the museum of americana

a literary review

Breathing Lessons—Fiction by Amy Barnes

I use the last of my butter and sugar ration coupons to make holiday cookies for the polio ward nurses. I pack the cookies in a metal Cadbury’s tin with a bit of wax paper so they won’t break. I can’t come every day because of Bobby, Karen, and Susan at home and the war’s strict gas rationing. When I am able to visit Mary Virginia, I wear cornflower blue because it reminds her of the sky she hasn’t seen in months. 

The nurses try to make the ward homey with bright pictures of clowns and flowers but metal can’t be made to smell like active children or penny candy or the traveling carnival. Instead, the antiseptic burns my nose and I find myself breathing shallowly too.

On most of my visits, I can only see Mary Virginia’s black, curly hair and a glimpse of her face that should be rosy-cheeked from playing outside. When she arrived in the autumn, she could still breathe on her own. As the leaves fell, her lung capacity dropped, and her sturdy legs with scrapes and bruises from bike rides and jump roping wasted away. At first, she could stand outside the iron lung. By the time the air chilled and snow fogged the hospital windows, she couldn’t stand, even with assistance. Polio had stolen far more than her breath.

Once a week, the nurses let me help pull her out on the metal tray, cookie sheet-like contraption she sleeps on. As winter came, she wasn’t strong enough to exit her shiny medical prison. Her hair dulled as her complexion paled. The iron lung became her bed, cold metal replacing the ticking sheets she’d shared with her sisters. Unlike them, Mary Virginia was always more prone to illnesses.

Breathe. Bump. Clank. Breath. Bump. Bump. Clank. Not smooth. Not quiet. I clutch my rosary beads close and say one Hail Mary for each bead, for each forced breath, each clank.

On Christmas Eve, I bring presents, but I can only show them to her. She can see but not play with them because the iron lung holds her arms and legs captive. A doll, a book of fairy tales, her favorite peppermint hard candies. I hum carols as I hang a strand of fairy lights to brighten the sterile ward.

She was always a good sleeper as a baby. I used to watch her lungs rise and fall, worried at how quiet she was. Just seven years later, she can breathe only with the aid of the artificial lung, strident breaths like the air raid sirens that echo outside her now-empty bedroom. 

Because it is Christmas Eve, I hang a stocking filled with crayons and doll clothes, and will sleep beside the iron lung in a scratchy chair. The nurses scurry like elves, hanging felt stockings filled with red and white striped candy. I’ve brought a toy car and silver wind-up robot for Mary Virginia’s new friend on the ward, Robbie.

I feed her bits of candy cane because she can’t swallow easily. The iron lung continues to force her into its rhythm, like a drill sergeant leading her lungs through daily exercises. I touch her hand through the porthole, stroke her hair and pale cheeks.

She had learned to swim the summer before she contracted polio. There were whispers the swimming pool may have been the cause of the outbreaks. I only remember her quick side breaths, wet black hair rising out of the water in synchronized rhythm.

I can’t really complain; we are the lucky ones. As spring arrives, Mary Virginia is released from her iron cage. At first, she’s allowed fifteen minutes for a story, then a little longer each time. We drink hot chocolate together. The hot liquid trickles down my throat, a warming gift that nearly erases everything around us. 

Finally, the day comes when Mary Virgina is discharged. Dogwoods bloom outside, and the snow has long since melted.

“Mama, is Robbie going home too?”

The nurse raises one finger to her lips. I look toward the lung that had been his home for so long and see that it is empty.

“Darling, I think he went home yesterday while you were sleeping.”

She is satisfied with my answer but only because we are going home too. Together we buckle the metal braces that will steady and strengthen her legs, leather-strapped to sturdy orthopedic shoes instead of her usual patent leather Mary Janes. As we leave the hospital, I hold her hand tightly as she struggles to walk beside me.

The air outside is much the same as when we entered the hospital, as if a year of seasons hasn’t passed. She takes in short breaths of tulips and freshly-mowed grass. Ducks circle on the hospital pond, swimming in orderly rows.

Summer arrives and she has grown an inch and a birthday. We return to our old routines and I watch her eight-year-old self underwater with only her black hair visible. She takes quick breaths in the water with only a slight limp on dry land. 

~~~

Amy Barnes has words at a variety of sites including McSweeney’s, Parabola, The New Southern Fugitives, FlashBack Fiction, Flash Fiction Magazine, Detritus, Lucent Dreaming, Elephants Never, Lunate Fiction and others. She’s a reader for CRAFT and Narratively and Associate CNF Editor for Barren Magazine.