Baby’s breath poem

Sleeping child

Today’s poem is a response to Michelle H. Barnes’ “These Are the Hands” challenge on Today’s Little Ditty: “Consider writing about the place that empathy has in your own life—a time you offered compassion to another or a time it was freely given to you.”

Freely given … this is the first thing that comes to mind. Adapted from a post I wrote three years ago.

He wakes—that sound.

That rasp.Is it?

It is.

He traces it to the crib.

The baby. Just three months old.

Not breathing right.

Hand to her little faceno fever.

She stirs under his touch, still sleeping.

Breath ragged, rattling.

He is young.

It is his first child.

He goes back to bed.

But

he carries his baby with him.

Lies awake all night

with her beside him

making sure

she still breathes.

-She does.

Long after he does not.

*******

Thank you

for all the nights

you watched over me

when asthma attacked,

Daddy.

Photo: Angel1. peasapCC BY

Today is going to be long ago


Beyond the sundown is tomorrow’s wisdom, today is going to be long, long ago.

-Thomas Hornsby Ferril

Daddy paid the bill and we left the doctor’s office. My arms burned and ached from the allergy injections. We’d waited a long time for the nurse to call my name, despite having an appointment every week on my father’s day off. We’d also waited a long time after the shots, one in each arm, in case of a severe reaction. The day itself was shot now. As we crossed the parking lot to get in the car, I thought: Nothing ever changes. We come, I get the shots, my arms hurt for another two days. I still can’t sleep a whole night through because of asthma attacks. Balling up with my knees under my chest, my head on two pillows, helps me breathe sometimes. I can take in air but I have to push it out. My chest rattles. The wheezing occurs most often at night. It’s worse in spring and fall—every Easter and Thanksgiving, my parents say. Each night Daddy pours more water in the vaporizer in my room, refills the little metal tray in the lid with Vick’s menthol. The contraption steams and sputters for the duration of the night, but the only effect I can see is the loosening of the tape holding my posters on the walls of my bedroom—posters I bought at the book fair, one of a tabby kitten dangling from a limb, captioned “Hang on, Baby, Friday’s coming!” and a red poster of a sunset, with “What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us”—until my posters fall down.  Every day I try to stick them back on the moist walls. I am tired. I can’t rest at night, I can’t rest after school because the kids Mom babysits at home want me to play and there’s nowhere to go, no getting away from them. 

I walk in silence by my father across the ugly gray concrete parking lot, my arms burning, knowing those kids will be at the house when I get home. It’s the same, day after day, night after night, forever. Nothing ever changes. 

I don’t know how I can keep going on. 

I was only ten years old.

I didn’t know to attach words to my feelings—boredom, depression, in a rut, despair.  I never communicated the heaviness of my thoughts to anyone at the time. I have always been quiet by nature. When my physical activity had to be limited—I couldn’t run in P.E. because it triggered my asthma in the days before inhalers—I spent more and more time reading and writing.

This was my salvation. My escape. The way out of the daily sameness, the beginning of overcoming, of strength. I described the color and the hot, cinnamon taste of liquid Benadryl in my fifth-grade memoir—the teacher responded, “What clear, great detail!” That was the first time a teacher praised my writing. Here, unexpectedly, was something I could be good at, something to work toward.

It happened slowly.  I don’t remember the exact turn of events, or the length of time it took, only that the moment of long-ago despair was just that—a moment. Things did change. Eventually I got injections in one arm when doctors decided to combine the serums; then the shots stopped altogether. Unless I am around cigarette smoke or cats, I am not troubled by asthma anymore (though doctors warn me one is never “cured”). My mom didn’t babysit the pesky kids forever; I could find my own space again. Most remarkably, I have never had serious bouts of depression, despite the fact that it runs in my family.

Looking back now, I can see where that long-ago darkness might have been the beginning of a very different story. I was fortunate. I endured. As decisions for my health were made with more and more wisdom, I found my way through with words and pages.

I remain today, whole, strong, and grateful, because of it.

Every word, every decision, every moment—wisdom matters.

If tomorrow is to be.

Baby’s breath

Sleeping child

Angel1. peasapCC BY

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.

Self-sacrificial love.

“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.

slice-of-life_individualEarly Morning Slicer