Just Breathe, They Say

Tammy Kleinman Special Needs

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It starts with a cough. She’s just getting a cold, we tell ourselves at bedtime. Nothing to fear.

But overnight, my daughter’s simple cough turns into something far more ominous–each breath spins out in a wheezing, gasping rattle. She has no history of asthma, allergies or breathing issues. And yet here she is, terrified and struggling to push air to her lungs.

Steam, cold, nebulizer, anti-inflammatory: nothing is working. We call for help.

The ambulance arrives. No moms are allowed inside, where coiling tubes take hold and machines beep in code. Instead, I buckle my son into our van. Both of us are wound up tight and shaking with tears. We follow her to the hospital.

The ER scene is all TV melodrama: six scrub-clad attendants, poking and testing, linking lines, tick-ticking, check-checking. Burly rescue men command her to “relax” as a tangle of doctor’s knot around her bed. Between gasps, her frightened eyes search out mine.

Our hands find each other. Small comfort.

The medics direct her: “just breathe.” The pleas are simple, empty lines delivered from strangers’ mouths. Their words drift unheard into the wings.

All these experts: at first, they are kind and attentive, rushing to diagnose. They know we are exposed and afraid. But test after test confirms their suspicions: an unidentified virus has lodged in her throat. A miracle steroid will be applied. The body will be fixed.

And just like that, the drama begins to wind down. Vitals recorded, insurance collected, signatures signified, the doctors begin to uncoil, leaving us alone with our fear.

Centuries later, the steroid takes hold and her breath drags into more even intervals. The coughing continues, but the panic has lifted. The machines stop beeping. An attendant loosens the grip of a lead. And here again is my daughter: A 10-year-old girl sitting up in a hospital bed, playing with a latex surgical glove. She is still exhaling in disturbing, croupy barks, but she will recover.

All that is left to repair is our nerves.

This illness that exploded into our lives like a stage gun shooting blanks has given us a glimpse into the world of the truly sick. We don’t know how the illness started or when it will return.  I will have to keep vigil.

Her body will heal, but I already can feel my own scars forming. I am no longer confident that this invisible rope will not twist itself around her throat again that normal days will remain normal.  I can no longer assume that I have control over my child, our health, and our fates.

Of course, I always have known this, and yet now I understand the chaos in a different way–a way that grabs at my heart with both hands, shaking me awake.

For my daughter’s sake, I scramble to stitch the façade of normalcy back together. I crack jokes; let the kids share a dripping neon popsicle. I script out our weekend and recite tonight’s dinner menu.

Slowly we resume our old familiar roles. I brush her hair; she fights me. We laugh at the futile, everyday struggle. We sit together and wait for this coughing to pass, even as we strive to sustain this time of being together, the right now-ness of it all.

In a crisis, that is the best we can do. We reclaim our imagined supremacy against the unknown. We make believe. We tell ourselves that if we just hold hands, if we just breathe, we will be okay.

Together we inhale the stubborn, stilted joy of mutual survival. We practice our parts until we almost believe they will always be so. This is, of course, the only way through.

About the Author

Tammy Kleinman

Tammy Kleinman is a communication consultant, writer, and editor living in New Haven, CT. Her work has appeared in Mamalode, the BlogHer anthology, Roots: Where Food Comes From and Where It Takes Us, and on Mash Stories. She currently is working on a full-length novel about two sisters coming of age in 1960's Ohio and their complicated relationships with their mother, their men, and Esther Williams.

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