The cure for anything is salt water: sweat, tears, or the sea. – Isak Dinesen
Being a light sleeper, he hears the rasping sound in the middle of the night. He gets up, tracing the sound to the baby’s crib.
She’s not breathing right.
He touches her face; she isn’t feverish. She stirs under his hand, still sleeping, drawing ragged, rattling breaths.
He is young. This is his first child. They are out of town, visiting his sister in the country.
He goes back to bed.
But he carries his baby with him and lies awake all night beside her, to make sure she keeps breathing. He perspires with anxiety – she’s so little.
Just three months old.
“It’s asthma,” the doctors tell him later.
A few years afterward, she has a bad bout of it. He takes her to the doctors, gets medication. She cries and cries, which doesn’t help the breathing.
“I – want – Grandma,” she wheezes, tears dripping off of her chin.
He calls his mother. “She wants to be with you but I hate to bring her when she’s sick.”
He sounds worn out.
“Bring her,” says his mother.
She lets all the housework go. Wrapping her arms around her granddaughter, she sits down in the rocking chair. Back and forth, back and forth she rocks, singing, “Little ones to Him belong, they are weak but He is strong.”
“Yes – Je – sus – loves – me – ” the little girl tries to sing, rattling, wheezing, coughing on the words. She can’t get enough air.
“Don’t try to sing, honey. Just listen to me singing,” says her Grandma.
On and on Grandma sings. The little girl settles, dried tear stains streaking her flushed face. Lulled by the beating of her grandmother’s heart in time with the song and the rocking of the chair, her eyes close at last. Rocking back and forth, back and forth, Grandma sings, tears flowing freely down her cheeks. Be well. Be well. Be well.
The sweat and the tears couldn’t cure asthma.
They represent another kind of healing power.
“I was afraid to sleep,” my father told me of the long-ago night he lay awake, sweating, to make sure I kept breathing when my first asthma attack struck at three months. He would get up countless nights throughout the years when he heard me coughing, to bring me medication or to turn on the vaporizer.
It’s why my grandmother dropped everything to comfort me, always had open arms, always had a song despite the tears. “My heart was breaking the whole time,” she said, recalling the day I begged to stay with her and didn’t have breath enough to sing, the memory resurrecting the tears even after decades had passed.
The memories are theirs, not mine, as I have no firsthand recollection of these events; told to me separately by my father and grandmother, many times over, they are part of my narrative identity.
Sweat, tears. The pouring out of their lives for mine, the pouring of their love into me from the very beginning. I am infused with their strength, their perseverance.
And beyond the power of the sweat and the tears is the power of story.
I remain to tell it.