The sound of her coughing comes at me through the fog of sleep. It is a hoarse, barking sound, all too familiar. I roll over and look at the clock. 12:41 am. I take a deep breath and move to a seated position at the edge of the bed.
“You okay, Abra?” I ask our five-year-old, rubbing my eyes, then staring in the direction of the blankets on the floor. “Can you breathe okay?”
All I hear is a long, wheezing inhale. The exhale is a series of whimpers and cries and more coughing, the dry kind that doesn’t sound like it’s moving anything.
“It’s okay, honey. I’m coming,” I say. I stand up and walk over and scoop her up, laying her across my arms. I carry her downstairs. She’s awake now and on the verge of panic.
“It’s okay,” I say over and over again, words that turn into a sort of lullaby.
“I can’t breathe,” she manages to say.
“We’ll get you outside. You’ll be able to breathe out there.”
I somehow open the door to the deck, even with my arms full of her, and I try not to bang her head on the frame as we go out. I pull the door closed behind us with my foot. It’s freezing cold, in the 30s, and the air shocks me awake. I prop her up against the house and run inside for the warmest blanket we have. I sit on the wooden deck and she sits on my lap and I wrap us in the blanket. We are in a cocoon of warmth, my breath escaping in cloudy bursts.
Her ratchety breathing smooths out. Soon she sleeps, her head against my chest. I only have sweatpants on, and my feet, sticking out at the end of the blanket are freezing, but every other part of me is warm. Two miles away, down by the river, I hear the train whistle, long and sad.
God seems close in that moment. Everything seems so present, pressed up to the front of reality by the cold air biting my face.
* * * * *
Her cough wakes me again. 2:40am. I sigh and find my sweatshirt on the floor.
“You okay, Abra?” I ask her. “Can you breathe okay?”
“No,” she manages to scratch out between coughs and long, slow draws of breath.
“It’s okay, honey,” I say. I stand up and walk over and scoop her up, lay her across my arms again, carry her downstairs again. I talk to her all the way down. This time we have the blanket when we go with us. I sit her down on the wooden boards, go find one of our patio chairs, and then sit there with her on my lap.
Her breathing calms. She falls back to sleep. I stare at her eyelashes resting on her cheek. I could fall asleep if I could get my arm comfortable, but that’s not going to happen. I consider going inside and finding the air mattress so we can sleep outside. I can’t remember how long it takes to inflate. This fact seems very important, the way trivial things can seem so crucial in dreams.
I hear the steps of a medium-sized animal walking through dry leaves on the ground just beyond the deck. Too small for a deer. Probably a possum. Or a raccoon. The animal pauses. The night is still and dark. I hear another train whistle.
I sit with her as long as I can, but my back starts to ache. I carry her back up to the bedroom floor and lay her down, wondering if that shot of cold air will be enough to get her through until morning.
* * * * *
It doesn’t. 4:52am. I carry her outside again and this time I have a pillow for my arm and we sit there in that glorious cold and I listen to the sound of her breathing slow down, turn into sleep once again. She melts up against me, pulling her feet away from the edge of the covers. We sit there in that freezing cold and there is something beautiful about a moment, just before sunrise, when everyone is breathing easy, when two jets of steaming breath get ready for the dawn.
There is something that makes me feel God-with-us. Maybe it’s because in that moment I’m thankful for something as simple as another breath. Maybe it’s what happens when I stop and listen, when I move away from everything else – shelter, food, warmth – and simply exist.
I’m not sure why God feels so close in that moment, but I fall asleep there, in the dark, breathing in that beautiful air, the kind of air that’s only ever available just before the sunrise.