Wednesday

THE ATTACK

Hanratty had got up to pee and heard the little girl coughing on his way back to bed. He was hoping it was just a dry throat and that she wouldn’t wake up. But a moment later he heard her pad into the hall bathroom and turn on the faucet. Hanratty pictured it as if it were happening before his eyes, the child stepping into the slippers she had lined up next to her bed the night before, taking her Minnie Mouse cup off the little chest of drawers that Emily had painted with sunflowers, making a right out of the bedroom, walking the dozen steps up the hall with the determined, sure-footed gait of a 15 year old gymnast, making a right into the bathroom, and a third right past the open door and up to the sink, where, at not yet two and a half years old, she had to stretch to reach the faucet.
Hanratty’s heart swelled at his daughter’s competence, and for just a moment the sheer visceral pleasure he took in her precociousness drowned out the anxiety he was feeling over what was beginning to seem like a newly sprouted cold. A sudden cascade of coughing confirmed his fears.
Next to him, in the black and white world of dawn, he saw Emily roll onto her back, her small, slender frame now in profile above the comforter. “Oh, God,” she said.
“It’s just a cold,” said Hanratty.
“It’s in the chest now,” said Emily.
“Maybe it’s just the fucking steam heat. I wake up every morning with a sore throat.”
“The cough is tight. I can hear it.” Emily sat up slowly and put her feet on the floor. “I’m going to see if I can find an expectorant.” Tim viewed his wife’s work as a pediatric nurse at Portchester Hospital with a kind of reverence, and she knew that her certainty in her diagnosis would panic him.
“That’s okay,” he said. “I’ll go.” He got out of bed.
Emily let herself sink back into the mattress. She wondered if this is what she’d intended, scaring Tim to the point that he would get up with Meg and let her sleep. She saw Meg’s colds as part of the life process, nothing to get exercised about. Tim expected the worst. Both his parents had lost siblings in their youth to croup or whooping cough or influenza – the diagnoses kept changing. All of her parents’ siblings had survived childhood.
“Are you sure, sweetie,” she said. “You’ve had such a long week.”
“I’ll never be able to fall back to sleep.”
Emily could never help but interpret the remark as some kind of attack. Only a mother who doesn’t love her child enough could possibly fall back to sleep.
“Besides,” said Tim, “Posnick and I have an 8:37 tee off time.”
“Alright, well, wake me when you’re ready to leave.” Emily rolled back onto her right side, pulling the comforter over her shoulder.
Meg was lying on her back staring straight up at the ceiling as her father entered the room. Her hands were under her head and she looked to Hanratty as if she would have waited uncomplainingly for hours for one of her parents to wake up, no matter how uncomfortable she was. It was a look that filled him with both admiration and fear. Was it healthy for a child so young to be so stoical, so adult? “Morning, Mary Margaret,” he whispered.
“I don’t feel so good, Daddy.”
“I can hear that,” he said, a forced cheeriness in his voice. “Come on, we’ll go downstairs and I’ll make you some pancakes.”
“I don’t feel like pancakes.”
In the kitchen, while Meg sipped from a glass of orange juice and leafed listlessly through “Pat The Bunny,” Hanratty scoured the section of the pantry where Emily kept their medicines. Although he came across several cough suppressants, cold pills, allergy pills, he could not find any expectorant and was wondering if he should give the child an Actifed instead. He wished Emily were here to guide him, but chose to let her stay asleep, for he felt guilty enough, knowing that he would soon be abandoning wife and child for a golf game that would surely bring him home no earlier than three o’clock.
“I don’t feel so good, Daddy,” said Meg, as if she weren’t sure he had heard her the first time.
“I know, Princess, I know. Soon as Mommy gets up we’ll give you some medicine that’ll make the bad feeling go all away.” To Hanratty’s uncertain eye, the little girl seemed to be laboring for each breath. Her pallor was bordering on gray. “Come here, honey,” he said, gathering her in his arms. “We’re going to play our math game.” Hanratty carried her to the den and sat with her in the Bentwood rocking chair reproduction that they had got on sale at Bon Marche for less than forty dollars. “What’s three times seven?”
Meg took her thumb out of her mouth. “Twenty-one.”
“Three times eight?”
“Um, twenty-four.”
“Perfect. Three times nine?”
“Twenty-seven. Daddy, I don’t want to play this game anymore.”
Emily opened one eye and saw that it was not quite twenty minutes to eight. She knew that downstairs Tim would be itching to leave for the golf course. She did not want him to have to come upstairs to wake her, further proof of her lack of concern for her daughter. It’s true she had fallen back to sleep, but it was a nervous, dream-ridden sleep, and she got out of bed feeling as tired and as hollow as when she had climbed in seven short hours ago. The air felt close and humid, as if she were walking through cobwebs. She longed to take a shower, but that would be worse than if Tim came up to find her in bed. She stepped into her slippers and shuffled downstairs.
“Maybe I shouldn’t go,” said Tim. He was standing at the doorway, golf clubs and shoes in hand.
“Honey, you need this,” replied Emily. The stress and endless hours of Hanratty’s last several months at the office were a constant topic of conversation between them. Emily suspected that Hanratty exaggerated the hardship of his life as a newly promoted senior editor at Simon and Schuster in order to excuse his almost total lack of participation in home and family life during the week. It was obvious to her that he devoured new manuscripts with an almost physical pleasure, that making sure his new releases had the proper covers, advertising and publicity was far more absorbing to him than anything that went on between them, save sex. And she was okay with that, for between her work as a nurse and the sheer delight she took in just being around Meg, dressing her, reading to her, holding her, going for lazy walks and car trips in the country, life was turning out to be far better than she had ever imagined.
She thought of all the couples with young children they were beginning to meet since they’d moved into Armonk, seemingly perfect at first but then finding after a few dinners that this one’s mother had been an alcoholic, and this one’s father had abandoned the family, and this one was on tranquillizers. When she and Tim had first married she had thought of their union as being somewhat shoddy, tawdry. Tim had picked her up in a bar just six months before, or perhaps it was more accurate to say she’d let him pick her up, for she took him home and had intercourse with him three times that very first night they’d met, she being so lonely and desperate, wondering if at 4’ 11” if she’d ever win a husband, and the wedding itself such a grim little gathering at the Holiday Inn in White Plains, hardly anyone from her family there, her own father dead of a heart attack at 52, her mother a saleswoman with fallen arches at Macy’s and needing help from the Hanrattys to pay for the reception. And Tim’s family not much better off, his father an assistant small town postmaster and his mother in and out of the enormous gray mental institution across the Hudson in Orange, New York.
Perhaps this is how good families are forged, she thought, two waifs coming together, needy, injured, cobbling a relationship that somehow meets both of their needs so that eventually they wind up looking like the family on Father Knows Best. After all, isn’t that the image the three of them threw off now, Meg with her wonderfully soft, springy Shirley Temple ringlets, Tim tall and thin and if not handsome, solid and masculine with his pipe and his cardigan sweater, and she, tiny and trim, with her perfect little nose and her RN degree, their two salaries more than enough for them to live in a classic little turn of the century brick colonial – in Armonk, no less, the town that seemed like the forbidden world of the rich when she was growing up in Portchester, not fifteen miles away. And now here they were living next to a couple who went to Princeton and Mt. Holyoke, he some kind of banker at J.P. Morgan and she a vet with her own practice in White Plains.
“I just hate being left without the car,” she said.
“Shit,” said Hanratty, “I wished you’d mentioned this to me an hour ago. Alex would have been thrilled to pick me up.” He looked agonized. “You know what, I’m not going.” He headed back into the house.
“Go, we’ll be fine. Won’t we, Miss Mary Margaret?” She kissed Meg, cradled in her arms, on her delicious nest of curls. “We’ll build us a little fire in the den and read nothing but Dr. Seuss.”
“Are you sure?” asked Hanratty.
“Go.”
Hoisting his golf clubs onto his shoulder, Hanratty leaned down, kissed Meg on the forehead, and headed out toward the little orange 1972 Datsun station wagon in the driveway.
When he returned more than seven hours later, several beers under his belt having lifted the already good mood his 78 and four hole victory over Posnick had put him in, there was an Armonk Taxi Service cab idling almost exactly where the Datsun had been. Hanratty parked on the street, wondering who, if anybody, had dropped in. And why in a cab? Unlike in Manhattan, where it was the well-heeled who tended to be cab riders, in Armonk it was mostly maids who took cabs, eating up a large percentage of their measly salaries traveling to and from the train station.
The front door was open. Hanratty stepped inside, put his clubs in the hall closet, and announced to the house at large, “Hi, I’m home.”
Suddenly, he heard footsteps racing down the stairs.
“Jesus Christ, Tim, where the fuck were you!” As she raced toward the front door, Emily was putting on her coat and unsnapping her pocketbook. Tim couldn’t recall having ever heard her say fuck before.
“What’s the matter?”
“Meg’s having an asthma attack. She’s in the hospital.” Emily brushed past him out onto the front walk, reaching into her wallet and pulling out a twenty.
“You left her there alone?”
She stopped and turned back toward him. There he was again, tapping into her endless reservoir of guilt when he was the one who had been in the wrong. “You idiot! I forgot my fucking wallet and couldn’t pay the cab driver, which I would never have needed if you hadn’t hogged the car the whole day for your fucking, fucking golf game! Now take me to the hospital.”
There were a doctor and several nurses gathered around Meg’s bed. He had to part the group to get a peek at his only child. She was considerably grayer than when he had left her in the morning, and her curls were matted with perspiration against her forehead. Her little chest heaved mightily, and her eyes were open and looked to him dark with foreboding. And yet there was something very composed about her, long-suffering.
“Meg,” he said, “Meg, it’s Daddy. How are you, sweetie?” At the sound of his voice, she turned her head toward him. He was hoping she would smile in recognition, but she simply stared with unblinking dark eyes, the circles beneath them now shadowed and cavernous. It was as if she could spare no energy that didn’t have to do with breathing.
Tim laid his long, thick, golf-calloused forefinger against her little palm. Normally, she would wrap her hand around it, holding onto it tightly, but even that seemed beyond her.
“Excuse us a minute,” said the doctor, gently ushering Hanratty away from the bed. “I’m just going to give her another shot of adrenalin.”
“Why is she so gray?” Tim whispered to Emily. She neither looked at nor answered him. “And what’s with the adrenalin?” Emily kept her eyes focused on the doctor and Meg. “Emily,” he almost shouted, “Why the fuck is he giving her adrenalin?”
Without turning to him, she said, “Sometimes a surge of adrenalin is able to ease the spasms in the bronchioles.”
As evening approached, two orderlies arrived with a stretcher on wheels to move Meg from the emergency room to the pediatric wing on the fifth floor. The E.R. doctor asked them who Meg’s allergist was.
“She doesn’t have one,” said Emily. “This is her first attack. I never even knew she was an asthmatic.”
“Yes, sadly, this is often how you learn – with a big whopping attack. Well, I’ll call the allergist who’s covering. Let’s hope we can get a hold of someone. It’s Saturday night.”
Emily and Tim sat by her bedside in the darkened room. They hardly spoke, and when they did, it was in whispers. Occasionally the child would drop off to sleep for a few minutes. Tim hoped that the sleep was somehow restorative, but when Meg woke it seemed as if she were struggling even harder for breath.
Emily held the child’s hand, kissing it every several minutes, talking to Meg in a soft, confident voice. “You’re going to be fine, Mary Margaret, just have a little cold is all, just a nasty little cold that’s going to be all gone by tomorrow, sweetie, all gone when you go to sleep tonight.”
Tim was both annoyed and in awe of his wife’s calmness, her equanimity. His instinct was that asthma could be lethal, suddenly and brutally, and his daughter, not only young but tiny like her mother, seemed so defenseless, such easy prey.
“I’m going to get some water,” he announced, hoping that somehow Emily would acknowledge his presence. She did not. He wandered up and down the hall, trying not to peek into the rooms along the way, but unable to squelch his curiosity. The atmosphere was dark and hushed. He looked at the clock on the wall and was surprised to see that it was only 9:35. He wanted the time to fly by, for he somehow knew that the attack would ease, that everything would be back to normal, if only they could get through the night. He vowed to give up golf, to buy a second car, to get home earlier from the office, to do more with Meg on weekends, take her to the circus, the zoo, the planetarium.
He arrived back at the room hoping against hope that things had changed for the better, but Meg seemed, to his eye, to be breathing more rapidly, taking shallower breaths. “Is she getting worse?” he asked Emily.
“I don’t think so. Here, sit by the bed, I’ve got to go to the bathroom.”
Emily peed, then stared at herself in the mirror. She was ghostly pale, her face without make up, her thick black hair looking greasy and flat. She felt dizzy, faint almost. The strain was unbearable. She washed her face with cold water, hoping somehow to revive herself. How many times in her almost ten years in nursing had she seen small children, despite the extraordinary efforts of teams of doctors, nurses and parents, expire in the struggle to find breath. The oxygen, the shots, the nebulizers, the steroids – each one offering new hope and in some cases, even ones that initially did not seem severe, simply not working, and the little creature, exhausted from hours of sucking at the air for oxygen, succumbing to the endless strain, their skinny bodies shuddering finally to rest like a car engine stalling, their skin now a purplish blue.
Emily shuddered herself and started to cry. “Oh, God, oh, please, please don’t take my little girl. Please, God.” She buried her face in her hands and wept.
Tim was growing ever more alarmed. He was aware of his tendency to catastrophize, but he’d be damned if Meg’s breathing wasn’t positively racing, several breaths a second coming in miniscule little bursts. Where the fuck was Emily? He needed her practiced eye to tell him he was out of his mind. Meg was sleeping. “Sweetie, Baby, are you okay?” he hissed. “Meg, honey, wake up.”
The little girl opened her eyes. She looked at her father for a moment, trying to focus. And then something happened that would stay with Hanratty for the rest of his life. Her pupils began to flutter and then drift upward under her eyelids. He grabbed her arms and shook her. “Meg, don’t, come back. Don’t leave me,” he screamed. “Don’t leave me.”
Frightened, no, terrified, the girl’s pupils came back to the middle of her eyes. “Daddy,” she croaked, “What? What?”
Emily came back into the room.
“Quick, call the nurse,” Hanratty shouted. “Get somebody in here. We almost lost her.”
Emily walked to the side of the bed and stared down at the gasping child. “Oh, my God. Tim, go get the nurse,” she commanded. “Immediately.”
Within seconds, it seemed, the Hanrattys were being whisked from the room. Doctors and nurses came sprinting down the hall. Hanratty was hoping they were there for someone else, but the team made an abrupt left turn into 508, Meg’s room. A stern, Philippino nurse came over and told them to please wait in the waiting room at the end of hall. Emily’s knees buckled, and Tim was somehow able to catch her just before she hit the floor. He carried her to the waiting room, astonished, as always, at how light and slender she was, like a child herself. “I am so sorry, Em, so sorry for not being there today, I am never going to leave you like that again. I promise, Em, never, ever leave you like that again.” In a way, he was happy to have something to do, minister to his wife to keep his mind, for a moment anyway, off whatever terrible things they were doing to his daughter in room 508.
He laid Emily down on the couch and went and got a cold, wet towel to
place across her forehead. She opened her eyes and looked at him with a
look of abject, bottomless misery. He’d never seen anything like that in his
life before, and his realization that if Meg died, Emily would look at him like
this for years to come was too much to stand. Hanratty started to cry, and
then Emily did, too.

Every fifteen minutes or so, Hanratty would venture up the hall and
try to look into the room. He could see nothing through the darkened
windows. He opened the door once, but a nurse instantly detached
heself from the scrum of people surrounding Meg’s bed and shooed him
from the room, giving him the sense that he was further endangering
his daughter’s life.

Shortly after midnight, a young doctor came toward them from down
the hall, and they leapt to their feet, the both of them desperately searching
the doctor’s face for clues. “She’s going to be okay,” he said quickly.
“We’ve loaded her up on steroids and have her under an oxygen tent and
her breathing has eased considerably. She’s going to be just fine.” He
stopped, as if waiting for them to collect themselves. “The only thing you
should know is, we lost her there for a moment, maybe 35, 40 seconds. I
won’t say it happens often, on the other hand it’s not at all uncommon in
cases like this and usually the patient comes out just fine.”

“You lost her?” Hanratty said, “What do you mean you lost her?”

“Her heart actually stopped beating for a few seconds. I just pressed
on her chest a few times and she came right back.”

“Oh, my God,” gasped Tim.

“Shut up,” said Emily. “Let the doctor continue.”

“There’s nothing much more to say,” said the doctor. “Like I said,
her breathing is coming much easier now, and she’s going to come out of this
beautifully.”

They sat by her bedside, the both of them wanting to touch her and
cradle her but able only to observe her through the plastic of the oxygen
tent. She was asleep, her eyes closed, and, indeed, her breaths came much
more slowly now and without the urgent heaving of her chest. After a while,
Tim glanced over at Emily and said, “You don’t think she suffered any brain
damage, do you?”

She could feel his eyes on the side of her head but resisted returning
his glance. She felt an impulse to reply, Tim, if there is anything wrong with
my baby I will leave you. But when she finally did look over at him, she
could tell there was no need to say anything at all. He could see it in her
eyes.

It was a Wednesday night, three weeks or so after they brought Meg
home from the hospital. Tim was cooking dinner for Meg because Emily
was over in Portchester taking a course in anatomy for an advanced degree
in nursing. Meg was at her little table drawing stick figures of the three of
them with different colored crayons. Tim couldn’t be certain, but ever
since the attack her drawings didn’t look quite as grown up to him.

“Hey, Mary Margaret,” he said, pretending great nonchalance, “how
about you and I play the math game?” He had wanted to do this the very
day she came home from the hospital but hypothesized if there were, in fact, any brain damage he would give it time to repair. He had read and rejected a manuscript just last year by a neurologist on the incredible recuperative powers of the brain.

Meg looked up at him uncomprehendingly.

“You remember, the math game. You know, what’s three times
three? That game.”

Meg dropped her eyes to the construction paper in front of her and
resumed drawing.

“Come on, Meg, don’t be a party pooper. That’s Daddy’s favorite
game. You know the answer – what’s three times three?”

“Daddy,” she whined, “Stop.”

A stab of adrenalin shot through Hanratty’s stomach, the first of
thousands that would come with the endlessly agonizing uncertainty of
parenthood.

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