Dear Person Who I Loved, Back When I Mistook Letters for Love


Berkeley, CA
June, 1997

Dear ______,

You will see by the corner of this envelope that I’ve now left the desert.  I left the bones and the flint and the yucca pods wobbling in the wind.  I left the red dirt and the giant crows and the sky that went up and on forever.   I left the empty mailbox whistling like a wiffle ball.  And I left, most of all, the one-person lacks and loneliness contest I had going there.  The winner needs nothing.  The winner needs no-one.  I was determined to win.  I almost won, by sheer starvation.  It’s strange how you can die from lack of a bite or sip.  You can die from having no warm room, or, in the summer, from no puff of cold air.  But you can’t die quickly or easily from a lack of human connection.  Does petting strangers’ dogs count as physical affection?  Does reading library books count as interaction?  Not even a coroner knows for sure.

Now I’m in a city buzzing and whizzing with people—real people, not the paper voices of people.  I watch them.  I talk to them.  I listen carefully for parts to scribble down when they turn away.  Silently, secretly, I seem to be imploring every person I encounter:  teach me to be human again.  To eat, to get full, to give, to take, to take up space.  You knew me in a summer river sheen but now the desert has marked me.  I’m dry bones with a dusty complexion.  My clothes and hair appear as afterthoughts, like they were tumbleweeds blowing by that just happened to stick.  So how  is it I’m being courted?  I’m somehow being pursued by a towering punk (punk old school, he always clarifies) guy called Chicago.  I met him while serving homeless breakfasts for the Dorothy Day House.  There’s another whole letter, lots of whole letters, on the Dorothy Day breakfasts.  Chicago, I said, when he told me his name.  I hadn’t told him mine.  Is that because you’re from there?  He smiled from inside his studded hood, a smile both shy and dazzling. Who wants to know?  He answered. 

The young punks on Telegraph Avenue follow him around, flashing their zippers and chains and pierced rings. Maybe they follow him because Chicago has fierce posture and a knife and giant muscles that appear to be carved out of black onyx.  Or maybe because he’s their dealer, I dunno.  He has a pager but no home.  He has a good fashion sense considering he finds all his clothes on sidewalks or in dumpsters.  He wanted me to know, he told me four times or more, that he quadruple washes every item he finds.  He rips the sleeves off shirts because his arms won’t fit into them.  He also wears a black leather vest with this studded hood, often up.  He has adorned his vest with silver lighter tops as fringe, and when I asked him how he got so many, and how he fastened them on there, he answered:  One at a time.   His giant left boot is patched with silver duct tape.  I like you, I really really like you, he keep saying.  He wears a spoon—the cheap cafeteria kind you can bend easily—around his wrist.  You’re so great, he insists, You’re opinionated but you’re also wide open.  He smiles and looks right at me when he says these things, too.  And because he is brave in this remarkable way—a way I’m clearly not, a way you’re clearly not—I sometimes fall down beside him, not too close, on the pavement of Telegraph Avenue.   

Chicago seems to know I’m starting over again from nothing in the business of being human, of being with humans.  Only one time he asked what I was coming from and what I wanted from this city.  But he was looking down—he was busy sewing a zipper up the side of his pants with a strand of mint dental floss.  One time he drew chalk lines and we pitched pennies at them, and he got all the points.  One time we used the second hand on the chained pocket-watch he keeps beside his pager to see how long each bird stayed on the wire.  One time he tore a strip of the silver duct tape off his boot and coiled it into a tight little ring, asking how I felt about marriage.  Mostly we just sit there, on the curb, until I have to go to work.  Last week a suited guy striding past mistook me for a panhandler and lifted his hands apologetically, palms to the sky.  What can I do?  He seemed to say.  What can I possibly do for you, when I’m me, and you’re you?

Chicago laughs by opening his mouth wide and making no sound, just little huffs of air.  It’s so much like he’s choking I told him he should never accidentally cup his hand around his neck while he’s laughing.  Once he said, Will you hold my hand?  Which was a clever way of putting it.  Not can I hold yours, but will you hold mine.  And since it was inside a fingerless leather glove I did.  Pretend it’s just a wallet, is what I told myself.  There is always traffic here to look out on when faces are too much.   After enough time had passed, two minutes maybe, I let go.  My hand wiggled around freely, saying whew.  But also it missed the soft leather, the heat.  The slight pump and give of something alive.  No wallet can do that because money is dead.  On that day Chicago said, You have no idea how many ghosts I live with.  He started to name the names of his friends and where they had been shot: in which area, in which body part.  It sounded like a poem.  But it’s his poem.  Not even the street called South Paulina is mine to use, though I will use it here for you.

Sometimes Chicago buys me what we call lunch at the 7-11, in the form of a Slushie.  The machine has four flavors.  If you layer them and stir with the straw-spoon (what an invention, that duck-bill on the end), the result is beautiful.  In a way you might call someone’s outfit beautiful, if she was wearing an airbrushed T-shirt and a clown wig.  On the speckled linoleum floor of the 7-11 today we found a letter some woman wrote to a guy she perceived as poor.  She called him that, in the letter.  It was one page of lined paper tucked into a torn envelope.  When I slid the paper out of the envelope my body gave a buck of happiness.  It thought I had mail.  I asked Chicago, Do you think the guy was, like, a loser and couldn’t love her? So she assumed he was poor in spirit? Chicago was shoving some paper napkins in his pockets for later.  He said, I think the guy had no cash.  The letter advised its recipient to pray for guidance, both to Jesus and to the Five Saints of Today, which she listed.  None of them were women.  Billy Graham was listed after Billy Clinton.  At first the letter was funny.  But then at the registers I got quiet.  I said, This letter gives letters a bad name.  Chicago pulled off his sunglasses.  He stared at my face.  He actually stooped down and leaned forward to peer into it, for what seemed like a really long time.  I dunno, maybe I was wincing.  Maybe because of your letters.  Maybe because of the ones I got.  Maybe because of the ones I didn’t get.  He just kept searching my face with his eyes.  It couldn’t have been for that long, because the one person in front of us was just buying a Sprite and a pack of filtered cigarettes.  But it was almost too much.   When we stepped out of the 7-11 Chicago slid a pink lighter out of his vest pocket and held it to a corner of the letter.  He set fire to it, right there beside the obvious choice, a grated trash can.  The paper burned from the edges in, curling up on itself.  It shrivelled to a black potato chip.  Our heads were bowed watching it, bowed I guess to the angle of people praying.  Have you ever seen a flame dancing on a sunny day?  In that bright light it seems like a secret message just for your eyes.  A coded nudge, maybe, to stretch and shine and quietly do just that, to just do that.     




Going in Again


Ohio.  August 2017.

Out from the one-of-a-kind tiles holding on in dark boxes.  Out from the stacks of men’s shirts to be sewn into skirts, the felted sweaters to be made into buttons. Out from the plastic sacks of yarn waiting to become something wearable.  Piles of yarn in piles of plastic growing piles of dust.  The world will end—foot space to air space—in piles. Out from the cupboards of food that expired in 2006. Out from the cigarette ashes in the abalone shell.  Out from that giddy abalone addiction which could make any child a hunter.  The greed for rainbows.  Rainbows with holes.  The holes appearing big and black as caves for the iridescence surrounding them.  Out from the oval mirrors that rocked with the tide and shimmered so they had no edges.  Underwater rainbows also look further away than they are. Out from the studded shells of urchins, which my tiny fingertips tried to read like braille.  Out from all the pieces of the beach that blanched and dulled and weakened in this house, even when they weren’t used as ashtrays.  Out from greyed rainbows.  Out from the lame attempt to travel by shuffling nature.  Out from the books I call mine.  Like I did something other than read them.  Out from the favorite spines that ask can you ever tell if a book sang so deeply because it broke you or because it filled you?  Maybe it didn’t break you.  Maybe it just spoke well to places that were already broken.  Out from the boxes of letters stashed in the closet.  My name in so many different prints.  By so many different pens.  To so many different addresses.  Out from the blatant love I never saw in them.  Out from knowing we only get what care we can bear.  That’s it.  Out from all the art on the walls and the memories of the people who made it.  Out from, for example, the female nude Edie did with a red crayon in about six perfect swipes.  Out from the Edie in it.  How she hid her innovative gears in a prim black skirt suit and unchanging babydoll haircut.  Where does the art end and the artist begin?  They meld together.  If you’re lucky.  Out from this Chihuly glass piece that placed anywhere is always a martian landing.  In its black strands I see his big black eye patch which the child me always stared right at.  Even when I knew to be polite I should look with both my eyes at his one good eye.  Out from all the faces of the artists Nelly Bly brought home.  Out from all the artwork Nelly Bly brought home.  Some pictures she hid under sheets and blankets until the time was right.  But sneaking art onto a practical person’s wall works as well as spray-painting on big dollar signs.  Out from the bedside table we all want.  From the bottles of lotion on it, empty to all levels.  Out from the absorbed way she’s working it into her hands and arms and legs. Like there’s nothing she’d rather be doing.  Like there’s nothing else she has to do.  It appears she’s humming. Whether she is or not.  Out from always her lotion, even when I was a baby.  When I couldn’t tell my body from hers.  Out from the reptile skin her dad passed on to her.  Out from the reptile skin she passed on to me.  The lotion just makes its cracks shine for a minute.  That’s all it ever did.  Out from her beautiful optimism.  If you didn’t see the lotion you would think she was comforting one hand with the other.  If you couldn’t see at all you’d think–from the contented concentration beaming off her–that she’s making art.  And maybe she is.  And maybe she is.

And out from all this.  As I was going to say.  Out from all this the corn in the fields is so bright and clean.  It doesn’t do a thing.  And then it grows up and grows up and grows up like it’s ordinary.  Like it’s way easier than staying where it was.


Whooping Cough Chronicles: Ten


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


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



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 a 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.