living in a way that ensured better visitors for ailing or dying:  people crackling with life, to distract them from their failing bodies.


When I’m better, I decide, I’ll form a company that hires comedians and storytellers to visit the bedsides of the sick and dying.  Every time I start to pity myself the lack of a dynamo visitor (Why do wishes for Peppermint Patty and Ethan Hawke drift so frequently into this silence? Is it because neither one of them ever shuts up?) I turn, instead, to plotting a helpful enterprise.  I ponder whether the name Pillowtalk© is already taken, either by an after-hours phone porn company or by a literary pillowcase manufacturer (which should also be a thing).  Scouting employees would require travelling around the world in search of funny people, which sounds—from within the silent, serious walls of our ward—just about perfect.  I plan out the client form, contemplating what sort of boxes the bedded could tick.  Preferred level of animation in a comedian/storyteller seems important, as does degree of humour.  And subject material—both the preferred and dreaded.   Some dying people might want an educational speaker, to teach them in an area they always meant to learn.  Others might feel markedly sicker at the mention of a fact, a stat.  The largest blanks on the form would read Please DO NOT Send Someone Who:  and Please DO NOT Talk About:–since with pain often comes the super-sharp ability to know exactly what you don’t want.


After about a week I feel well enough to concentrate, and therefore to read, and books rush in to fill the need for funny, thoughtful, imaginative company.  I can read on average four pages between coughing fits, and writers can take me to so many places in that time.  And so I realize another—maybe bigger— branch of Pillowtalk© will manage book delivery networks.  The very sick and dying will be quickly granted any book they want to read.  In fact, some clients who request comedians will end up saying to them:  Do you mind just reading to me from that book over there on the table?   I can forget, during my healthy, peopled, busy days, how vital a book can be—its characters can only transport me as thoroughly as I hand myself over to them.  But now I fall in completely. And so I’m no longer someone who can’t stop coughing.  I’m a voice on the telephone, a voice with questions and pauses so perfect it seduces all the strangers it calls (Dana Spiotta’s Innocents and Others—the Jelly & Jack chapters).  I’m a cynical old captain hired to return a ten-year-old white girl to family, after a childhood held captive by the Kiowa Indians.  I used to carry military messages long distance, sprinting by myself blissfully over miles of ground—but now I stand at town podiums reading bits from newspapers to impatient audiences.   I’m the captain’s ten-year-old charge, too, holding straight and alert in the wagon, my body attuned for battles, my hand coiled around a knife.  I’m singing in a language no one understands, and I want the wagon to go back the way it came.  I am white-skinned and freckled, with taffy-colored hair, and my people look nothing like me.  I’m both of the captain and the charge,  and I’m here and not here,  because they don’t  belong anywhere.  Except maybe—in their determination to be wild, to not let wild become a memory—to each other (Paulette Jile’s News of the World).  When I’m no longer sick I will be thankful all over again for these books, which allowed me to be so many people who weren’t coughing-me.  There are only twenty-two perfect stories (if you don’t count her amazing novella, Foster) published by the Irish writer Claire Keegan.  Twenty-two transports so complete that reaching their white spaces at the end feels like being slammed into snow.  Then, in way too short a time, I devour all of David Sedaris’s diary entries (Theft & Finding).  I admire anew how many times a day, at the most minuscule prompts, he manages to be simultaneously outraged and amused.   When I look up from the page I find myself again in that pathetic place—a reader’s place—of counting as my best friend someone who doesn’t even know me.


Just in case a prolonged illness descends to take my concentration, or my eyesight, I better find Beth.  That’s what I decide.  Beth, my long lost friend from Fife, Scotland.  Beth who from that 1990-something day we met at a youth hostel in Adelaide, agreed—even as we pretended to follow a map, a travel route—that wonder and laughter were our only real destinations.  I’m going to find that Beth and I’m going to find others Beths:  male Beths, cyber Beths, Beths with animal bodies.  But also I will travel to Scotland and reunite with the original.  The travel expenses will even be covered by  Pillowtalk©, because when I find her I’m going to hire her on the spot as our Fife & beyond Superior Bedside Visitor.   

During one of the fevers that descend dependably in the early evenings, like clamps tightening on my head, I actually see Beth entering the ward.  This is a happy surprise: since neither one of us travelled with a camera, I have no photos of her.  Her hair is more brown and less red than I thought. It’s straighter than the haywire ringlets I remember.  But her eyes are instantly familiar:  they spark and bulge with funny findings, with incomprehension over totally-normal-but-completely-crazy things.  If I was asleep her eyes would wake me up.  But I’m awake anyway, because Beth enters a room like someone hurled her into it.  She enters like that loaf of bread she once spiralled at me from way down the aisle of a grocery store.  And even doubled over with laughter—not coughs, never coughs—I caught it.



Whooping Cough Chronicles: Five



Some people say Whooping Cough with a W sound and some people say it with an H sound, like there’s no W there at all.  Some people say pertussis to avoid making a choice, but—let’s face it—that’s a gross word and merely hearing it seems to thicken the coating of mucous in my throat.  I discover, even sick as I am, that I hold firmly to my place in the W camp of Whooping Cough.  An immigrant’s habit is to listen carefully in order to better parrot back correct pronunciation, but in this case I don’t.  I won’t.  A campaign over something petty—rather than say, the bid for vaccinations or antibiotics—seems appealing in its manageability.  Something one could chant on the road without being met with violent protest at every turn:  See the W, Say the W!   When people say hooping cough I don’t look askance at them and counter by saying the word prefaced with a long-stutter of Ws, Bugs Bunny style.  I could also add, just to be snarky:  But you probably say Hut’s up, Doc?   I don’t, but I want to, and the wanting makes me happy.  How relievingly light and unimportant, this fuss over sounds.   A simple W is a much-needed point of certainty surrounding all the unknowns that come with the whooping cough.  I decide if—when—I get better I’m going to balance all the hooping coughs I’ve heard by adding W sounds to all kinds of random H words.  And when my ball lands in the basketball whoop I shall cheer: Whip whip whooray!


Somewhere along the way I’m told that antibiotics I’ve been dreaming of, once we get them, won’t alleviate our symptoms at all.  They will merely shorten our contagion period.  As soon as I hear this I decide not to believe it.  Uh Huh, I say, but when those two syllables are out I no longer remember what I’m pretending to have understood.  Denial takes a lot of energy, but in this case relinquishing hope of feeling better takes a lot more. Give me snake oil or opium, lentil flour or willow bark–just don’t give me the word nothing.  And don’t give me it’s kinder-wrapped variation:  nothing but time.  If you are reading this and you have whooping cough, I can tell you that the antibiotics, when we finally get them, do make us feel better.  Maybe it’s coincidental timing and maybe it’s just a placebo effect.  Possibly it’s my aforementioned refusal to surrender hope. But after the first dose we both feel a marked lifting in our throats, a discernible ease in our breaths.  I refrain from gobbling the pills all at once.  Hopeful doesn’t have to mean dumb.  However, though the directions clearly say to take the pill at the same time daily, I dumbly and hopefully untwist the vial lid earlier and earlier every day.


Before we can get the medicine, though, I spend an very sick week lamenting the lack of drug dealers in the park who are peddling antibiotics.  Have I ever witnessed someone casing a pharmacy without knowing, thinking he was just alert and twitching because of the long wait for his medicine?  It suddenly seems incredible that I’ve never seen anyone leap the pharmacy counter, snatch some pills, and bolt for the street. It becomes easy to imagine a future in which really sick people rob pharmacies for the medicine they can’t get or afford.  Pharmacies enclosed in bulletproof glass, sentries perched on the rooftops above them.  They’ll make bulletproof versions of white pharmacist jackets, and sew into them hidden pockets for tasers and guns and daggers and arrows.  Sick people will have to weigh heavily whether to risk their lives getting their prescriptions filled.  And sometimes a pharmacist—deeply frazzled by yet another dispersal-at-gunpoint—will accidentally pinch a bullet from the countertop into a vial of pills.                    

Whooping Cough Chronicles: Four



Both my son and I are dependable sun-worshippers.  We seek the heat.  We shiver in slight breezes, even on summer days, and during winter months we stretch out on warm bright patches of floor, even public floor.  But this sickness has turned us.  Suddenly being hot is hard work.  Sunlight makes our eyes hurt.  It makes our heads hurt.  Outside in the long-awaited heat we breathe worse, and we cough more.  I catch my son with his face inside the freezer.  Not looking for anything—just because the air is cold and crisp.  I shuffle around to join him, lean in to an ice cube tray as though for a kiss   I haven’t been drinking alcohol since January (Which is probably why you got this thing, my inner drunk suggests), but now I fight urges to drive to the local liquor store, with its walk-in freezer.  Would the employees notice if a teetotaler mother and her child strode with sleeping bags into—but not out of—the beer freezer?  And how is it I grow so blissful imagining camping out in a spot–with its shudder-inducing preview of winter– that you couldn’t normally pay either of us to enter?  Who are we, these strangers on the hunt for arctic air?  That’s another crazy thing about getting really sick.  Even as you curl inwards for hours at a time, closer to your own body than ever, you become more and more unrecognizable.   


We lose weight.  When you’re always on the verge of choking you don’t dare put anything in your mouth. Besides, we’re not hungry.  I lose nine pounds in five days, which provides me with a lame joke:  I am so bikini ready….for quarantine.  The other lame jokes involve puns that interchange coughing with coffin.  If my thoughts drift to death—if I find myself, let’s say, googling whooping cough induced suicide—it might be because breath is life.  And neither of us can get a good breath.  A coating of mucous that feels like Elmer’s glue—heavy and sticky—cakes our noses and throats.  It provides a low-grade suffocation, a suffocation drill.  But trying to clear the sticky film away by inhaling or exhaling deeply will cause a coughing fit, which is like being strangled for real.  So we don’t take deep breaths.  We take little puffs of air in and out through Elmer’s mucus, saving ourselves for the next cough.  I think of plants catching fire.  I think of turtles taking naps on the road.  If gills were guaranteed to work would I have the courage to carve into us?  If he was dying, and if they could be low, like a shark’s–would I be daring enough to slice right between my son’s rib bones?


Misery and good fortune really are bedfellows, which is strange enough.  But even more unexpectedly I find, during the darkest night, that fortune tugs away more of the sheet.  For instance, we can’t speak for hours at a time.   We don’t dare–and when we are brave enough to risk coughing fits by trying, our voices cut out.  But some people are born not speaking.  Some people, in one hit or nick to the larynx, will never speak again.  The word luckily keeps clunking around in my head.  We’re not DJ’s, luckily.  We’re not professional opera singers, luckily.  Luckily we aren’t smack in the middle of reading the voice for a major animated motion picture.  My son misses his last weeks of his last year at his friendly elementary school.  But he’s not taking exams yet, luckily.  He’ll be deemed no longer contagious in time to attend his graduation ceremony, luckily.  The back yard space between the two soccer goals—which my son constantly zings and spins and kicks so frantically that merely watching him feels like standing inside a pinball machine— falls eerily still.  He mourns another missed swim meet, another gone soccer game.  He manages to stand in goal for his soccer team’s semi-finals game, squinting sunwards to watch the strikers do his job down-field.  He’s there but not there, which must feel something like riding a hoverboard over your house.  When a robber’s breaking into it.  They lose by a single goal.  But they weren’t headed for the Olympics, luckily (We feel so bad, so belatedly, for the two Australian Water Polo players who contracted whooping cough right before the 2012 London Olympics.  Luckily we’re not Melissa Rippon and Nicola Zagame.)  We have no diagnosis yet, and no medicine.  But luckily we have a house, clean water, beds, toilets, Kleenex.  On and on like this we fall and rise with self-pity, with gratitude, more gratitude.  For every poor me that flares up inside, there are four more I’m so luckys stomping in to extinguish it.   

Whooping Cough Chronicles: Three


Painting by Mel Williamson

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.   

Whooping Cough Chronicles: Two


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. 

Whooping Cough Chronicles: One



Whooping cough, at its peak, is like getting strangled while being kicked in the ribs.  At approximately every eight minutes.  All day and all night.  You can even, with not much imagination, feel the leather fingers curling around your neck, the black boot tip plummeting a rib.  Someone has a cough.  But in this case, the cough has you. Dire as it sounds to say prisoner and captive and torture, by day two of the coughing paroxysms these descriptors might float quite naturally and easily into your head.  It is confusing when your body beats you up.  You think, I must save myself from this evil captor!  I’ve got to escape this dark basement, with its little gleams of sinister weapons!  But then you realize the captor is you.  The basement is your own bed.  The sun that you have waited for all fall and winter and spring is finally out there, sneaking into the room in feeble twinkles.


My sons are completely up-to-date on their vaccinations.  I say this matter-of-factly, not to start a fight.   

They are both brave about needles.  Even as babies they were brave.  As toddlers, when the nurse filled her needle, I always put my hand in theirs and said, Just squeeze when it hurts.  Squeeze as hard as you need to.  My hand would flex, ready, but no squeeze came.  Sometimes I actually squeezed their hands during the shot.  Just to remind me I was there.


A few years ago I stepped on a board in the woods and the nail on it went right through my flip flop, into my foot.  I only knew it had happened because when I stepped forward one of my flip flops was heavier and higher than the other.  The shoe had become suddenly stylish—black upper with a contrasting bronze sole, a fancy platform flip-flop.  I was dazzled.  And I forgot to get a tetanus shot, which would have also carried the booster for pertussis.


It happens easily, even naturally:  my older son gets a cold, followed by a cough.  I develop his symptoms a few days later.  Even when our coughs get bad, we figure it’s another virus.  The viruses on this island get passed around as fast as the gossip. I take to sleeping on dismantled bunk bed that rests about five feet from my son’s.  His room becomes a ward.  A ward strewn with soccer socks, some flat (fresh) and some coiled (used).  A room laced, on the slanted ceiling, with ripped superhero stickers.  The bunting I made with Nelly Bly, when she was visiting her tiny grandsons and initiating me on the sewing machine, dips down from the curtain rod, one letter per triangle:  B E B R A V E.  The wall over my son’s bed displays the ribbons and medals he’s won, and when the fan blows they flutter and clank softly, as though rousing awake to rally him into action.  The poster-sized Lionel Messi never looks back at us, no matter how hard we stare at him.  He only looks at a ball.  Will we die without ever having flown on Qatar Airways?  The wooden floor of the ward blossoms white with Kleenex tossed towards the trash buckets by our cough-shaken hands.  All through the night when one of us erupts in coughing fits the other answers back.  It’s oddly comforting, having someone overlap your coughs with his—it registers as evidence your suffering is being heard and replied to.  We become the relentless and unmusical versions of the owls out in the backyard, who duet deep into the night from nearby trees.

A Dream of a Dream of a Poetry Lesson


from A Visit To William Blake’s Inn

News arrives, blessedly late, that Nancy Willard has died.  And immediately the table I’m sitting at, with its secret history of stains and scars, the cherry tree blossoming outside the window in a way that appears wet snow is clinging to its branches, the stone campus buildings in Poughkeepsie, New York that that I can’t see, but let’s say even in sun their sides look stained by rain—everything everywhere is seeped of magic.  Of its possibility to be extraordinary.  Which is not true.  Only everything now is seeped of the possibility of being seen by Nancy Willard.  And I feel it all wilt.   But it’s really that I feel myself wilt on behalf of all these things, these things that she would remind me are straightening up and shining just fine.   


This is not entirely how it happened, but because this story features Nancy Willard it feels quite true. 

I was being held prisoner in the library of a college campus.  I was both the prisoner and the jail-keeper.  The prison itself was a beautiful attic room at the top of a very old library, and when I pulled back the wooden chair it squeaked a familiar song on the wooden floor—chair and floor, chair and floor, either a love cry or they were yelling at each other.  As dust rose it rolled forwards and backwards in the attic light, like surf does.  The window arched high, so all views from it were framed with an optimistic peak.  When the students down on campus stopped to talk, leaning into one another, their backpacks rose and faced me, zipper smiles.  Lots of students—not just the drama majors—wore all black.  An all black ensemble looked quite nice when paired with bright lipstick, which is something I had to get to New York to know.  From my perch I would sometimes see a spot of crimson gliding around the grey buildings, the dark-clad pedestrians.  It rolled like a fireball.  The red was so bright, in contrast, that it seemed to leave a trail of red behind it:  in the rain, in the snow, in the night falling early.

I didn’t look out the window much.  I had to write an essay.  I had to rewrite an essay.  Most of my classes called for essays and I had to somehow convey the information while making them good—that is, I tried to sneak in nice sentences where they were uncalled for.  Sentences with images, sentences that wondered.  And too many sentences.  The teacher who was so keen on Chaucer that he became (clad all in green and slipper-boots, his ruddy cheeks rising above a carefully-trimmed beard) a Canterbury character himself, scrawled into my reading-response notebook:  This is thoughtful, moving and elegantly-constructed.  But please don’t write so much here at the cost of your other work.   I was trying, too soon, to be a writer.  Or:  for all my learning I hadn’t learned to shut the writer off.  That’s what the little sparrow who landed on the attic window said, anyway.  I would use the word alighted, but he was scruffy and dingy and the light in the room dimmed rather than brightened when he appeared.   

You again, he chirped.  Don’t tell me you’re trying to write poetry into an Ethics of Journalism assignment?     

I was surprised that I understood the bird, but not shocked.  I lacked sleep and social interaction and anyway that’s what happens in prison, they say: the walls start to talk.  At least this wall had a bird on it.  And the bird had a very raspy voice, one that broke a lot—kind of like Scarlett Johansson’s—so it straddled the leap between speaking and singing quite naturally.

You know what you should do?  The sparrow said.  I waited.  But he tucked his head to his wing and began cleaning himself, like he’d never spoken at all.  When I looked up from the crossed-out page to the window again he was gone.    

I soon learned from his visits that all humans bored the bird deeply, especially me.  But because he had been born with the ability to help them, to see people better than they saw themselves, he had been cast out of the bird community.  So he was doomed to perch—song-less, nest-less, void of V travel—on so many man-made windowsills.

Gift, millstone, whatever, he sighed.  It’ll weigh you down whether you use it or not.   

I nodded.  I hesitated to talk to the bird, because it might prove I had gone crazy.  And because my voice, after his, was so flat.   

So listen, the bird said one evening, straightening himself out of a momentary deep sleep.  I had tentatively identified him as a Vesper Sparrow, but between the light and the rain and the snow and the window glass it was hard to tell if his tail feathers were actually white.  Can you scrap together six pages of decent poetry from all that nonsense you’re always scribbling?

Maybe, I said.  In truth I couldn’t seem to write an analytical paper without writing a poem on the side margin—it was kind of like the laughing gas that helped me abide the root canal.  But afterwards these squeezed margin jottings were often illegible, even to me.   

Good, he said.  I’ll come for them on Tuesday.  He did that pre-flight thing where he shifted his weight forward, and I watched carefully, not wanting to miss the split second when he transformed from a toppling ball of feathers to a long-legged, full-flapping elegant thing.  But then he swivelled his neck, looking back at me.  And none of that doubt crap either, he said.  You know, where you put in the poem that you can’t write this poem?  None of that.  Not for this. And like that he took-off, before I had a chance to say: I don’t know if I can do that.

 The sparrow flying away with my poems on Tuesday was one of the nicest things I ever witnessed.  The six pieces of paper flapped so wildly around the clamp of his beak it appeared as if the poems were doing the flying, just carrying the bird along for the ride.   Have you ever been lucky enough to see something you toiled over whooshing away into endless sky?  It makes you feel tiny.  It makes you feel huge.  It makes you feel not here and not there, like you’re something bigger than—other than—a body.

Time passed.  More snow fell.  In white skies the tree branches appeared as fissures—like each one had cracked into the sky, busted a spindly trail in it, and then suddenly stopped.  Sometimes the sky darkened in the daytime, perfectly camouflaging a grey stone building inside it.  When snow fell then it shone like glitter.  I asked the sparrow if he was shaking because he was cold and he said no, that moving non-stop kept the white muck off his wings.  White muck, he said.  I told him him he had a way with words.   

Hey, he said, that reminds me.  You got in.

It seemed a funny thing to hear from someone stuck outside.  I looked at him carefully.  His black eyes seemed beady, but I suspected if you plucked them out of all that surrounding fluff they might be the bigger-sized marbles, the shooters.

Your poems, he continued.  They must’ve been okay.  They only let ten people in.

To what? I yelped.  I had a fear of joining, of walking down the attic stairs.

Relax, said the bird. This is going to let you write all that stuff you have to cross out when you do those….papers.  He croaked the word papers with impressive disdain.   

Oh god, I moaned. Is it some sort of poetry class?

Seminar in fact.  Two hours a pop:  ten to noon.  He yawned.  Starting this Monday morning. 

I cursed.

No skipping either. I’m going to escort you personally to the classroom door.  Which, by the way, is a rare service—since I hate flying so low and so slow. 

A strange wish, for a BB gun.  I’ve never wanted one since.   But right then I wished for one and I wondered:  How much slower and softer would the bullet hit the sparrow for having first gone into window glass?

Look, I sighed, I don’t know if I can explain this to you.  But using analytical language to dissect a poem—especially a perfect poem—is something like.  Have you ever tried to sing when a cat’s sharp incisor is pressing on your throat?  Or how about this?  Imagine if after every few notes you sang you had to stop and—in a monotone human voice—explain what you just sang?  Or maybe it’s more like the pain you’d feel from the crash if you tried to fly and clean your wings at the same time….     

Relax, the bird interrupted.  This won’t be that.  You know the fireball you see out the window sometimes?

I jolted a little in my chair.  I had assumed that zip of red was a hallucinatory side effect of having spent too many hours in the attic, staring at too many cross-outs on too many sheets of paper.  Just yesterday I had admired it gliding between banks of snow and thought:  Ah, that’s why fairy tales are always combining snow white and blood red.

What is it? I asked the bird.

You don’t recognize your own kind?

Wait, it’s a human who can fly?

Birds can scowl even harder than we can.  Before this one I always thought they were just warbling as they preened.

She’s on a bicycle, you ninny.    

That got me.  I guess if you lived in a tower you’d think balls and cars and foxes were flying too.

But I only see red, I managed.

That’s her cape.  It has a hood.  And If you’re wondering, the hood has a tie, under the chin, so it doesn’t blow off at speed.  I flew alongside her to check it out.

I thought you didn’t get close to humans?

I don’t.  He turned his sparrow face away from the window, to the sky.  But she’s almost not one of you.

Well, I said.  I didn’t know what to say.  I didn’t know anyone on campus who wore hooded capes, or wore that bright a color.  I had never talked about a human with the bird before and I was disappointed, frankly.  It reminded me that I wasn’t down there with them.

Maybe I’ll try to meet her, I managed.

Yeah you will.  An empty space ensued, into which he trilled a few high, pure notes before turning back to me.  Monday at ten.  She’s your poetry teacher.


On the first day of class Nancy Willard handed around a sheet of onion skin.  That’s what we talked about, that’s what we wrote about: the onion skin.

The next class was similar.  I think she brought in some found poems from her medicine cabinet.  It was—like the one before it, the one after it—a dream of a dream of a poetry lesson.

Nobody caught me ripping a fragment of text off a cracker box in the cafeteria.  Nobody caught me trying to take the pulse of a leaf.  Nobody caught me chalking words into hopscotch squares.  Nobody caught me returning a borrowed pencil after I’d dipped the tip of it in yellow paint.  Nobody caught me with bark on my tongue.   Nobody caught me leaving odes to the sky under loose floorboards.  Nobody caught me reading a How and Why Wonder Book of Magnets and Magnetism.  Nobody caught me balancing on a gravestone.  Nobody caught me in a spider web.  Nobody caught me going into the janitor’s closet with a roll of Wint O Green Lifesavers.

If they had I could have told the truth.  I was doing my homework.


My feathered visitor was gone for good.  I began to realize what the bird had known already.  That the thing I had been fighting in me in order to succeed in an academic setting—the dreamy, curious, imaginative, isolating tendency—was actually a gift, a source of connection.  I didn’t prize it or tend to it right away.  But I did let some of the fight against it dissolve, which made writing easier.  The first time I realized I was smiling and writing, I looked straight over to the attic window, to the empty spot where the sparrow had perched.  I missed his visits, even when I worked happily.  But I knew if he appeared I would want to keep thanking him.  And surely he’d take gratitude gushed from a human with the same pleasure he’d receive a flung bucket of ice water.    


What can I tell about Nancy Willard?  Not much, to be sure.  She was elusive, as most people who would rather wonder than be wondered about are.  She had an impish smile and she smiled often.  In fact, she might be mistaken for totally blind, even as she rode a bike and wore glasses.  Hard-core dreamers like her often are.  Her yellow hair slipped out of its barrettes often.  She rarely seemed to notice but would sometimes shoo a strand  back lightly, absently, as one would a fly.  She was somehow—and I don’t know how on earth this works—both elusive, clearly a dreamer of dreams AND razor-focused, right in the moment.  She was kind.  She said Oh that’s marvellous and That’s extraordinary a lot.  When she said these things we all knew, without a doubt, that she found them so.  She spoke softly and breathlessly, like being stunned by so many things knocked the wind out of her.

I had never—before or since Nancy Willard—known someone who believed so fully in magic, who emanated magic and lived by magic, who so easily and insistently spotted magic in the ordinary every day.  To better process this quality I decided she was a witch.  A good witch, but a witch nevertheless.   The more convinced of this I was the more I realized that burning women at the stake back then for “practicing witchcraft” must have wiped out the best of the best.   Nancy Willard invited our class to her house one evening and I watched a bunch of cats sashaying among six foot high sculptures she’d made of angels and cloaked messengers and such.  Home-made mobiles of stars and moons and odd suns and maybe even bats swung from the ceiling.  I think I’m ready to be a witch too, is what I thought—and then forgot all about it for twenty years until my 3-year old couldn’t even go to the grocery store without putting on his witch costume.   I told him the witch I knew had absolutely used her powers for the good of mankind.  I agreed, when he prodded, that Nancy Willard was maybe a little bit like Glinda—if you subtracted the pink bling and added a shrewd brain.  They both seem to be always on the verge of laughing, I admitted.  I told him a spell is awfully like a poem.  And I told him I had once watched from behind a bush as the front tire of Nancy Willard’s bicycle lifted into the air.  Then, without the bike’s speed slowing at all, the back one drifted up to join it.  Both tires levitated so slowly and smoothly I wouldn’t have realized they had, if not for the strip of scenery visible beneath them.  And then what?  Well then I closed my eyes and shook my head, to make sure I wasn’t dreaming.  And when I opened them again the bike was rolling along normally, both wheels on the ground.   

Tell me again! he would clamour.  Tell me about your teacher on the bike that flew so no one saw!

There is no hurry, I guess, to remember the dead.  Indeed there is an impulse to slow down each memory, stretching it as far as it will go.  Some memories of Nancy Willard I’ve hoarded.  I’ve fought here against putting down some that I did.  By now the cherry tree outside the window has shed all its blossoms, and its limbs look even perkier for it.  A scruffy little bird just launched off one like it was sling-shotted.  How on earth do you mourn a person like her?  By marvelling, by wondering.  I marvel at how, just by being who she was, Nancy Willard changed my world.  Or showed me it could resemble a place I had known as a child.  That world had not a scrap of money or rank or slander in it.  No matter what you lost in that place you held firmly on to your sense of wonder, and to your sense of humour.   All inanimate things there were alive, and if you listened to them they would reveal secrets to you.   Maybe this reluctance to mourn is only a testament to the graciousness and the vivaciousness and the relentless curiosity of the dead person.  Of her capacity to instil hope.  When I think of her I think maybe it reduces spirit—it cancels a vote for magic—to suggest a body gone from this earth has to mean anything’s missing at all.    

Over the years Nancy Willard sent my sons some magical books in the mail—some written by her, some written by others.  And I decided to let those books tell them about her.  When I thought about taking them to meet her one day I imagined the three of us huddled in the attic window, watching the green plots and dark buildings and backpacked swarms parting for a fireball to glide through.  Hopefully as we waited they would be distracted enough by the busy scenery-in-miniature that I could rest my open hands on each of their soft warm hair–one rough velvet, one more like silk—and a peace would settle in the attic room.  The attic room: where I had once been so alone, and fought so furiously against my imagination!  Such is the power of Nancy Willard.  I envisioned us, too, crouched behind a large tree trunk on campus–me having just sent the boys dashing over to place a tiny metallic-green beetle on the trail.  In the long seconds we wait so many shoes will come perilously close to closing over it.  But then, the sudden song of brakes.  It will be her again, dismounting towards the beetle in a jumble of skirt and cape.  She’ll be leaning down to land on an iridescent galaxy.     


Once upon a time, I left an attic room in an eastern college library to get lost in Australia, and everyone said:  What a shame you’ll regret it all your good grades gone to waste you’re throwing your life away.

But Nancy Willard said:  How wonderful. The stars will be so bright.


“…The things we couldn’t see were as important as the things we could.”

Why I Never Look at Men’s Pants in Airports


(image arrangement, Wyatt McMaster)


The captain comes on the speaker and says we will have to make an emergency landing in Chicago.  The plane lands quickly.  My dad, who once drove a fighter jet, squeezes the armrests and shuts his eyes tight.  I know what all can go wrong here, he says.  Once we are grounded the stewardesses—including the male stewardesses—bring forth many rounds of free alcohol to appease the grumbling adults.  The cart laps the plane again and again, bestowing me with so much ginger ale I can’t tell a sip from a burp.  Then we are herded out into an airplane terminal where, out the glass wall, a small black spiral grows bigger in the purple-green sky.   It looks like someone scribbled it on a page and is holding it up with shaky hands.  The scribble seems to be moving up and down as much as forward.  Tornado! Tornado! The adults exclaim, but jubilantly.  The alcohol has given the terminal—with its giant panes of glass that might at any minute shatter in and impale us with shards—a festive air.  No one seems to question the safety of our window-front view.

Look, my sister says, pointing.  A man stands to the side wearing white pants, and underneath them his boxer shorts are blasting polka dots.  The dots seem as big and red as the ones on a Twister sheet.  I watch the man worrying out the window, while the people around him laugh and chat lightly.  He shows no signs of being a person who would start his day by stepping into polka dots.  But even I know whatever you wear under white pants or shirts will show through, so he must have done it on purpose.  Is it a coded signal to strangers, or to someone he knows?  I decide If he just did it as a style statement then I like him.  A lot.  If he were to laugh I might even love him.   Around me the murmurs and exclamations have grown louder, but the polka dots are hypnotic.  I can’t look away.  I can’t decide who he is.  And just like this I miss my one chance to see a tornado up close.  

Someone said the tail of it flipped and flopped like an animal’s when it blasted by.        


We are standing in a long lineup to board a plane in LAX.   I’m eight years old and in no hurry to leave California, where the people talk so much more than Ohio.  They go on about their feelings and they ask questions that aren’t polite and they bounce around dramatically, which I can only figure is because they aren’t tied to pastures by their roots.  I am taking back sand in my socks from the beach that morning.  Just ahead of us stands a guy with dark hair, dark glasses and black leather everything: boots, pants, and jacket.  Around his neck is both a silver cross and a collar of sharp silver spikes.  He’s a black shadow, the opposite of beachy, and to better stay inside my sunny holiday I don’t look at him.  But just before he steps up to hand the agent his ticket, a tall woman with long silky blonde hair runs up from the side, full speed.   She’s fast, even in high heels.  When she gets to him she falls to one knee on the carpet and presses her face to his butt.  She kisses the black leather there for so long you can blink and shake your head and look away but it will still be happening.

When she pulls her face away I exhale, Whew.  But then she opens her mouth and leans forward again, clamping down her teeth.  She takes a big bite of the leather, his butt under it.  And the man isn’t yelping or screaming at her to stop.  He’s laughing.  When she pulls away I expect her to have a torn piece of black leather between her teeth.  But no, she’s laughing too.  And then she rises to her feet and runs away, just as fast as she appeared.  It all happens in about ten seconds.  I can’t say I’m traumatized by it, but I will say it feels like I’ve been hit by a crow bar.  Is it so disturbing because I’m eight?  Or is it because I’m from Ohio?  I realize this too must be part of California–a part I might never be ready for.  I’m not even ready to look at his butt again, though I really want to see if there are any little holes in the leather.             

When the seatbelt light dings off at altitude, my oldest sister says she’s going to go get his autograph.  I ask who.  She gestures about seven seats up, to the edge of first class, where his black leather is darkening an aisle seat.  He looks to be sitting comfortably on his bite. My sister tells me he’s in a famous heavy metal band, and he once bit the head off a bat during a concert.  A bat, I repeat.  Biting through the neck of a bat makes a human butt seem like nothing, just a marshmallow.  I imagine my sister returning with a mangled earlobe, holding a pen studded with frothy toothmarks.   But when she sits down again she says he was nice.  Nice, I repeat.  She shows me the autograph she got for a boy at school.  What does it even say, I mutter.  She answers: Ozzy Osbourne.  I have to admit his cursive looks cool.  Like you could sculpt the two names out of wire, mount them on bases, and people would buy them, just for their perfect shapes.   I’m almost tempted to spy on him.  But instead I turn to the oval porthole, which is filled with sky so pure and blue it must still be California sky.