I was ten years old and at that moment, I felt like I wouldn’t live to be eleven.
I couldn’t breathe. I was in the middle of a full-blown asthma attack. My chest felt as dark and heavy as the night surrounding my grandparents’ cottage in the woods in northern Michigan. The usual sound of the Little Manistee River singing through the window and the call of the whippoorwills failed to soothe my shallow breaths.
My grandfather, Otto, who we never called anything but “Papa,” slipped off the wool-lined slippers he wore at night. He’d already changed out of his blue pajamas upstairs. He put on his thick wool coat, wool cap, big man’s leather gloves, and snow boots.
My grandmother, never called anything but “Gaga,” unless it was by Papa in which case it was always “Mother” or “Hon,” turned off the stove and put the steel white teakettle on a cold burner. Recently I’d inhaled the steam with a towel over my head. Gaga poured a cup of tea or “tay” as she said her own grandmother from Ireland pronounced it.
I buried my face in my camel coat as my mother held me. Normally all the family wouldn’t have been here but it was Christmas vacation for my sister (not for home-schooled me), who slept without wheezing in the bedroom with the black nightstand and the lamp with the deer’s feet.
My dad threw a scarf around his head. “I’ll drive, Otto. You don’t have to.”
“She’s my curly-top.” Papa looked at my dad, and my dad nodded.
“Someone has to stay here with Kate.” Gaga handed my mom the tea.
The scent of water made me cough even harder as I managed to sip.
“Should we go to the hospital?” My mother was worried.
“You were fine when you had this and you were little.” My grandmother tsked. “The car ride always worked.”
“She’s not even breathing.” My mother still looked worried. She helped me drink more tea. “Drink some more, sweetie. Until the wheezing is gone.”
Wheezing. The reason I thought my mom, who used to be a teacher, had kept me at home to teach me herself. Wheezing. It was a curse, like in The Hobbit.
As usual when I couldn’t breathe or, at any other time, I distracted myself by telling myself stories. I was a little cursed girl in the woods and had to go on a journey so the curse could be removed, but first I had to drink all the tea. It was a magic potion. These were the woods up north, or Upinorth as we called it. That even sounded like a fairy tale kingdom. And I was deep in the woods, like Bilbo Baggins trying to find his way out.
My Gaga was the wise old ageless woman who helped. My mother was the beautiful queen. My Papa and my dad were my knights, my heroes.
My Papa lifted me up in his arms.
“I’m her dad.”
“But I’m her grandfather.”
And the head knight, I thought. I couldn’t decide if my dad or my Papa was King Arthur. Of course, that meant one of them could be Sir Gawain. A noble knight.
In the cold my breath made angel wing patterns against the night. My dad wrapped a scarf around my face. I wasn’t supposed to inhale the winter night air. The whippoorwills’ low cries faded as the great horned owl hooted somewhere overhead.
My Papa was an owl, because that’s what his initials spelled. O-W-L. Knight of the Owls. My breath strangled my giggle. With asthma I couldn’t even laugh.
My mother settled me in the back seat of my grandfather’s brown Cadillac. It was hard to keep track of my childlike fantasies when I was struggling to cough.
The car started and the warmth of the heater slowly flooded the backseat. My grandfather maneuvered the car through the thick looming trees. He told me all their names: Betula, for birch, white birch, oak, sycamore, maple, and the stalwart soldier, the pine tree. The mushrooms: morel, toadstool. The berries: huckleberries, blackberries, and the hard red berries that were like the apple Snow White ate.
My mother put her arm around me. I couldn’t stand to be touched. I pulled away. She turned her face to the window. She looked tired. I rolled over as far as the seatbelt would let me and cuddled next to her.
“Are you better, sweetie?”
I looked out the car window.
“She sounds better.” My dad handed me a cup of water. I sipped and watched as we drove through my grandparents’ property, the big winding dirt road through the trees. Somewhere back in the woods the river sang its beckoning tune wondering when I’d come and play, if only to slide feet first on a silver snow saucer down the snowy bank in front of my grandparents’ cottage.
The headlights of the car gleamed and I saw movement.
In the road. Faint, graceful, secretive, like the unicorns I read about.
“Stop the car.” My voice came back to me.
“Why?” My grandfather didn’t turn around, absorbed in the task of driving on snow.
“I see a deer.”
My grandfather shifted the car into park.
Then I saw the deer. A doe? A buck? And a little deer. A fawn. Not the brightly colored Bambi-type deer but the ones like in the illustrations of the story my great-grandmother Liebold had written about Swiftfoot, a young deer.
I breathed deeply, fully in that moment. My lungs cleared. I tugged at my Papa’s cap.
“Do you see them, Papa?”
“Yes, princess, I see them.”
My mother hugged me as the deer slowly made their way across the road.
The ride back to the cottage was a blur. I was too preoccupied with my own clear breath and thanking my grandfather, my knight, for what he’d done for me, the princess of the land of Upinorth.
I felt a little embarrassed because my mother and dad helped too, and my Gaga.
When we were safe in the kitchen, me still drinking tea, I thanked everyone. My dad yawned and went off to bed. My mom went to check on Kate.
I smiled at my Gaga and Papa. King and queen of Upinorth. “Thank you.”
“That’s what grandparents are for,” said Papa.
Movie reviewer/screenwriter Kristin Johnson composes personalized poems, speeches, toasts, vows, and family memories. Visit http://www.poemsforyou.com to order your personalized memories. She is also co-author of the Midwest Book Review “enthusiastically recommended” pick Christmas Cookies Are For Giving: Stories, Recipes and Tips for Making Heartwarming Gifts (ISBN: 0-9723473-9-9), dedicated in part to her mother and grandmother. A downloadablemedia kit is available at our Web site, http://www.christmascookiesareforgiving.com, or e-mail the publisher ([email protected]) to receive a printed media kit and sample copy of the book. More articles available at http://www.bakingchristmascookies.com