Before they took him in, he'd made a ritual of pressing his ear to the side of the upright piano as his mother played. Loud and buzzy notes wrote odes within him until she'd warn him away.
Now, in the dark of the night, made light with red blinks and glowing screens and the light from the hall, he watches his parents sleep in the chair and the cot beside him, and he is not old enough to think, “How serious could it be?” He waves his hands trying to vanish them, like he saw in the magic show. He imagines walking out of this place on a tightrope, and emerging on the other side of the wall to much applause. When the sun appears in his window at 5 a.m., he flourishes his palms again. He wonders at how fine he feels.
The father falls for the dark wood laminate, telling people it's a fine room they're living out of these days. The child tinkers with the blood in the tubing when his parents are preoccupied with the doctor. He can make the deep red stop and start with just a pinch. His imagination is shaped by where he is; he dreams himself a nurse, a doctor. Even when he imagines blaring on a trumpet, he is holding the nebulizer, blowing sour notes sweet. His IV becomes the ripcord on this parachute as he envisions telling his coach, “Maybe we should turn back,” before jumping toward the center of the earth. His childhood is possessed by this place. Tangles of days swirl back and forward and none of them can recognize the present, but they resolve to smile: sad smiles and weary smiles and mesmerized smiles when the doctor brings news that says, “Improvement has come in the form of staying the same.”
Each night abounds with the invisible impossible. What if the child fell from bed, and none of the bells laughed their cruel laugh? The parents bring in a radio, to keep the child's ears filled with the same piano mazurkas and polkas he loved, but the child misses the vibrations most of all, feeling all the small violences of the hammers dancing on the wires just inches from his face.
The parents' wingspans grow smaller. Their car hasn't been touched in days.
“That noisy sun. Tell it to shut up,” the boy says, in the afternoon, his eyes squinting, and the parents squelch their scolding and close the blinds. They miss the way the light warms their core and mourn the cacophony of life outside the window, but they keep telling themselves, “It is not the skin of our teeth.”
The child mouths gibberish much of the afternoon, drifting into a kind of stupor, anesthetic shooing or beckoning. The mother reads to the child even after he has fallen asleep: “A fox remembers easily.” She pauses on this, stranded.
The children who are well enough put on a play. It takes weeks to prepare. It makes the father's tears ceiling within his eyes each time he thinks of it. The parents take their son to see it, but the play is about a garden, and the garden is just off stage. It drives the mother into a fit by the end of the show, knowing that off stage there is no garden at all. She tells the director, “I would have folded colored tissue. I would have pinched together fabric scraps so these children could have had a real garden.” Some of the kids overhear her and look around confused. They do not know what might have been.
Grandmother visits and she is full up of laughter and so soft to hug. Grandmother gives charming warnings for the future and the parents look away, convinced of what is not to come. They hold the point of view of each visitor in their mouths, until it becomes soggy and they spit it out. They have come to vie for the insoluble. They have made up a new way to survive knowing what they know. They no longer hesitate or whisper or experience anticipation. They used to shimmer with restlessness, and now they blink largo.
The father read that animals that breathe more slowly—pythons, elephants, tortoises—live longer. The family begins losing sleep in the attempt to breathe more and more slowly, and so even their breath becomes strange to them. They slow their heart rates by 75 percent. They hibernate awake.
The parents read to the child about everything in the hopes of telling him the one thing he needs to know. “Breathing is one of the few things we can both control and not about our bodies. That means, it happens without our thinking about it, but we can also think about it and change the way it happens.”
The child is familiar with things that he can't stop, so he listens carefully.
The father reports, “Conscious breathing is found in many forms of meditation and exercise and performance: yoga, swimming, vocal training, the playing of musical instruments. You can change your unconscious efforts slowly.” The mother caresses the back of the child's head and says, “Unconscious breathing starts back here in your brainstem.”
The child, trying to wrap around this information, asks, “So I could stop my breath? I could end?”
The parents look at each other nervously, want to run to another room and punch each other’s lights out for thinking this was a good idea. And yet, what they find in each other’s eyes is the realization that it is a privilege to live so closely to this pocket of wonder they call their son.
The father says, “No. A person cannot just voluntarily stop breathing. Your reflexes would cause you to breathe or you would lose consciousness and your body would breathe for you.”
The mother changes the subject quickly, “Hippocrates thought you could determine a person's health by their breath.”
When the doctor comes in with his brain full of news and his mouth full of reassurance, the child begins to cry and his color begins to change, but no one notices for they're all torn apart by the prognosis. The child falls off into a forced sleep, the pain having stopped his breath. The parents are weeping all the more loudly, so they don't notice one missing voice, one absent pattern of inhales and exhales. The doctor notices the child's color only after he has already stranded himself in a faint.
The doctor uses complex words there are easier translations for: cyanosis, syncope, hypoxia, postictal. There is so much that the child's body needs energy for that is not this education.
The child wakes an hour later with more tears. He can remember all of it. He wishes for forgetting. He asks them to turn the sun away.
When they all fall down into sleep again, the nurses arrive in fleets, carefully watching over the family, keeping the hushed, unspoken ritual of vigilance. The elders wake before the child, feeling negligent and whispering their wishes for rescue as if hidden by dark branches.
The flame of the child is dying out. Words spread quickly as they make their way down to the valley of the cafeteria. The parents torch themselves with coffee, uttering on the view from every window. The mother hisses and spits, and with time, they begin to compose themselves with the tenderness necessary to return to the child. They hike back up the floors, calibrating their proximity.
In the gentle breeze of monitors and ventilation comes a knock at the door, almost impossible to hear. And again, topsy-turvy news. And again, the mother misunderstanding herself. And again, the contemplation of the little stamp of outside world beyond the glass that is all theirs in this awful place. And again, new arrivals of cheery flowers. The summoning is happening all too quickly. What little potential they thought was theirs is rioting.
The loud will soon perish for the quiet. The mother will croon out the happiest songs, transubstantiated to doleful lullabies. She will think of the nest she's formed in the left ventricle of her heart just for the child. The child will grow lighter than an inflatable beach ball. The mother will squeeze him to her chest, afraid he might be carried away.
“There is time for one more story,” she tells him, and she squeezes herself on the bed beside him as the child drifts away in the current. In his dream, a voice tells the child to be wary of walking down the chalk path, for fear of brushing it away. “Like breadcrumbs,” says the voice, “be fearful of erasure.” The child refuses the fear and leans into the wind. He is a glowing magnificence. He reflects everything. The sun cups him so pointedly that even his eyelids don't hide the light. Those around him can hear his breath curving in coils of alarm, but the child has been rendered graceful.
As people get older, their lives pass at an ever-dizzying pace. People close themselves off with certainty. People laugh less and less. But when death snarls so close and hungry behind a young child, the child, in all his slow motion time and openness, might invite the wolf in. There is room for new kinds of friendship and new shapes for hope.
For everyone else, the end is full of fervor and calamity. The parents try to flex reality. They try to stretch life a little longer, like the moon in the morning. But then pressure. But then sitting down to play a piano with keys arranged backwards. Impossible anger. Radiant denial. Resounding disorder. Time will teach the way, but first everything will have to be unlearned. The hammers will hug the strings; the strings will shake free.