The light shines through the front window in the upstairs hallway, flushed saffron with the first spark of day. Muntin bars mark the window pane and divide the rays into patterned squares. The lace curtain stencils each space to paint a granny square quilt, a faint blush of virgin sun on the cream door. The grey grizzled beard of old man winter lingers on into March. Even after a sleepless night the slow thawing of metallic blue, bleeding over the precipice until it tumbles into the full golden nectarine of the new day, is a welcome sight.
The mornings are still cold. Even though no one is out of bed yet the hum of the furnace makes the house seem busy and full. I always love the sound of the furnace kicking on. When the house was first built there was no furnace. There were only fireplaces to heat each floor. The old yellow brick chimney still remains but now it is plastered in behind the walls. A gas furnace was added years ago but the lath and plaster walls weren’t built to accommodate duct work so the house is heated by gravity. The high efficiency furnace pushes the heat up to the first level of the house. The warm air makes its way to the second level by rising through large round grates that open the first floor to the second above. The warm air pushes the cold air down the front and back stairs and the cycle (like the days) is repeated again.
There is no grate in the floor of the front bedroom. That room is my room. Without the grate to let the heat rise up from downstairs I’m occasionally cold, even in the summer. It’s not the largest room but I chose it so I could have a bit of privacy. Sometimes, if there’s an accident on the highway, the traffic picks up a little but other than that the road is quiet and local traveled for the most part. In the winter, at night, I can hear the roar of the plow from miles away. The bed shakes as it passes the house. The winter winds howl and the snow and rain fall, all to no avail. Tucked into bed under the mound of quilts and afghans, with the hum of the furnace singing through the house, I snuggle down deeper satisfied we’re safe from the storms that swirl around us.
The day’s arrival puts an end to a second sleepless night. I had lain awake through the hours listening for his breath. His room is just down the hall. I had listened to his teeth grinding, the bed creaking as he tossed and turned and the sound of air passing in and out in sighs and whispers. He said he felt better before he went to bed but every hour or so I’d gotten up to check on him. Feeling for a fever, first with my hand and then gently brushing his hair back to press my lips to his forehead in the hopes of balancing out the ice in my palms. At one point he seemed to wake. Disorientated from within his dream he told me he couldn’t go first and I laughed and told him not to worry about it. His head dropped and he drifted back to where he’d never really left.
I could tell he was better but I still listened, lying awake until dawn. The night before there had been no sleep for either of us. It had been a long time since he’d been really sick. When he was younger and he’d spend weekends away he’d often come home too tired (he would say too sick) to go to school Monday morning. There had been a string of four day weeks until I’d told him he would just have to tough it out. It was difficult but he’d pushed hard, for me and for himself. He’d gotten tougher or smarter, I wasn’t really sure which but the Monday absences had slowly petered out.
He was tired this Monday morning, but not unusually so. He’d made it to school and came home to roast beef with gravy and mashed potatoes for dinner and homemade brownies with a side serving of Cookies and Cream ice cream for desert. Right up to supper time he’d been fine, he was going to hockey, he was looking forward to one of his favourite meals. Then, just before the dinner bell sounded, he was violently ill and would continue to be all night.
He hadn’t been this sick since he was very small. Strep throat had wrapped him in its own particular misery and we’d sat together in the doctor’s office while he vomited over his fifth outfit of that day. I hadn’t brought an extra one. I’d been so concerned I’d rushed out of the house and Lord knows it was hard to believe that there could have been anything left to still spew out from such a small body. The nurse didn’t try to hide her disapproval. I had just wanted to get him there to find out what was wrong. Later when were back at home and I was bathing him in tepid water, trying to bring his temperature down, I did my best to put it aside but it was too late. I knew I’d never be able to totally bury that fear, now that I’d felt it. I had thought I was going to lose him. He had been so sick and it had happened so quickly and I had felt that I was so helpless really to do anything.
It was hard to reconcile the image of that roly-poly baby with the ashen faced teenager who stood in the kitchen apologizing. He hadn’t quite made it to the toilet and he’d forgotten, in his rush, to lift the seat. I soaked a face cloth in soap and warm water and washed his face and hands, reaching up to wipe his hair off of his face. After I settled him on the couch with a bucket I set about cleaning up the bathroom. My mind went back again to another night when he’d been unwell.
At four he’d still been round and sweet faced. When I’d picked him up I must have squeezed a little because as his head reached my shoulder he leaned over and threw up in my waist length hair. He began to cry and I told him not to worry, everyone gets sick sometimes. Then both of us got into the shower, clothes and all. It must have been my imagination but I thought I could smell it for days afterwards every time I brushed my hair.
It was still the same, I thought, as I cleaned up the larger puddles with toilet paper. You’d think it would change. He swore as he was sick, man curses. I could hear him through the bathroom door. His new man’s voice was hoarse and surprised at the violence of his own body. I hovered outside the door wanting to help but trying not to embarrass him, this angular stranger gulping and retching in my bathroom. And then he opened the door and he was still my child, the bitter smell of sick and pale face, still mine, even though he towered above me. All that night I sat up with him, bringing him water, emptying his bucket and wiping his forehead. Worrying and watching and in the morning, when he’d weathered the worst of it, I allowed myself to rest but only for a bit.
Through the day and into the second night I watched and listened though I could see that he would be alright. That moment of fear was once again lived through but it can never be conquered. The thoughts that kept me company through the night ruefully concluded, once again, that it is a terribly hard thing to take your heart out and let it walk free into the world without you.
As the golden light of morning warms the hallway I lay listening to him breathe. The house is quiet and I inhale and exhale, matching the rhythm of my breath to his. My hands, resting on my chest under a mountain of blankets, feel a faint flutter. I know it’s only a phantom beat. My heart lays down the hall and one door away.
I wait for his alarm to go off. I know he’ll hit snooze at least three times before he gets up. Most mornings, by the third time, I’m ready to brave the cold of my room and turn it off myself. This day I’m content to let him stay a little longer, maybe he might need me, just a little bit still. I watch the golden copper of dawn harden into the bright light of morning until I hear the sound of his yawns and sighs from the next room and then finally the bed creaking as he rises to greet another day.