worry

When Our Children Struggle to Breathe

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It’s one in the morning, and my two-year-old son has finally returned to sleep after two hours of crying and struggling to breathe. I listen to his breathing; I track it. After twenty minutes with the nebulizer he’s finally found a smoother rhythm, but it’s shallow and ragged—he hems audibly between each inhalation. My own body has adapted to his; I can’t breathe deeply enough. Each time he coughs, my own lungs tickle.

I wonder if it would be okay for me to fall asleep here next to him, if I can trust the design of his body, or the design of my instincts to wake me if his breathing worsens.

At four am, I wake halfway. I note that he is struggling, but the heaviness of sleep draws me back in. I doze until he wakes wheezing and then crying in frustration.

Many times tonight I’ve considered taking Stump to the E.R., but Kellie’s still in the Mojave Desert, and Smoke is sleeping soundly in the next room. I’d either have to drag him along, or find someone to keep vigil on our couch. There’s a list in my head of people I could call in the middle of the night, but I wonder who sleeps with their phone by the bed, and who would answer the call.

Also, by now I know what means to bring a wheezing toddler to the ER. I’ve done it when Smoke was the same age that Stump is now. I know what they’d do. They’d move us into an empty room and make us wait. They’d hand me a children’s gown and I’d have to strip him of his warm clothing. They’d give him a nebulizer treatment and force-feed him a dose of prednisone.

I’ve got my own nebulizer here at home. I’ve got a doctor’s appointment at 8:45. I know what signs to look for: cold hands, blue lips. I make a deal with myself that I will stay awake and bear witness. I will call for an ambulance if his lips turn blue. But still, it seems to me that if his breathing got any thinner, well then he’d barely be breathing at all.

Stump stops crying for a moment and leans into me. “Peabody Sherman?” he whispers.

I wipe snot from his face with my sleeve. “You want to watch Mr. Peabody and Sherman?” I ask.

“Yes,” he answers, nodding.

fnd_mc_mrpeabodyshermanIt is four in the morning and we are watching Mr. Peabody and Sherman while the nebulizer runs. Stump sits quietly, transfixed, his mouth around the mouthpiece, plumes of medicine vanishing each time he inhales. The machine is as loud as a hair dryer, and I’ve got the TV volume turned up to compensate. I expect that any moment Smoke will emerge from his room, rub at his eyes, and join us on the couch. If this happens, if Smoke starts his day at four am, then my tomorrow will really be a mess. But somehow, even through there’s one thin door between this noise and his room, Smoke sleeps through it. I’m amazed by this, just as I am amazed that Stump’s tears have stopped, that he’s willing to sit still, willing to take his medicine, that he seems to have learned that there’s relief inside that nebulizer chamber.

I remember how it was to be a child with asthma. I remember lying on the couch all day with one hand curled around my inhaler. I remember tracking hours, waiting for the relief of my next puff. I remember coming to recognize the heft of a new inhaler vs. the lightness of a spent one. I remember sometimes waking in the night from dreams where I could not catch my breath to discover that I truly could not catch my breath. I remember how sometimes the inhaler relaxed my airways just enough to ease the panic, but still I panted and wheezed.

It wasn’t until I was an adult that my mother confessed to me how nervous my asthma had made her, how she would stay up at night listening to my breathing. She told me this before Stump was born, and before Smoke had developed asthma, but the depth of her worry made sense to me, and I hoped I might be spared the same experience.

But sometimes, inevitably, those things we wish won’t happen happen and we are surprisingly prepared.

My experience of parenting so far has been this: every night I go to bed hoping I might sleep well, and I dread the sleepless nights of teething, the ear infections, the vomiting. When I think about these nights, and I know they will arrive, I worry for my future sleepless self. How will I stay awake when I’m already so fucking tired?

But my worry provides the momentum to move us forward into morning, when his breathing will improve just a little, when the doctor will listen with her stethoscope and tell me that his breathing sounds labored, but clear.

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The Missing Bear

My son’s kindergarten teacher bribes her students to behave for five days straight using only a small piece of paper as a reward. At the beginning of each week, she issues each child a small die-cut shape, and if they listen, cooperate, and follow the rules, they get to bring it home on Monday.

In Mrs. N’s weekly email to parents this morning, she announced that this week’s behavior incentive was a bear. If we don’t find an incentive in our children’s folder, she instructed parents on curriculum night, we might want to have a conversation about why that is.

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That bear stayed in the back of my mind for hours. I didn’t think about it actively, but it stuck as a kind of visual marker for the end of the day. When I got home, I would remember to check Smoke’s folder and, assuming the bear was there, I’d make a point to share a moment of pride with him.

I was true to this intention, and I checked his folder moments after arriving home. I removed the papers from each pocket: there were instructions for photo day, a handout on conferences, a flyer for the harvest party. There was even a free magazine for parents. But there was no bear.

Last week, I had a moment of mild panic only to find that the bear was simply hiding in the flaps. Today I checked the flaps. No bear. My heart dropped. I mean, I could feel it dropping, then it raced. Blood ran into my cheeks. I was surprised by how strongly I felt about this bear.

“Did you get a bear in your folder?” I asked Smoke, hoping that maybe he’d already claimed it.

“I don’t think so,” he told me.

“Is there a reason you didn’t get one?” I reminded him that the bears were a reward for good behavior.

“I don’t think anyone got one,” he said. He didn’t seem to be hiding anything from me.

I took the dogs for a walk, and on that walk I was filled with dread. I kept asking myself: Is this really about the die-cut bear? Like maybe, are you upset about something else that you’re forgetting? But no, it was only the bear.

I wondered what my son had done. Clearly he hadn’t punched a child or tried to set the school on fire, or I would have heard from the principal or Mrs. N herself. But was he a disruptor? Did he poke other children during circle time? Did he chase someone around with a booger?

I wondered why it mattered. Some of it was sympathy. I started to imagine Smoke as the kind of kid who, week after week, comes home without a bear. The kind of kid who wants to do right, but gets labeled as trouble. Some of it was mystery. Smoke has been in kindergarten for a month now, and I have very little information about his performance. The truth is, as well as I know my son, I have no idea who he is in his classroom. The die-cuts every week have reassured me that all is well.

In my head I drafted an email. I would try to play it casual. Dear Mrs. N, it would read. Smoke did not have a bear in his folder today, but he wasn’t able to tell me anything about that. If he misbehaved last week, he is blissfully unaware. Is there anything I should know?

When I came home, I checked the pockets of the folder one last time, as if I might have somehow missed the bear. I hadn’t.

Though I kept telling myself it wasn’t urgent, I went to my laptop and opened my email account. There, at the top of my inbox was an email from Mrs. N.

The subject line read: Bears.

Dear Families,
The paper bear that was supposed to go home today to indicate your child
had a great week last week didn’t get into the folders today—sorry.
I will send the bears tomorrow.

Oh.

Maybe I am not the only one who had feelings about the missing bears.

Five: a study in perspective

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From the time my son could talk, the first word out of his mouth every morning was Mommy. When he was two, he called it from his bed. He was little then, and needed me to fetch him; he couldn’t conceive of leaving his bed alone. Always, he insisted on taking my hand as we crossed the threshold from his room to the rest of the house. As he grew older, he gained the confidence to rise on his own, but still he’d find me in the kitchen and call my name—Mommy!—his arms stretched wide for a hug. I recognized that such greetings wouldn’t continue forever, and I wondered when they’d end.

My son is five now and those greetings have ended. These days, he walks into the kitchen rubbing his eyes. He cocks his head and smiles at me, a little sheepishly. I open my arms, and he walks into them. He doesn’t invoke my name. I rub his head. I bend over and smell his hair: shampoo and sweat.

My son has entered the stage where whole days can pass, and I don’t see much of him. There are mornings where I leave for work just after he has woken. I may pick him up from preschool at 5:30, his baby brother in tow, and listen to him chatter for an hour as we make and eat dinner. That hour of half-attention is sometimes all I have before the baby melts down and I attend to his bedtime while my partner takes care of the rest. And then, on the weekends, people now offer to take him from me. He gets invited for afternoons at the park, trips to the movies, sleepovers. I send him off on these adventures, and entertain fears about him falling down a staircase or slipping on a rock. Clearly my worry is disproportionate; it is my mind’s sneaky way of grieving his independence.

On the day my son was born, when the nurse placed his naked body on my chest, I was amazed by how firm and warm and actual he felt. I had imagined something squishy and barely human, not this long, fully-formed person. As he began to grow, I recalled that moment every time I took him out of the bath. I’d hold him against me and look at us in the mirror, the back of his long body, his skin still warm from the water, and connect it in my mind to the body I held that first day.

When I do that now, the connection feels distant. My son’s legs dangle; they reach for the floor. It all makes sense, I suppose. My son once lived inside of me, and then, once he was born, he depended on my milk and the warmth of my body for survival. As he grew older he ate more and nursed less, until finally he drank water from the tap or juice from the fridge. So it’s right that his limbs should reach beyond me now. But I hadn’t counted on these feelings, not so early anyway. I thought I had until puberty at least to maintain my status as the Center of his World. But already, after just five years of raising him, I feel acutely that he will leave me again and again in ways that I haven’t yet accounted for.