The Sound of Breath, Hard to Come By

There is the sound of a child who is not breathing well, the sound of inflamed airways, the sound of air-gulping. She comes into our room in the middle of the night, and my wife and I both sit up in bed.

“Abra, are you okay?” I ask, and she nods, because everything is always okay in Abra-land, even when things are not okay. But her eyes are open too-wide, and there is a little panic there, hidden in the blue.

“My breathing,” she says, opening her mouth and pulling in air, and we scramble for medicine, for the inhaler, and for the calming oils. There is the sound of her coughing, and the sound of her swallowing her medicine. There is the popping sound her inhaler makes, the misting psht, the ten long breaths.

We have been down this road before. There is a new bed on the floor beside ours. There is the sound of quiet breathing, then the sound of sleep.

* * * * *

We decide to flee the city for a few days, and we pack up the truck with food and a tent and sleeping bags. We drive south and get to the cabin that used to be our house, and we remember those quiet days in the forest. We take trip after trip into the woods, carrying our things like mountain climbers attending to base camp. Lucy helps me set up the tent while the boys make a few more treks and Maile and Abra collect firewood.

IMG_1414It is cold and the wind rushes through the trees like a giant shushing us, reminding us this is holy ground. It was the house where we found our footing again after a long trip, the house where Maile miscarried a baby. It is the place where we were snowed in for three days, where Maile and I shoveled two feet of snow off the deck to keep it from collapsing.

We sit around the fire and my parents and two of my sisters surprise us by showing up and we laugh and eat s’mores and shift around the fire like the hands on a clock, avoiding the smoke. I remember the sounds of this place: dogs barking; a four-wheeler racing through the woods; a chainsaw starting up. But all of these sounds are muffled by distance, and if you’re not careful, you’ll miss them. They are, each of them, little messages from a different isolation.

My parents and sisters leave us as the sun is setting, as the cold rushes in over the hills. We quickly clean up the campsite and retreat to our warm sleeping bags in the tent, hoods up, eyes peeking out. Our son Leo crawls all over us, and our daughter Lucy reads Harry Potter to us. Her voice is like the voice of the last storyteller, clear and clean. When she reads, the faraway voices fade to almost nothing.

When we turn off the light, we can hear the wind, always the wind, rustling the soft spring leaves.

* * * * *

The sound of a cough wakes me up, and I hear labored breathing in the tent.

“Abra,” I hiss. “Abra.”

She rolls over and looks at me, and in the dim lantern light I can see her eyes are watery and tired.

“My breathing,” she says in a quiet, sleepy voice. I exit my sleeping bag, enter the cold air of the tent. I search through the bag, throwing out clothes, flashlights, a box of matches. I find the plastic bag that holds her medicine, her inhaler.

She holds the mask up to her face and !pop! goes the inhaler and then she takes in a deep breath, two deep breaths, three deep breaths, all the way up to ten, and (she knows the rhythm now, knows it without being reminded) !Pop! again, and again breathing up to ten. She takes a small dose of medicine. She crawls back into her sleeping bag, and I do the same.

I lie there for quite some time, staring up at the silhouette of leaves on the tent roof, placed there by the moon. Everything is still and Abra’s breathing calms and then the wind rushes through the trees again, thrashing the leaves around, reminding me to be still again, to listen.

Where I Came From: 5,000 Miles and Back Again

When I was a little girl with two brown pigtails and bangs cut straight across my forehead, home was a grey-blue ranch-style house situated in the middle of Michigan’s palm. It was also a musty-smelling blue canvas tent, the sweaty brown vinyl backseat of a station wagon, and the open road, always leading to someplace new.

 *  *  *  *  *

If “home” is defined as a specific place, then my answer to “Where are you from?” is clear: I’m from St. Johns, Michigan, a town of about 12,000 people with a two-stoplight Main Street that’s anchored on the south end by a classic Midwestern courthouse. My parents still live in the house they bought when I was just five, and when we visit today, my own daughters sleep in my childhood bedroom.

All the kids who went to my elementary school lived in town like me, but by the time we were in middle school, our classmates were pretty evenly split between “town kids” and the “country kids” who grew up on surrounding farms. (My best friend Rhonda was a country kid with horses we rode on the weekends.)

Besides sleepovers and football games, there weren’t many parent-approved things to do for fun, at least not until we were old enough to drive the half hour to Lansing for date-worthy restaurants, movies, and malls. But St. Johns was a good place to be a kid. Growing up in a sheltered town meant plenty of freedom to bike everywhere—the city pool, friends’ houses, the library, and the bakery for custard-filled long johns. We didn’t wear helmets or lock our bikes—the only requirement was a wristwatch so we wouldn’t be late for dinner.

But even with such deep roots in a single place, I also grew up with an understanding of home that was nomadic: Home was wherever you stopped and pitched the tent when it was time to cook dinner. bluetent

My parents were both teachers, which meant summers offered more time than money. Flying from Michigan to visit relatives on the West Coast wasn’t in the budget, so each summer we packed up our wood-paneled station wagon and hit the road for about six weeks.

I was prone to carsickness, so there were just two ways I rode in the car: sprawled asleep across the backseat or awake and perched dead center, leaning forward until I was almost as much in the front seat with my parents as I was in the back. Luckily, my big brother was never the sort to draw a line down the middle of the seat and enforce it with punches or pinches. Besides, I think he was happy to let me chatter away to my parents, leaving him in relative peace with his books.

The ultimate destinations we drove toward—a visit with our grandparents in L.A. or our favorite cousins in Portland, a week spent hiking in Glacier National Park, or a few days exploring San Francisco—were well-worth the 5,000-or-so miles we covered each summer. But so many days were devoted to just getting there, driving through endless-seeming states like Nebraska or North Dakota, only stopping for gas, bathroom breaks, and to eat the sandwiches Mom had made at the campground that morning.

After a full day of driving, as the sun was lowering in the sky and Mom’s voice was hoarse from reading aloud Little House on the Prairie books, we pulled out a thick campground guide and chose a place to stay—with a pool, if my brother and I were lucky. At the campground, Mom pulled out the camp stove and started dinner while the rest of us got to work setting up the tent and filling it with sleeping bags and pillows. The next morning it all came down again, was packed back into the car, and we drove some more—to the next place we would call “home” for a night.

*  *  *  *  *

Now, when I think about where I come from, I still envision that ever-present grey-blue house, first. I am very much a small-town Michigan girl. But it occurs to me that my rootedness in that place has always been filtered through an understanding of other places—of treeless plains and impressive peaks, of rugged beaches with magical tide pools, and of Chinatowns and subways, operas and contemporary art. I knew where I was back home in Michigan because I also knew where I wasn’t.

And in that sense, I come from places that protected me as well as places that exposed me—from a small Michigan town and big Montana mountains; from the inside of a station wagon, where my entire family was always close enough to touch, to a crowded San Francisco sidewalk where strangers pressed in as I absorbed glimpses of the world.

stationwagonPhotographs by William E. Tennant