High-Strung

By Karen Brode

Mother looked at the elevator and then at me. I clung to her arm and silently begged for her to take the stairs to the doctor’s office. Her eyes showed the worry I felt, although I was worried about the elevator and I knew she was only worried about me and my fears.

We traversed the small stairwell on the left of Bear Drug. My relief was short-lived, though, because I remembered why we were there—to see Dr. Fredericks about what was wrong with me.

What wasn’t wrong with me, I wondered. Over the last few months my shortness of breath had become worse. When I couldn’t breathe, Mother carried me out to our front porch and held me in her arms while she sat on the top step. I wished I could explain what was happening. I wished I could tell Mother not to worry, but I couldn’t.

It was odd because I didn’t always have shortness of breath. I inhaled and exhaled like any healthy child when I was playing in the yard with the other neighborhood children. It was only when I went to bed that I struggled to find the air I needed.

“Now I lay me down to sleep. I pray the Lord my soul to keep.” I prayed this every night. It was required. “If I should die before I wake….” My heart beat faster. “I pray the Lord my soul to take.” I trembled inside but I tried hard to push it away. I wanted to go to sleep. I did not want to be a problem for my mother.

It wasn’t long after reciting those words that I ended up wrapped in Mother’s arms on the front porch trying to fill my lungs with night air. 

I didn’t think the visit to Dr. Fredericks was necessary. I knew I wasn’t sick, but Mother was worried and I would do anything to keep her from worrying about me. She had enough to deal with on her own since Daddy died.

Dr. Fredericks was scary. Everything was scary, except maybe when the sun was out and I was playing outside. The doctor wanted to talk to me—just me—so he asked Mother to leave the examination room. I sat stiff as a board on the edge of my chair, trying not to make eye contact with him.

“Why do you want to worry your mother so much?” he asked. 

I didn’t know how to answer that. My heart beat heavy in my chest. I could feel it, like it might burst out of my ribcage. Didn’t the doctor know I didn’t want to worry Mother? Didn’t he know that I worried about Mother? Didn’t he know that I worried I might lose her like I had lost Daddy?

My mind raced. Images of my father came to mind. The times we had together. I used to sit on his shoe and wrap my arms and legs around his leg. He would drag me along and I would laugh. And then he was gone forever.  

I looked at the picture of the doctor’s children that he kept on his desk. They were all smiling, such happy, sunshiny children at the lake. I glanced at Dr. Fredericks and then down to the floor. In that one moment, I knew he was glad his children were not like me.

Dr. Fredericks leaned back in his chair and made a steeple of his hands and fingers. I stared at the black and white floor. The white squares were sort of mottled, not pure white. It was shiny and clean except over in the corner where the custodian had missed a place.

I thought of Mother sitting out in the waiting room. Or maybe she was standing right outside the door. She was my whole world. I wanted to jump up and run to her, to grab her hand and run down the stairs out into the sunshine, away from this place. I wanted not to worry anymore, to not fear what might have happened to her when she was late picking me up at the babysitter’s house. I didn’t want to imagine her dead. I didn’t want to think about who would take care of me or where I might end up. 

A long silence passed and the doctor finally stood up and invited my mother back into the room. 

“Thank you for waiting, Mrs. Hawk,” he directed her to a chair next to mine. Then he looked over at me, his eyebrows furrowed. Was he angry with me?

He sat down at his desk and took a pen out of his breast pocket. On the notepad in front of him he wrote a single word. I couldn’t tell completely what it said but I knew it wasn’t good. 

“Keep her on those iron tablets,” he said, looking up at my mother. “Her anemia isn’t any better.” 

Mother nodded. “Did you find any reason for her…um…breathing problems?” It seemed like she was going to ask a different question but she paused and looked down at me before finishing her question. 

The doctor’s lips stretched into a thin frown. He rubbed his chin and looked back toward the wall behind us. As he stood up, he shook his head. Without saying anything, he indicated with his hands that it was time for us to go. Mother and I rose from our chairs and moved toward the door.

I was almost out of the room when he stopped my mother and whispered, “She’s just high-strung.” 

High-strung? What did that mean? And why did I suddenly feel guilty and ashamed? 

I clung to my mother’s arm as we left the doctor’s office together. 

We were almost to the door when the receptionist called out, “If you hurry you can catch the elevator!” 

Mother turned to smile back at the woman. “Thank you,” she said, rubbing my head with her free hand. “But we’re going to take the stairs.” 


Karen Brode is a senior contributor Jet Planes and Coffee. She grew up in Denison, Texas and graduated from Denison High School in 1972.  She took courses at Southeastern Oklahoma State University and worked in a church office for 25 years. She and her husband, Gary, have been married for more than 40 years. They have one son, Brandon. Karen’s hobbies are writing, sewing, and gardening.

2 thoughts on “High-Strung

  1. Kathy Nelson says:

    This is such a touching story about a traumatized child and the insensitivity of the doctor. I feel the child’s terror and her helplessness. I also appreciate how simply, straightforwardly and well the story is told. Congratulations and thank you for an important and heartfelt story.

    1. Thank you for your thoughtful comments, Kathy. Karen has such a true talent for bringing us into the world of her characters. I am glad you enjoyed her story and were touched by it. Thank you, also, for taking the time to read and comment. It means so much.

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