He began hearing the labored breathing in his right ear, the soft syncopated swooshing of breaths breaking the smooth surface of the night. He read somewhere this rhythmic pushing and pulling was the death rattle. Rattles. Wasn’t a rattle a child’s toy shaken for the play of sounds? Was his little Allyson’s body a forsaken toy shaken by a ruthless God? He had prayed so many times each day for worthless months. He had lost all imagination of words. No matter how many times he fell at the feet of Jesus or read the prayer to Our Lady of Perpetual Help from the finger-worn prayer card, his daughter’s slowing irregular breaths were God’s answer. But he could not stop begging.
He awoke to find her dead. It came to him as the fog of sleep cleared. The rattle had gone silent. He strained to hear a groan, but there was none. He sat up quickly and looked to the small bed next to him. Her form was there, her eyes open, looking to him for help, but there was no rising or falling of her chest, and the small arms were limp, and the skin the color of chalk.
When the burial was over, and the advance of days finally spared him of another call of consolation, and as he laid in his bed half asleep, when the quiet ruled the night, the breathing returned. If not she, then what? He heard it clearly, the unrelenting pained effort of each breath. He tried to sweep away the spider web of a lingering dream. Make the sound stop. But it would not. Her thin gasped breaths, the whooshing sound of blood reaching and draining from his brain, the waves of the sea, and the slow turning of constellations, all had aligned.
“Your blood pressure is normal. The CAT Scan shows no abnormalities. Your lungs are clear. We find no fluid in the ear canal. It’s what we physicians call ‘idiopathic’ when we can’t make a diagnosis” the ENT told him some months later.
“Idiopathic? Meaning the “pathetic idiot?” that we’ve just charged $50,000 in worthless testing?” he said to the startled doctor, who managed to keep a professional calm.
“Have you thought about seeing a psychotherapist? This sound of breathing began with your daughter’s death. There may be a link.”
“Oh yes, the easy answer. Of course. It’s not that you failed to find the source of the problem. It’s that the patient is crazy.” The doctor was saying something now, but he wasn’t listening. He finished dressing and walked out. The receptionist called from the desk to remind him of a co-pay. He ignored her.
But when he reached the car, she was standing there. “Time to go home, Daddy,” she said. He hesitated but felt no fear. “It’s time,” she said again, and opened the driver’s door, waiting for him. “We’ll go together,” she said.
As they drove along the cliff, he realized the sounds of her breath had stopped, and so had his heart.