We're driving in the car and it's raining out, the snow turned to mush just like that with a little drizzle, and there's a song on the radio about fighting. The Dragon is singing along although he doesn't really understand the words, but he belts out the word "fight" every time it comes up, which is often, and it makes me think about how much focus he gets when he dons his little red boxing gloves in the basement and punches out Mr. Kapow -- which is what we call the child-size punching bag hanging from a length of pink twine from the basement ceiling -- for twenty minutes at a go.
The gusto in the way he shouts "FIGHT!" every other line of the chorus makes me wonder about this loving boy who for years has said he's going to grow up to be an animal rescuer, who insists on kissing his little brother goodnight and goodbye and good morning every day, makes me wonder about the fight in him. Not that I haven't seen it -- certainly he digs his heels in plenty -- but the way he's singing, it seems to me that he's not singing about a tantrum-type five-year-old fight but something rather nobler. Like he senses that there is a legitimate kind of fight in the world somewhere, and a piece of it is in him, and maybe he feels, somehow, that he's practicing for it, or waiting to grow into it. Or maybe I'm just imagining things.
At any rate, when the song ends, and he quiets and turns his face toward the window, toward the rain and slush, I adjust the rearview mirror a little and try to catch his eye.
I say, "You know, I remember the first fight you ever won."
He perks up and asks to hear about it, so I tell him how he was born with soggy, struggling lungs, how hard he fought to breathe, how some mean infection had invaded his body. I tell him about the fire trucks and ambulance that came to our house, the firemen and paramedics who came -- big and awkward with their stiff yellow uniforms and heavy gear -- into the soft small bedroom where the Dragon was born, swaddling and cotton balls still strewn across the bed. And then without changing my tone I tell him about the ambulance ride, how I was allowed to hold him in my arms though they strapped me down for safety, how it was the only time that day that he opened his shocked blue eyes, how I saw the fight in them even then.
He is very interested now, listening intently, so I tell him about the emergency room and the bright lights and the white sheets that hurt my eyes, about all the wires and machines and the six people bent over him -- focused, hard -- trying to save his life, blocking him from my view, me teetering on my toes trying to catch a glimpse of his face. I don't tell him that I retreated to the ugly wooden chair periodically to sob, saying over and over to anyone who would listen, "This is exactly what I didn't want," yet feeling I wasn't saying it right, that I couldn't find the words I really meant, even though they were the only words I could find, feeling something dark and open-mouthed hanging in the air that I couldn't quite shut out.
I do not tell him that.
I tell him instead how we waited for six or seven hours, I lost track, with cold toasted cheese sandwiches from the hospital cafeteria, waiting for some news, any news, while that circle of people worked on him, how we made sober phone calls to his grandparents from hard vinyl chairs in the waiting room, how when the news finally came it was both what we wanted and not what we wanted: We were going up the giraffe elevator to the NICU, which meant he was still alive, still fighting, but which also meant we were not taking him home that day. Or maybe ever, I say softly, so he can hear it if he's ready and not hear it if he's not.
He looks out the window again, and when he does, I tell him that after I'd gone home without him to try and sleep, leaving his daddy to watch over him, that his lungs finally got so tired that they had to get a machine to help him breathe. Though I feel his energy shift behind me, I say it matter-of-factly, in a way I've never said it before -- that the machine had a tube they put down his throat to push the air in and out, that he couldn't yell or cry, that they had to give him medicine so it wouldn't hurt -- and I say that I'm so grateful we live in a time and place where these things exist, and I tell him that once he got that machine to help him, then the fight was really on.
He perks up again, remembering that we were talking about the first fight he ever won.
"You were amazing!" I say loudly, as if talking above the roar of a cheering crowd. "You knew, somehow, even though you were just a tiny baby, that you had a lot to do in life. You weren't going to let some stupid infection ruin that!"
He's quiet a minute, then: "Like what did I have to do in life?"
"Like be an animal rescuer, and learn to play t-ball, and go to Orcas Island, and be a big brother, and learn about dinosaurs, and play in the snow -- you know, all that stuff. Everything. Everything you do."
He says nothing for a long moment and the windshield wipers beat furiously against the windshield. The day is fading and thin, gray. Suddenly he starts to laugh -- big, bright peals of laughter, like sunshine shouting.
I ask softly, "What are you laughing about?"
The words crest over the rays of bright laughter. "I do love being a big brother!" he shouts.