To know and to understand, to collect knowledge, to be in control of how we listen to the world—it can turn desperately futile in the face of disease, particularly when that disease is with a loved one, even more so when that loved one is a child, your child.
‘When My Son Started to Wheeze,’ by Evan McGarvey in Fatherly, is about how he and his wife struggle to understand their son’s affliction. Much of the essay hinges on the definition of a wheeze, and how such a common word dissolves into despair:
I needed more. A whistle how? Like a train whistle? The goddamn tin whistle from the Titanic? Like a songbird? There are a thousand whistles. Come on. Which one?
Of all the things this winter, I felt that if I could define a wheeze I could be a father again. If I could name a thing as stupid and minor as wheezing, I could wrench back some control.
I’d heard new terrifying sounds come from our son’s body this winter — blazing coughs, the muffling groan of snot that covered his airway like a caul. I wanted to catch a wheeze in the act, not only because I thought we could beat the tide of illness that would soon sweep across our son, but also because I wanted to name something, to pin it down.
The essay is clear-eyed and focused. The details speak for themselves in their emotional gravity. Something is wrong with a small child, the parents are trying to figure out what it is, and fear clouds every sentence.
It’s been one month since his last episode. No one has been able to describe what a wheeze sounds like, exactly. I imagine that there’s a range. It sounds different for each of us, I bet.
It ends with joy, with birds, and a chest full of relief. What lingers is fear growing in a vacuum of control and knowledge, that something as simple as a breath can be impossible to identify.