The harsh racks of Scott’s coughing awoke Melissa at the end of a day tainted with a sense of wrongness and foreboding. She was halfway to his room before she recognized that this was no ordinary asthma attack, even by Scott’s standards. A dampness underscoring each hack sent a shiver down her spine. She touched her son’s burning forehead, eyed his violently shivering body, and reached for the nebulizer with one hand and the phone with the other.
Scott’s tenth birthday came and went. Melissa had wanted to throw a party for him, just a small one to help him keep his spirits up since he’d missed so much school. He relapsed that week. Melissa and her husband—she could still think of him as her husband at this point—had their first fight outside Scott’s hospital room door, voices crushed into whispers as they argued about the flavor of his birthday cake instead of what they wanted to say.
Melissa left Scott’s present—a PlayStation that no one was going to convince her that the McCalls couldn’t afford—on his dresser for when he felt well enough to play it. He didn’t touch it for eleven days.
The Stilinskis dropped off a selection of games; Deputy Stilinski curled Melissa’s fingers around the cheerfully wrapped boxes and informed her that the gift was the least they could do. Her throat choked up and she nodded, knowing it was true because Mrs. Stilinski had spent more time sitting vigil with her than anyone else.
The fourth grade class that Scott was supposed to be in sent a card made of poster board. Scott’s classmates had scribbled it full of platitudes and scrawled signatures. She wondered bitterly how many of them would have known it was his birthday if he’d been in school that day. She hoped they would remember his eleventh birthday, refused to consider that there might not be an eleventh birthday for them to forget.
Scott had wires and drips and machines that filled his hospital room with beeps and buzzing and the metallic taste of hope that she couldn’t bear to swallow. She knew what every single machine and tube did, and yet she had never felt so helpless.
Any spare moment Melissa could grab during her shifts over the next few weeks she came into her son’s room and watched him, seeking signs of improvement that weren’t wishful thinking. He’d always been a scrawny child. Now he was sprawled beneath the white sheets, nearly fading into the bed. His chest rose and fell with labored effort. She had to force herself to listen past the thick gurgle under each inhalation and instead concentrate on how the latest fever had broken and on how the persistent coughing showed signs of subsiding.
The doctors acknowledged that Scott’s body wasn’t responding well to treatment; they said he’d have to fight through on his own. Thinking about how stubborn her son could be made Melissa start laughing at random times, the rough sounds jerking out of her throat on their own volition. Scott’s father grew increasingly short-tempered at what he told her a blatant disrespect for her calling, her child, and her family.
The illness wouldn’t let go.
Scott came home for a few days around Halloween. Too lethargic to participate any other way, he sat on the front porch in his pirate costume and handed out candy.
Two weeks later he was back in the hospital for observation, a series of severe asthma attacks scaring everyone. Every conversation Melissa could recall with Scott’s father from that that time was limited to terse exchanges of information and suffocating anger as each complained of how much more the other should be doing.
Christmas passed, then New Year’s. Scott was home for some of it, his father for less.
More than three months after the ordeal started, Melissa found herself staring at the stack of letters piled on the kitchen table. So many were bills from the hospital, the insurance companies, the pharmacy: contradictory and confusing statements about who would pay for what and how much. She’d been in healthcare for her entire adult life and still found the numbers shocking. Less surprising was the petition for divorce that had appeared on the table that morning.
Melissa pressed the papers flat against the wooden table, closed her eyes, listened hard. Scott was asleep on the couch in the next room, the television droning in the background. Over the murmured voices she could hear Scott’s breathing, deep and even, each inhalation dry and effortless for the first time in too long. He was still weak, had missed most of the school year and would be missing more while he recovered.
As long as she could hear him, she could handle the rest.