Motherhood Literature + Art

The Odysssey of Breath by Iris Jamahl Dunkle

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The language of motherhood isn’t equipped with words to express and the lack of control one feels about having a sick child. When I think of Homer’s poem – each island rising up from the flat surface of the page, like paper mache islands decorated with paint and sequins – the landscape of that journey is so real I can touch it. My son Max and I were shipwrecked together for 2 ½ years on a succession of islands where we met whatever monsters fate could dream up.

From the moment he was born, his breath came in thin, rattling rasps. He was my second child so, I was determined not call the pediatrician each time he sniffled. At first, I dismissed his wheeze as a cold he had gotten from his older brother who had just started pre-school. Then, Max grew plump as a Thanksgiving turkey and I worried less and less with each passing day even though his breath rattled in his chest. A fat child never looks sick. But, when Cleveland’s winter gripped our wooden house, his wheezing worsened. Then, one cold night, he coughed and coughed until he stopped breathing and turned blue.

How long did he stop breathing? Asked the doctor on the phone minutes later. My whole body was shaking. Doesn’t he know that time stops when your child cannot breathe? I’m not sure. I said. It felt like a lifetime I thought.

He sent us directly to the E.R. just to be safe he had said. So I packed 4-month-old Max into the car seat and drove frantically to the E.R. When the nurse put the tiny cuff on his finger to check his oxygen level, she clucked, Oh wow, he’s at 92% let’s get him upstairs right away.

Strange that even in moments like these you worry about being the hysterical mother.

Maybe I jumped to conclusions. Did he really stop breathing long enough to warrant a visit to the E.R.? Would the doctor have sent me in if I hadn’t been alone?

Now that I am a mother, it is difficult to trust my gut feelings since my whole heart has been sewn outside my body like some sick valentine. Anything that happens in this world with a little risk in it, a little death in it, especially if it involves children, and my heart aches like a bad tooth that’s been exposed to cold air. That night, I wasn’t hysterical, but I knew I had brushed close enough to the treacherous sea that is my child’s danger, that I didn’t trust how I would relate to the world. It is a mythical land that is un-mappable. The heart can’t count seconds without breath in a child’s lungs. I’d never trust that count.

Max spent the next two years islanded between being sick and sicker. In and out of doctor’s offices. At hospitals being tested for diseases like Cystic Fibrosis. In his first year no one could diagnose what was wrong. Symptoms for asthma don’t show up typically until a child is 2 or 3 years old. They’d say as Max wheezed, rheumy eyed. You name it, Max got it: from ear infections to sinus infections to RSV. Max wouldn’t eat but lived off of milk and vitamin supplements. When Max was six months old, we moved to Washington D.C. where a doctor finally narrowed her diagnoses to severe asthma coupled with chronic infection. My days and nights blurred from one nebulizer treatment to the next. I carried the fear of his lost breath with me wherever I went. It was sewn into my body. When it was bad, I’d run to get the nebulizer, fill the tube with the tiny vials of liquid and place the face mask over his head. He’d never fight it. Instead, his body would relax into the oxygen it could finally breath.

One day, Max and I finally washed up on an island where the sky was blue and the monsters who had stolen his breath no longer existed. His lungs developed. He wheezed less and less. And slowly, I began to shake off my fear. I began to wash its dark stain from my heart.


IrisJamahlDunkleIris Jamahl Dunkle teaches writing at University of California, Santa Cruz and Napa Valley College. Her manuscript Alphabet of Bones was a finalist for the Four Way Books Levis Prize in 2011. Her chapbook Inheritance was published by Finishing Line in 2010. Her poetry, creative nonfiction and scholarly articles have appeared in numerous publications including: Fence, LinQ, The New Guard, VOLT, Boxcar Poetry Review, Weave, Verse Wisconsin, Talking Writing, Yalobusha Review and The Mom Egg. Here is a link to her blog:


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