Where He Can Breathe

Alexis Wolff essays

Share Mamalode Share Mamalode

Under a towering tent on a campus quad, hundreds of my Yale College classmates are reconnecting. But I’m not mixing and mingling. I’m at the student health center with my young son, who I brought along for my ten-year reunion.  

A middle-age doctor enters the room. “What seems to be the problem?”

“He’s got this cough he can’t seem to shake,” I explain. “His nose is runny, and there’s some gross stuff in his eyes now too. Mostly I’m worried because when he coughs, it sometimes seems like he can’t breathe.”

The doctor turns to my son, who’s swinging his feet as he sits on the edge of the exam table. “How old are you, buddy?”

“I’m 4. I just had my 4 birthday. It was an art and super hero party.”

“That’s cool. Four, huh? That’s sure big! And how do you feel this evening?”

“Not good,” my son replies through a shy but excited smile. He loves Doc McStuffins and knows that doctor visits usually end with lollipops, so he finds this considerably more fun than anything else we’ve done over the past few days in New Haven, Connecticut.

Before our trip, I’d promised my son that Yale’s collegiate Gothic campus would seem like something out of a storybook. That had been my impression when I’d first shown up from my rural Midwestern hometown. And that was at least partly why I’d decided to haul him here all the way from Mexico, leaving his dad and little brother at home.

However, my son took one look around campus and declared that it most certainly was not a castle. Castles always have high-flying flags, he explained, and he saw not a one.

I showed him a classroom with mahogany desks and stained glass windows. “Mommy used to take classes here,” I said. “Isn’t it pretty?”

“I don’t like pretty things,” he reminded me. “Only super cool and awesome ones.”

“Well, isn’t it super cool and awesome then?”

“Sure, it’s awesome. Just like my old school was awesome.” His old school was in a damp church basement.

My son continued to be unimpressed as I walked him through memories of my college years. Through the green courtyards where I’d lounged with assigned readings. Into the library where I’d curled on leather couches to pen important-seeming papers. Past the hole-in-the-wall falafel joint where I’d had late-night conversations about the meaning of things.

“Do you think this might be your college one day, buddy?” I asked on one walk.

“Maybe,” my son shrugged. “I don’t know. What’s daddy’s college like? Do they have any playgrounds there?”

Lack of playgrounds aside, I thought my alma mater was pretty great, and by and large, looked back fondly on my time there. That’s why I came to my reunion, why I liked the idea of my son attending my school one day too.

But out exploring campus, we also encountered reminders that, at times, my college experience wasn’t so great.

I walked my son past the student newspaper building where my small-town upbringing made me feel helplessly unsophisticated. By the row of retail stores whose merchandise it had seemed like everyone could afford but me. Past the architecture school where I’d wanted to study, but had been too intimidated by my talented peers to try. Into the dining hall where, even surrounded by masses of people, I felt so alone.

* * *

The student health center where I’m sitting now is beautiful, new. I wonder what happened to the former building, the one where, as a sophomore, I sought help from a mental health team that couldn’t really much help at all. The building I didn’t see again for a year after I withdrew from college and moved back home. The one that, after finally coming back to campus for a second try at sophomore year, I visited occasionally for support groups and therapy sessions.

This new student health center holds no such memories. It’s just the place where I’ve come with my sick son.

“Any idea what’s wrong?” I ask the doctor.

“Looks like allergies,” he explains after a thorough exam to rule out anything more serious, anything that would delay our flight the next morning.

“You might want to get a full work-up back home,” the doctor continues, “but he’s just reacting to the environment here. He may be uncomfortable for a bit, but he’ll be okay.”

My son perks up. He knows about allergies, which afflict his dad. “Where are we again?” he whispers.

“Connecticut,” I remind him.

“Connecticut is giving me allergies?” he asks the doctor, who chuckles and then nods to say that yes, yes it is.

We leave the new student health center with some anti-itch eye cream but no lollipop, as the center isn’t exactly in the practice of catering to kids. But I have an idea.

On the way back to our hotel, we stop beneath that reunion tent, squeezing through the crowd of my classily clad classmates as we make our way to the dessert bar, where we grab some sweets to go.

“Mommy,” my son says as we continue back to our hotel, plates of lemon poppy seed cake balancing precariously on our palms. “I think maybe this shouldn’t be my school one day.”

“Why not, buddy?”

“Because I have allergies of Connecticut!” It’s his new punch line, one he’ll repeat for days.

“That’s true. But maybe when you’re bigger you’ll be able to take some medicine that will help.”

His scowl tells me he’s not convinced.

In the hotel room, we change into pajamas. We climb under the covers and gobble up our cake.

I sneak a look at Facebook on my phone, scrolling past picture after picture taken under the reunion tent. The party is clearly still roaring on, and I’m a tiny bit sorry to be missing it, but not really.

I already caught up with the people who mattered most. I explored old haunts and enjoyed early morning lectures (my son sitting beside me wearing tiger headphones and playing games on an iPad). Around us were other alumni in town for their 50th or 55th reunions; my own classmates—most of who didn’t yet have kids, or hadn’t brought them—were sleeping off late-night adventures.

I realize I’m doing things a little differently at this reunion. But by now, I’m used to that. I did things a little differently after returning for my second sophomore year, after accepting that not being quite like everyone else was okay. That it would have to be okay. After graduation I did things a little differently too, settling into an expat life that’s taken my family to three different countries in my son’s four years.

“Where are we again?” my son whispers as we lie together in our shared hotel bed.

“Connecticut,” I remind him.

“I have allergies of Connecticut!” he repeats through a grin. “I can’t wait to tell Daddy!”

Then he starts coughing again. Small coughs at first, followed by deep, throaty ones. He gasps for air, and I panic. My hand drifts over to the phone, perched ready to call for help, but I wait. I try to remember what the doctor said. That my son may be uncomfortable for a bit, but that he’ll be okay.

And he is. Soon, his coughing calms.

I stroke my son’s back as he curls up beside me. Although he’s only in pre-school, I can’t help but already have hopes for his college years. He'll arrive at college more worldly than I did, but after spending his childhood overseas, an American university may feel foreign to him in a different way.

I hope he’ll have the courage to dive in anyway. I hope at some point he’ll stumble and fall, that he’ll get up, that he’ll cry and then laugh, that he’ll keep on. I hope he’ll hurt and then love, that he’ll fail and then triumph, that he’ll learn and, most of all, grow.

I did most of that on the campus right outside my hotel room’s window. Maybe it’s where my son will do it too. Or maybe not.

Already, Yale is making him sick. And I can’t ignore that, albeit in a different way, I was sick here too.

Whether I would have struggled anywhere, or whether it was largely the dynamics of this particular place, I can’t say. Still, I’m not sure I’d change my path. I was uncomfortable for a bit, but in the end I was okay.

For my son, though, I hope for a little more. Wherever he ends up, whatever he does, I hope his triumphs arrive a little sooner. I hope his failures are fewer and further between. And amidst those failures, I hope he’ll always still feel like he can breathe.


About the Author

Alexis Wolff

I have an MFA in Nonfiction Writing from Columbia and a BA in African Studies from Yale. My work has appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and Brain, Child: the Magazine for Thinking Mothers, among others.

Share Mamalode Share Mamalode
July 2015 – Dive In
We are crushing on our partner this month – Amy Poehler's Smart Girls
Facebook Comments