It started so small that I dismissed it. Just a sneeze, I thought. We'd been cleaning house in the nice spring air with all the windows open and there wasn't much dust to sweep out but enough that we both thought it was just a sneeze. Will laughed at the funny sound and we had a little tickle session right there on our bed with Amanda chortling from her cradle.
Everything was nice and clean and smelling like spring when the second sneeze hit. Only this one was quickly followed by two more and shook his whole body with their force. Even Will thought those had to hurt and he crawled up into Ezra's lap and hugged him real tight. But my lover laughed it off as still dust related and I agreed slowly but with a silent thought to watch him over the next few days.
Then Josiah and Maude came back and we threw a party over to the church to tell them 'welcome home'. Ezra baked up a storm and when I noticed how flushed he was, he kissed me gently and told me it was just the oven. I held him close and kissed him not at all gently while he sighed happily and opened up for my questing tongue. Will laughs at us when we do that and I'm glad that he doesn't see anything wrong with his Papa and Pa kissing.
But it was at the party that I really started to worry. He coughed and once started couldn't seem to stop. I held him close while he waved off his mother's concern and finally stopped coughing and started smiling. Just a tickle, he said and everyone else seemed to agree but not me. I've listened to a lot of coughs over the years and that wasn't a tickle-cough but one that came from the lungs.
I tried to tell myself it was just a cold. The weather, which had been so balmy, had turned to wet and cool and he'd just caught the sniffles. That's what I told myself but now I was watching him like a hawk. He drank the cold punch that he'd made for Maude and it hurt him, I could tell. When Will got tired and Amanda fell asleep in my arms, we called it a night and walked home.
At the foot of the steps, Ezra suddenly bent over and set Will down so he could cough again. Now, it sounded nasty and he leaned against the building while it shook his whole body. I picked Will up with my other arm and quickly went up the stairs to the top. Setting him down, he quickly picked the key up from under the welcome mat and unlocked the door. I almost ran through the room and put Amanda in her cradle then raced back out and down the stairs.
"I'm ... fine ... Nathan." He was still clinging to the railing but I paid him no heed, just hooking my arm around his waist and carrying him the rest of the way. His whole body was shaking and I could feel the heat radiating off him.
Once inside, I saw that Will had lit the lamp in the outer room and was anxiously waiting for us with Tiger in his arms. "It's going to be all right, Will. Papa just has a cold."
He nodded slowly and trailed me into our room where I set Ezra down near the bed. My lover was still trying to control his cough and the near whooping sound made my heart clench. I undressed him quickly and slid him under the covers while Will watched with frightened eyes. Ezra finally stilled, the cough controlled for the moment, and held out his hand to our son.
"Sweetheart, don't worry so. Pa is the best doctor in the whole world and he'll fix me right up." His voice was hoarse and I could see that Will was not convinced but he came over and patted Ezra's hand.
"Watch over Papa for me, Will. I need to go and get some things from the clinic." I stroked his fair hair and he nodded, letting Tiger go on the quilt and climbing up so he was right by Ezra's side.
I hurried back down the steps and into the clinic, headed for the back room. Lighting the lamp, I realized that my hands were shaking. Fear ripped through me and I tried to hold it back but tears welled behind my closed eyelids and escaped onto my cheeks anyway. The man I loved and depended on was ill. What if I wasn't good enough to make him well? What if something I did made him worse?
What if he ...? I throttled the insecurities down and swiped the tears from my cheeks. That wasn't going to help. I heard the faint sound of coughing through the ceiling and I steadied myself before reaching for the jars of herbs that might help. White willow bark for the fever, sassafras root for the cough and a little peppermint to make it taste better, I gathered them to me and tried to remember what else might be needed.
"Nathan, is there a problem?" Vin's voice came from behind me and I started, almost dropping the jars. "Is it Ezra?"
Turning, I hoped that he couldn't see the tears on my face. "The cough is getting worse and he's running a fever. Could you take Amanda back over to Maude and Josiah? I think it's going to be a long night."
"Course I will, Nathan. Will, too?" He asked gently and followed me upstairs.
I debated long and hard but finally shook my head. We were back in our home and I could see Will's wide-eyed look at us. "No, Vin, I need Will to help me take care of Ezra."
The bright smile on his face told me that I'd done the right thing. Amanda was fussing a little, as if she knew that something was wrong with her world. Vin picked her up out of the cradle and she quieted at once, latching onto his hair and chewing on it. He just chuckled and picked up the bag of supplies that usually went with us everywhere.
"If they need anything else, we'll come back for it. I'm going to leave the outer door unlocked so we can come in to check on you. Okay, Nathan?" He asked me and I nodded.
"Vin," Ezra was down to a whisper. "Tell them not to worry, I'll be fine."
But the cough came back and spoiled his reassurances. My stomach knotted and I tried smiling at our daughter and friend but it just wasn't in me right then. I dropped a kiss on Amanda's soft hair and sent them on their way while I put the teakettle on and got down the pretty teapot that Ezra liked. Will's voice from the other room was telling Ezra a story that he'd made up on the way home from school.
I let the piping voice soothe over my senses while I waited for the water to boil. Steeping the white willow bark, I got down a jar of honey and wished for some fresh lemon to squeeze into it. But the golden elixir would help his sore throat after the tea brought his fever down. I set the wooden tray with everything on it and carried it in to the sound of more coughing.
Ezra's cheeks were bright red and he was coughing into his handkerchief with Will curled up by his side, patting his arm. The soft green eyes of our son came to me with a mixture of fear and entreaty. I wanted to reassure him but I was afraid that my voice would quiver.
"Is that for me?" The hoarse tones made my hands shake but I smiled as best I could.
"This is good for what ails you, Ezra." I set the tray on his lap and busied myself pouring him a cup of tea. "You drink that and I'll take your temperature. Will, would you watch Papa while I get some water to cool him down?"
"Yes, Pa." Will was subdued but hanging in there and I smoothed his soft hair once before heading into the bathroom to gather what I would need to help bring Ezra's temperature down. The thermometer was high on the shelf above the sink and I brought it back with me to stick under his tongue.
Then I brought in the basin with some cool water and a cloth. I wiped down his upper body and thought about a mustard plaster for his chest. His skin was flushed everywhere and his eyes glittered with fever. Will held his cup for him and I took out the thermometer to read a temp of 102 degrees. Fear knifed through me and I shook down the mercury while my hands trembled.
"Don't worry, love." His hand caressed mine. "I'll be fine."
"I love you, Ezra." I kissed his temple and felt the heat radiate from him. "I'll do what ever I have to do to get you well."
He began to cough again and I saw the flecks of blood that he couldn't hide.
The next three days passed in fits and starts. I was never quite sure what time it was or even the day. Ezra's temperature rose to 104 degrees and he had fever dreams that broke my heart. Sometimes he didn't know where he was or even who I was. When he was lucid, he tried to reassure us that he was getting better.
But he wasn't.
He coughed up blood twice but slowly the fever burned the cough right out of him. On the third day he went silent and fell into something like a coma that had me on my knees by the bed, afraid that this time he'd leave me.
"Is Papa going to die, Pa?" Will leaned into me with a sob.
"I hope not, Will. I think he loves us very much so he's fighting to stay with us." I put an arm around him and dropped a kiss on his hair.
"Mama died of the cough." His voice sounded so grownup all of a sudden.
"I know, Will, but she didn't have all her family around her, praying for her and trying to help her get well." I wondered if I'd survive loosing the man I loved so much.
"Grandpa and Nana prayed for Papa." He leaned hard into my side. "Amanda fussed when I left. I think she's missing us."
The thought of our daughter made me smile a little. I needed a hug from our tiny angel. "When Papa gets better, she can come home. Amanda-kisses are good medicine. Are you ready for bed, son?"
"Yes, Pa." He hugged me close and kissed my cheek before reaching up and kissing Ezra's. "I love you, Papa. Please get better soon."
I got up and carried him into the other room. Tucking him in, I kissed his cheek and listened to the prayers that he said every night. I joined in with a fervent and often repeated prayer for Ezra's good health. I dimmed the lamp on the table but left it burning until Will could get to sleep. Perhaps I should brew another pot of white willow bark tea for when Ezra woke up?
I was determined to be positive. Ezra would wake up and start getting better any moment now. The others of the seven had all come by during the day and I knew they were praying for him. Josiah's prayers were sure to be listened to and Maude had been a real godsend with Amanda. Will spent the days with them while I worked full time with Ezra.
But there had to be something more that I could do. I'd tried mustard plasters, sweating him, cooling him, trying to get his fever down and his lungs clear. But the fluid in his lungs continued and he had to sleep propped up on three pillows. His forehead felt a little cooler to me and his breath didn't rattle quite as badly. I changed the cool cloth on his forehead and tried to convince myself that he was better.
I curled up beside him, holding his limp hand in mine against my cheek. My lips felt his pulse ... that tiny thread of sound that meant his heart was still beating. Childhood prayers came back to me and I murmured them over and over. I must have fallen asleep at some point because when I started awake the silence was deep. Sitting up, I suddenly couldn't see or hear Ezra breathing.
My hands were trembling so hard that I couldn't feel his pulse so I laid my head on his chest and held my breath. And there it was, stronger than before and I fumbled the ear pieces of my wooden stethescope so I could listen to his lungs. They were clearer than they'd been just hours earlier. He blurred before my eyes as they filled with tears. It wasn't certain but it felt like he'd turned a corner towards health.
I stumbled from bed to get some cooler water to bathe him. It felt like I hadn't slept for weeks and when I looked in the mirror above the sink, I could see the toll that the last few days had taken. Once Ezra was over the worst, I might begin to catch up on my sleep. Splashing my face, I dried off and filled the basin again.
He stirred a little when I sponged him off but his lips curved in a little smile when I wiped down his stomach. Those green eyes opened a little and tried to focus on me. I could feel tears well and spill onto my cheeks. His hand trembled when he tried to bring it up to my face.
"I love you, Ezra." I whispered and caught his hand to bring it to my lips. Nestling a kiss into his palm, I finally smiled.
"Nathan," his whisper was so weak that I could barely hear him.
"The fever's broken and you're going to start getting better now." I told him firmly and watched him smile.
"Love you," he managed and I kissed his lips gently. "Long?"
I knew what he was asking. "Three days, I think. Maude and Josiah are taking care of Amanda. Will has been helping me the whole time."
"Aching," he winced a little and I thought quickly.
"How about a bath while I change the bed?"
His eyes lit up and he nodded. "Join me?"
"God, yes." I kissed him again then got up to find out if we had enough hot water. "Stay there and I'll be right back.
Both stoves had water on so I poured in all six gallons and tiptoed into the outer room to see if that stove had any. Will stirred and called my name. When I told him that Ezra was awake, he jumped out of bed and ran into the bedroom. Chuckling, I found three more gallons hot and carried it back in. Ezra had our son in his arms while Will chattered about all we'd done the last few days.
I finished getting the bath ready with the wintergreen oil and came out to find that Will had thrown off his nightshirt. I skimmed out of my pants and shirt to Ezra's appreciative gaze, then picked him up and carried him into the steamy bathroom. He sighed a little when I slid him into the water and my hands shook a little when I checked to make sure he could stay up.
Will peeked over the side of the tub to smile at his Papa and I lifted him up and into the space between Ezra's legs. Then I climbed in and felt the hot water give me back a little energy. I lathered the soap and began at his feet, working up his legs to his groin, which tried to twitch then over his flat stomach muscles to his chest. He was taking deep breaths of the steamy air and I could see his pleasure at being alive sparkle in his eyes.
He purred for us when I washed his left arm and Will diligently washed his right arm. Our son giggled and rinsed him clean while he made faces at him. I was silently thanking God and all His angels for giving Ezra back to us. He was weakening a little after so long abed but his smile was bright. I washed Will then he helped me wash while Ezra watched us with lazy eyes.
When we were clean, I helped Will out and dried him off then drained the tub while Ezra waited. He knew better than to even try to get out by himself when I glared at him and told him in no uncertain terms he was to wait until we had the bed changed. I gave him a towel so he didn't get cold even in the stove-heated bathroom. Will got clean sheets out of the dresser and helped me remake the big bed.
Ezra had tried to dry himself but his arms were shaking with fatigue when I came back in to get him. Holding him up, I dried everything within reach while he nursed gently at the nipple over my heart. I was crying again and had to blot my tears on his soft hair.
"I'll get better, Nathan. If I had to get sick, I'm so glad that you were my doctor." He was trembling all over and I swung him up into my arms to carry him back to our bed.
"I was afraid I'd lost you, Ezra ... that I wasn't good enough to heal you." I laid him gently down onto the clean sheets while Will fluffed the pillows behind him.
"No, Pa, you're the best healer in the whole wide world." He told me sternly while Ezra chuckled.
"Quite right, Will. We're very lucky to have him take care of us." He hugged the little boy close. "And I'm glad that you helped him so well. I knew even when I hurt the worst that you were both here with me."
"Love you, Papa." He patted the bristly cheek of my lover. "Are you hungry?"
Ezra got an interesting look on his face. "You know, I think you're right. I do feel a little empty."
Chuckling, I went to the outer room and fixed a plate of bread and applesauce. I didn't want to tax his stomach after his fast. Pouring a glass of cold water, I carried them both back in. Will was holding Ezra's hand and telling him more of the last few days. Ezra was in the middle of the bed with Will on one side and I slid in on the other. He ate a few bites of bread and frowned a little.
"I know, sweet Ezra. The bread isn't as good as yours but it was real nice of Mrs. Gray to bake for us. Inez made the applesauce." I told him and he twinkled at me.
"Well, as soon as I get a little energy back, I'll bake." He enjoyed the spoonful of apple that I fed him but his appetite quickly flagged. "Finish it, Nathan. I think I've had enough."
Will frowned a little but ate some bread while I finished off the rest. I was hungrier than I'd thought. I must have forgotten a few meals myself. Ezra got most of the water down, his hand shaking a little more with each rise. His energy was giving out and I set everything aside before helping him slide down into the bed. Taking out the extra pillows, I checked to be sure he was breathing easily.
He was and his eyes were already closing when I blew out the lamp and cuddled my son and lover close. Will said goodnight again and our voices echoed back. For the first time since Ezra had gotten sick, I relaxed completely and allowed sleep to come. This time, I knew that I'd awaken without the fear of losing the man I loved with all my heart and soul.
The end for now