She creeps into our room, wheezing, barely able to breathe, but she does not come to the bedside to complain. No, I had given strict orders the night before that mom needs her sleep so if you come to our room please curl up on the floor under the blankets provided. I wait a moment, but it sounds bad, her breathing, so I slip through the darkness and stretch out on the floor beside her.
I count her breaths. Forty per minute. Her heart is racing, her throat pulling in with all its might, but the air, it won’t go in. She struggled again and again to catch her breath.
“Are you okay?” I whisper in her ear.
“Should we go outside to see if that helps your breathing?”
I wrap her in a blanket and lift her, light as a blossom, and carry her down the stairs, out the front door and on to the porch that looks over James Street. It’s strange to be there in the middle of the night without any cars, without any people. The street lights shine steadily, the wind rises in a clatter of leaves and paper in the gutter, then dies down. It’s cold for a May night. We sit on the chair and I wonder where the time goes.
The cool air does not help like I hoped it would, like it did when she had the croup and we sat on the back deck in the dead of winter, our breath rising in one steaming cloud. The spring air does not help, so after five minutes or ten – it’s so hard to tell in the middle of the night, when sleep is heavy – I carry her back up to the room and soon it’s 6am and Maile is leaving for work and Abra is in the bed with me, sitting up, still struggling to catch her breath.
The urgent care clinic doesn’t open until 8 so we try to wait it out but I can see she is beginning to panic, such a slow drowning, so we get in the truck and Maile comes back from work and I drop the two of them off at the ER two blocks away. I watch Maile carry her in through the doors that open automatically, like a sea. I watch and I take a deep breath.
* * * * *
It’s always the breathing isn’t it? It all comes back to the rising and falling of a chest, the drawing in of air, the expanding of lungs. It’s the first sign of life when we’re born and the last thing to go. I remember when each of our five children was born, and we waited the agonizing second to hear their scream, their breathing. I remember when my grandmother was dying. Her eyes were closed, her body still, and yet the breathing went on. Sometimes she wouldn’t breathe for 30 seconds, 60, 90, then her lungs would open up one more time, sip it in, take only what was needed. She carried on for days that way, the bare minimum. Only breathing.
Life is in the breath.
I’m breathing again. It comes with waking up. My eyes are open again, and the air. Oh, the air! I take it in and look around, eyes wide, and it feels like I’m seeing the world for the first time in a long time. It feels like I’m in the middle of a new life.
Friends have asked me, Are you really going overseas? and I laugh. Not that I know of. Not yet. Not today. I don’t know where this new wakefulness will take us, what it will show us. But I do know that there’s an African-American man who lives across the street, a man I’ve waved to for the last year since we moved here. He’s a kind man, and he always waves back.
For the first time, yesterday, I walked across the street and offered him my hand, and he shook it.
“My name is Shawn,” I said, “and I see you over here all the time, but I don’t even know your name.”
“I’m Eric,” he said. “Nice to meet you.”
This is what it looks like, to wake up.
This is what it feels like, to breathe again.