The Boiler

Roberta F. King


It was mid-January when I took the photo. Noah had been sick with pneumonia throughout most of December—back and forth to the doctor for appointments, re-checks and a series of chest x-rays. He missed quite a few school days before and after the holidays. Christmas vacation was tough; he looked thin, stressed and pale during the two-week holiday. The lack of oxygen and coughing made him tired and crabby. The whole family was at odds due to missed work, sleepless nights, and worry.

Just after the New Year he rallied.

“I want to go back to school,” he said one morning.

“We’re going to the doctor today. It will be up to him. I’m hoping you can go back, too,” I said.

“I miss my friends. I’m bored.”

“Let’s see what happens. You sound good, not so much coughing last night. Cross your fingers.”

“Crossed,” he said.

He was cleared to return to school and the next morning he was awake early, ready to go. He wanted to wear his favorite fleece, a bright green Gap hoodie. It was my favorite, too. It looked good on him. As he was waiting for us to take him out to the bus, I decided to shoot a photograph. His eyes were bright and his skin had color. His face looked happy.

“Hold on, Noah, I want to take a photo. You look so robust today.”

He sat up a bit straighter in his wheelchair and practiced a smile.

The hood of the fleece was up, and from underneath, his bleached blonde hair showed. The hair color was his idea. We had taken him to see Murderball, a documentary film about a wheelchair rugby team; the guys in it were handsome, tough and funny. One of the rugby players had bleached blonde hair and he and Noah looked alike: slender and boyish.  We all noticed the resemblance.

“I want hair like that,” he said after the movie.

“Bleached blonde?”

“Or purple. I’d like purple hair,” he said.

“No purple hair. I think I could live with blonde,” I said.

Together we picked out a box of hair bleach at Walgreens and before he got sick, we bleached it. A towhead from birth, the new color was brighter than his normal shade of blonde. It was an odd, yellowish blonde. He liked it. I got used to it.

Noah smiled for the photo. It was not his normal big goofy photograph-for-mom smile, but a smaller, more tentative smile.

“Nice,” I said. I showed him the thumbnail photo on the back of the camera.

“Good one, Mom.” And he was off to school.

The framed photo sits on my desk at work, and we have a 5×7 copy on the refrigerator at home. It was shot close-up. The mole under his right eye is visible, as is a sprinkling of freckles across his nose. His eyebrows are dark compared to his bright hair, and his green eyes look directly into the camera. His smile shows his teeth, quite nice and straight. The hoodie slightly covers one side of his face more than the other.  He shows a slight double chin.

He died seven weeks later. Despite looking healthy, he was harboring a lung infection he could not fight.

The photograph is now a memory. I look at it and visualize that precise moment when I took the camera and carefully set up the shot, thinking that everything was going to be okay.


Roberta F. King lives in Muskegon, Michigan and is the vice president for PR & Marketing for Grand Rapids Community Foundation. Outside of her professional PR writing, her articles and essays have been published in Hippocampus (August 2012) The Rapidian, and in Solace magazine. She is working on a memoir about her son Noah.