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.
It 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.