The Porch with Mama

The Porch with Mama
This post was originally published on this site

This afternoon, while browsing the fiction shelves at a local bookstore, I saw my own ghost.

As I turned over a colorful paperback copy of Meg Wolitzer’s “The Uncoupling,” a small, optimistic cough flew past my left ear. At first, one. Then more. I immediately thought to myself: “Croup.”

Croup is a respiratory infection that mostly afflicts young children and is known for giving its host a wince-worthy “bark.” By this, I mean that croup coughs sound like they should belong to dogs or obese seals, not tiny humans. When I was small — especially before I was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis, which didn’t happen until I was nearly 6 — I caught croup a lot. Like, a lot.

I have many memories (most of them strangely fond) of my mother, having been woken by my hacking, padding into my bedroom at some ungodly hour of the night. Without fail, she’d be holding an ice-cold water bottle, hoping to soothe the raw burning in my throat.

On more than one occasion, as a Hail Mary to stop my airways from closing, my mom and I would tiptoe down the stairs, careful not to wake my dad or younger sister. We’d sneak out the front door and onto the chilly cement porch, settling down together on our metal rocking bench. Goosebumps would materialize across our thighs and forearms. I’d rest my head on her shoulder; she’d brush my bangs away from my eyes. I’d strain to suck in as much cold air as I could between barks at the moon.

“I’m so sorry, Hannah,” she would say into my hair.

“I can’t breathe,” I would sometimes reply. Other times, “It’s OK, Mama.”

So when I heard that very same cough in the bookstore today, I had to check to make sure it wasn’t coming from my own throat. I had to check for my mom. But when I looked up, I didn’t see a pre-diagnosis Hannah, or a younger version of my mother, a version not yet shattered by the knowledge that her daughter was — and would always be — ill. Instead, I saw a small boy with a helmet of honey-colored hair.

The boy’s father carried him in a toddler-sized backpack, and I watched as he reached over one shoulder and held his son’s hand, gently massaging each tiny, pink finger. I took “The Uncoupling” to the counter and handed the cashier my debit card. I signed my receipt and walked out the door, hearing the jingle bells above my head and the little boy who barked at the sun.

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