I crave breath. Not just the ordinary in and out, chest rising and falling, inspiration and exhalation. I long to huff and puff, to pant, to strain. Collarbones rising, ribs expanding, diaphragm tenting, lungs gasping. I want this hard breathing enough to chase it every day—running, hiking, jumping, pedaling. Calf and thigh muscles contracting and pushing until my breath comes hard and ragged.
In yoga classes before COVID, I sat, buttocks on a block, knees bent and feet behind me. “Close your eyes and bring your mind to your breath,” the instructor said quietly. “If your breath is shallow, let it be shallow, if your breath is deep let it be deep.” We sat like this for a minute or more before she encouraged us to fill every centimeter of our lungs with air on the inhale, then to squeeze every last drop of oxygen out on the exhale. Now I repeat this exercise alone. I see my breath as a sunshine yellow light moving in and down, up and out.
I’m willing to work hard for breath, to know I’m alive.
* * *
My younger brother hung like a breath, a fog, in the corner of my bedroom where the ceiling met the walls above the door. Chubby, blond, and filmy, he morphed from infant to toddler to boy as he fluttered where I couldn’t not see him. Of course he wasn’t really there; he died when I was two years old, stopped breathing suddenly in the middle of a night, his death a mystery, a thing my parents didn’t talk much about, except to say, Alfred died of Crib Death.
* * *
The word breath comes from Old English, bræth, meaning scent or smell. The physical sensation bearing news of the world through the nostrils—the smell of rain, the scent of prey, the stench of death—inspired the word. Spire is a Latin root word meaning breath—as in inspire, respire, expire, or even perspire, the act of breathing through the pores of the skin.
Breathe. Respire. Inspire. Expire. Sigh. Pant. Sip. Gulp. Gasp. Cough. Inhale. Exhale. Snort. Wheeze. Blow. Heave. Puff. Sniffle. Sniff. Snore. Scent. Bellow. Breeze. Gust. Asphyxiate. Choke. Suffocate. Strangle. Can’t breathe.
* * *
I struggled with breath as a child. Chronic bronchitis and bouts of pneumonia inflamed the air sacs of my lungs, filled them with fluid; I had cough, fever, chills. I spent the winter holidays in the hospital the year I was eight. In my young adulthood, allergic rhinitis clawed at my nose, my sinuses, my bronchioles and lungs. Like my baby brother, I labored for breath. Unlike my baby brother, I lived.
* * *
“We found their fingerprints all around the hole.”
That image, the fingerprints left by two boys grasping at the edges of broken ice,
boys who frantically tried to pull themselves onto a too-thin layer
of frozen water that cracked under their grip,
haunted my imagination,
the most gruesome detail in the story of two boys I never met,
my father’s brothers.
Alfred and Arthur, the teens who never grew up,
never had children of their own, never became my uncles,
because frigid water filled their lungs and snuffed out their breath.
* * *
Asphyxia is a condition of insufficient oxygen to the body that arises from a problem with breathing. Airway obstruction causes asphyxia, asthma can cause asphyxia, so can being underwater, in a vacuum, in air filled with particulates due to smoke or pollution. Death by asphyxia can be an accident: taking a too-big bite of steak and choking, or falling through the ice while skating and slipping under water.
Death by asphyxia can be intentional: fingers around a throat, stones in a heavy coat pocket when jumping into a cold lake, or a noose looped around a neck when feet step off a tree limb. Asphyxia sometimes occurs when an infant is asleep in their crib; perhaps a section of their young brain did not mature enough to fully manage breathing. No one knows for sure.
* * *
Fifty-two years after Alfred died, I asked my mom to describe what happened. She sucked in a breath of surprise and her eyes rimmed with tears half a century after her baby died, giving the lie to her clipped explanations of crib death over the years. A ”feeling” woke my mom and sent her crib-side where her baby’s chest no longer rose and fell. While dad drove frantically to the hospital in the black and white days before 911, mom felt Alfred slip away. “Drive carefully, Charles,” she told my dad. “It’s too late now.”
* * *
Ma’am,” the chaplain on my front porch said. “I’m sorry, your son has taken his life.”
The air flew out of my lungs and a scream pierced the air next to me where my partner crumpled over the sofa in sobs. I stood with mouth open, struggling to comprehend. Our sweet, troubled, handsome nineteen-year-old son. Adopted after chaotic early years, throw-away years, nobody cares about poor white trash, meth addicts, and foster kids years. Left to languish for seven long years with inadequate food, clothing, care. Boy body touched in ways it never should have been. Meth-addicted mom admonished to do better without the tools to do better.
Trauma followed him every day of his life. The meth that coursed through his developing arteries and veins, his developing nerves and brain, had erupted in paranoia, in mood swings, in delusions in his late teens. Or was that schizophrenia inherited from his maternal aunt?
How badly he must have wanted to leave this life, how he must have lacked inspiration, to put that noose around his neck and step off that branch, his airway slowly compressed until he suffocated. Unable to breathe by choice. What a choice.
* * *
I count my mother-self lucky, in a way. For some, death by asphyxiation is no kind of choice.
* * *
When I saw the video footage, the knee on the neck for nearly nine minutes, it took my breath away. Then, of course, my breath returned through my wide open, jaw to the ground mouth. This wasn’t the first time: Eric Garner in New York, then George Floyd in Minneapolis. “I can’t breathe,” each man uttered as he died.
“I can’t breathe.”
Byron Williams was riding his bicycle when Las Vegas officers noticed his bike didn’t have a light and gave chase. They ordered Byron face down in the dirt and used their hands and knees to pin him down. “I can’t breathe,” he cried out. He repeated it seventeen times before he lost consciousness and died.
An investigation by the New York Times found that over the last decade at least 70 people died in police custody uttering the words: I can’t breathe. The dead range in age from 19 – 65. Most were stopped for minor infractions. One was a veteran who survived two tours of Iraq but not a chance meeting with American police. More than half of the dead were Black.
* * *
When you find out that your son has hung himself, you run away from knowing. You tell yourself you’ll race in a triathlon and you run. You pound out miles on riverside trails. You plan to pound your grief into submission, disappear your grief with breath. Then the universe sticks out a toe, catches your running feet, trips you, and down you go. Your torso rams into a sawed-off log on the way, rib cage explodes. You’re down in the cold mud. Broken. A punctured lung and too many rib fractures to even count, the ER doctor says. You’re a mess.
You think you can’t breathe, but you can. It hurts like hell, each breath sharp and stabbing, but the air comes in and goes out.
You can still breathe.
Because you can, you do.
You just keep breathing.
It feels like an obligation. It feels like a privilege.
And so, you breathe.
Mary lives with a wife and one son in Portland Oregon. Her non-fiction essays have been published in The Rumpus, The Normal School, Hip Mama, Fugue, Pithead Chapel and elsewhere. Two of these essays have earned Pushcart nominations. When Mary’s not writing, she can be found providing chiropractic care, gardening, running and cycling, or walking her two aging pitbulls around the wilds of Portland. She’s working on a memoir.