There’s a stillness over the house, the unusual quietness that is companion to the sick and ailing. The Bean is sleeping now, propped up against a pillow that deludes his Mimi into thinking it helps him breath, being upright a bit instead of flat on his back as he most often sleeps. A Venti Latte sits here on the floor beside me. I don’t usually order the large ones but after the long drive that began in the gloaming hour and ended too late, I knew I would need double the caffeine.
I slept on the floor next to his bed last night, the same way I did when my Mama was ill in that bed in another quiet and still home. What is it about the sick that makes me want to draw nearer? To be there in the dark with them? Bean didn’t even know I was there until he awoke this morning, predawn, pointing at the fire alarm and talking about the man. Something about fire alarms scare him. I tell him not to worry that fire alarms protect us. So he asks for a book, which of course, melts me.
His breathing comes in short spurts, like that of a runner who failed to train for the race. Viral pneumonia the ER doctors determined after the three-hour wait and a lung x-ray. Oddly poetic, his own momma had it when she was about this same age. Only then I lived back in an Oregon holler with three other children, all under the age of 5, to tend to.
His momma’s fever was raging. I couldn’t get her to eat or drink. The drinking thing became a problem. The nearest big town was over an hour away, up a canyon that cut through the mountains. The switchback road isolated the town from the rest of the world. That was the point, I guess. I used to tell my husband, who grew up in that holler, that people back there didn’t even know the Vietnam War ever happened.
I had to navigate that switchback road twice for emergencies – once when a 3-year-old hamburgered up her finger in a door and the other was when Bean’s momma fell ill with the same thing that’s struck him down now.
They kept his momma in the hospital a couple of days, filling her full of IVs, and medications to combat the pneumonia and the fever. I don’t know who took care of the older kids while Tim worked the fields. It was summer. Farmers and their hired help never get time off, not even for their own emergencies. Not during harvest, they don’t. Likely it was Tim’s momma or a friend from church.
Memory has a way of honing in on only the important details, like the way Bean’s momma looked in that hospital bed, her white blond hair matted with sweat, her kissy cheeks (as I always called them) glossy red from the fever that was draining away every drop of moisture within her. Her copper-penny eyes staring off into nothingness, the way a soldier’s does when he’s remembering that which he longs to forget.
I called the family as I drove up the Columbia Gorge last night, asked them to pray. We have the prayingest family. I am so thankful for that. My brother in law went straight way to his bedroom there at that beach house where he lives with my sister, dropped to his knees, the good one and the achy one, and asked for healing for Bean.
Something about the man we call Uncle Buck dropping to his knees that way reminds me of everything right about the world we inhabit. Our family, we love each other so deeply. We cuss each other. We do. But our love for one another rushes like a canyon river during times like these. I hope you have a family like that, or friends who are like family that way.
He’s sleeping, Bean is, because he’s lost a couple of pounds and while he has the will to play, to sing, to dance, he doesn’t have the breath too. Sleep is what he needs. You ever try to keep a two-year-old down? Lord, girl.
He’s going to be fine, I’m sure of it. Bean’s momma and daddy have health insurance. They have the means to get to a doctor and a doctor nearby who can help them. And a Mimi willing to sleep on the floor in a house that is still with sickness.
Some years ago, Bean’s momma made a trip into the wilds of Africa. She went with a medical team. It took days of travel by plane, by bus, by jeep on dusty red dirt roads to reach the village deep in the brush. The locals, they walked over twenty miles barefoot to seek help for incurable tumors and bursting boils and unrelenting pains of every conceivable manner. The team, they helped as best they could, doling out antibiotics, more rare than diamonds in those parts. They lanced boils, cleaned wounds, stitched up and patched up as best they could, those happy but broken people.
Not everyone has the means or the access to help.
I thought of that as I drove through the ghost town of Shaniko during the gloaming hour. Thought how somewhere else a mother was weeping over a child who needed medical care but had no access to it, or ability to pay for it even if she could get to it. Do women like that grow accustomed to watching their children suffer? Do they instinctively refuse to bond with a child for fear of losing that child? How much can a parents heart break before it is completely unfixable?
And what of those mothers in Mosul who cradled their dying children during the airstrikes led by US forces? Or the two-year old who survived the air strike only to walk through the rubble crying for his dead momma? What becomes of that broken child? Is there a silence that fills the air after the US planes have dropped their killing bombs? Does a stillness fall in the aftermath of over 200 civilian deaths? Do survivors gasp for breath like runners who failed to train? Or do they drop to their knees crying out to God or Allah for help for their loved ones?
And what of those children of Syria who have been gassed by their own government? Surely a silence falls as their breathing becomes more labored, as death yanks away every last hope from their tiny bodies.
And what of the silence that has become ours, the voters of this great nation? Is this too a sign of sickness and ailing? That we are too feverish, too dazed, too out of breath to stand up to those who would slaughter children through legislation designed to rob families of meaningful health insurance or health care, or through a silent compliance of sending our sons and daughters off to carry out the airstrikes ordered by a man so mad he praises the leaders of nations who assassinate their own people?
There’s a stillness in my soul.
I recognize it as that moment before the wailing begins.
Karen Spears Zacharias is author of BURDY and the forthcoming CHRISTIAN BEND (Mercer University Press).