It was the coughing that brought me back from the edge of a dream. “Hush, hush little one,” I said softly. Selfishly wishing my two year old back to sleep so that I could return to my own.
But the coughs didn’t subside. They became hoarser and louder. And then I heard the panic in my baby boy’s cries as he struggled to catch his breath between dry coughs.
We were camping over the Australia Day weekend. My mind reeled back to earlier that day. We had been swimming in the lake, stained brown by tea-tree leaves. The colour of a strong black brew. The kids had been playing on inflatables and body-boards. The toddler’s board had tipped and for two horrifying seconds he went under the water. My husband scooped him up in one fluid motion. Before I even registered what had happened, he had our son in his arms. Slightly stunned but otherwise fine. My boy didn’t even cough.
But I couldn’t help wonder if this was some kind of secondary drowning.
Our friend came out of her camper-van, woken by the barking coughs. She suggested it was croup, her own children having suffered from it. The coughs weren’t subsisding and our panic was rising. We decided to head to the local ER.
I sat on the back seat of the car with my youngest child, hand on his chest, willing it to fall and rise. Wishing the coughing would stop. Terrified when it did. My ear close to his face so that I could catch his raspy breath.
We arrived at the ER and hesitated for a moment. We had only ever been to an ER once. We did not leave with our son. Our middle child’s last day on earth was spent within the walls of the ER and NICU. Of course this story would end differently but our heart and foot steps dragged as we buzzed for entry.
We were ushered into the room quickly. The nurse diagnosed croup straight away and prepared the steroid injection. The doctor come over and quickly dismissed the possibility of secondary drowning. Relief — we would leave with our baby boy.
In the four-bed ER we were in the company of an older family, the father having fallen off something and broken his ribs. An accident that may have been fuelled by too much Australia Day merriment. The questions the tween aged boys asked indicated it wasn’t the first time Dad had done this. It distracted us from where we were.
We caught each other’s eye and grasped each other’s hands but niether of us admitted how hard it was to be there. Amongst the flashing lights, too white beds and life-saving apparatus. How many memories came flashing back? The distance the years had placed between ourselves and unthinkable tragedy shrank in a matter of seconds.
We held our youngest son between us, his breathing returning to normal. We were desperate to be discharged. Away from a place that reminded of us our worst nightmare.
Eventually the cheery nurse gave us a second dose of steroids to administer the next day and bid us good night. I sat in the back of the car again, my baby boy fast asleep and breathing normally. My own racing heart returning to its normal rhythm.
I fell into bed. But when I look around my husband wasn’t there.
He was on the floor, beside our toddler’s stretcher bed. It was impossible to sleep there and I beckon him back to bed. He shook his head. He held our sleeping son’s hand tight and whispered “I’ve got you, I’ve got you.”