"Mommy!" I cry, expending what little breath I can suck into my lungs. I hear her running down the hall. "I can't breathe," I gasp, desperate for air. She sits me up, removing my pajamas. My urgent attempts to draw in air sound like croaks. I am four years old and terrified. "I'm too young to die!" I cry.
"Don't be silly. You're not dying!" The strain in her voice frightens me further. I weep bitterly. I am dying. I suck at the air, fighting to draw it into my lungs as she carries me quickly into the bathroom and runs hot water into the tub. I dislike baths, dirt being my natural environment, but I breathe in the steam, feeling the tightness in my chest ease. The croaking turns to wheezing as my lungs open a little.
"Take this," she says, handing me one of the pills the doctor left with her after my last asthma attack. I hate pills. They always get stuck in my throat, and then they start to melt and the taste is worse than anything. I wish she would call the doctor and make him come and give me a needle instead.
"I like needles better," I say, sniffling, but the terror hasn't left yet, though I'm breathing a little better, so I take the pill and the glass of water. The pill gets stuck in my throat, which is not even big enough for air right now. I gag. Mom brings me more water. I gulp it down. The pill loosens and slides down my throat, leaving a horrible taste all the way down.
"That pill will let you sleep," Mom says, toweling me off and putting my pajamas back on me, even though I'm old enough to dress myself. I don't say anything, still wheezing as I think about her words.
My Daddy went to sleep and never woke up. That's what somebody told me. Not my mom, who never talks about him. She tucks me into bed and kisses me.
"Don't turn the light off!" I croak.
"I'll leave the hall light on and the door open."
I lie in bed, looking at the lighted hallway and thinking of what happened to Daddy, believing the pill will at any minute force me into sleep—and what will wake me? I think of the moment of falling asleep—one second I'm here, laboring to breath, and the next I’ll fall into a blackness, into an absence from which I might never emerge, especially if I'm sick. That's the most dangerous time to sleep. Daddy was sick when he fell asleep and couldn't wake up.
The thought of that moment, of that sudden fall into the dark oblivion of sleep, terrifies me. Where do you go when you sleep? What if you can't get back? I sit up in my bed, resisting that terrifying moment of falling into sleep. I sit up until the sky lightens and the sun rises, and I can rest in the safety of daylight. Surely my father didn’t fall asleep in the daytime. Grown-ups don’t nap.
I blink at the pale dawn lighting my window, and lie down in my bed, and finally sleep.