The Art of Breathing
During that time, his chest rises and then falls. At least I think it’s about a second, but I can’t be certain exactly how much time passes with my attention focused on this human phenomenon. Life slowly inflates time and time again pressing against the purple owl pajama top as his tiny lungs expand. I don’t need to know exactly why the grooves on a record produce the sound of symphonies. For now, a rudimentary understanding of the process of taking in oxygen is all that’s required of me. At this time, life is simple without a need to recall from high school biology what exactly aveoli are or their role in respiration.
Nestled against me, curled up in my arm with only the faintest sliver of moonlight coming in through the window to perch on his brow. I can count each individual lash beneath his closed eyes. For these few moments alone in the night, nothing else matters and it is my time alone with my son. A year ago to be up at this time would only provoke anxiety with work looming, but now this time is my retreat from being at the mercy of the world’s emails and texts.
Again and again, I can watch what the rest of the masses seldom witness— an ongoing dance between opposing forces that work in harmony. I take notice of his rhythmic creation unlike so many other natural secrets of this world that pass by me while I sit in ignorance. I was somehow chosen to appreciate this human canvas. It was over twenty years ago that I first learned to be attuned to the art of breathing.
I sat next to my mother while she clutched my brother’s hand. She gave birth to Ryan, so she earned that right to hold on to him before he left us. Above the bed with its hideous metal frames and rails, the revolving red hand set in the wall counted down. I had seen this clock my whole life— all schools and hospitals had this same circular clock with the white face and black minute and hour hands. In fact, after years in hospitals too many things had become familiar to me. The sterile smell of the clean sheets, the relentless beeping of machines and my acquired knowledge of each device’s purpose, the importance of t-cells, the pint-sized apple juice that came with each meal. But on this day, there was no meal on the cart with arm that stood alone in the corner.
Across the bed from me, my father sat holding my brother’s other hand. I let him join us in the end because the four of us were once family and we once welcome Ryan into this world together. Aside from looking down on my brother, the clock was my only other focus. I learned through observation that the red hand actually takes a tiny jump with each passing second. These small skips together marked the time between each of his last breaths.
Nineteen seconds passed by the time I heard the rasp that signaled that it was not yet over and the countdown began anew. I turned to the bed to wait again for my brother’s next breath.
That’s how long he told me I held my breath after I broke through the surface of the pool and into the sunlight. We sometimes played the game of forcing ourselves to sit on the bottom of the pool and hold our breath, but whether it was Mississippis or steamboats— our timing fluctuated wildly. I would always argue that his thirty seconds had to be over a minute until we actually got a stopwatch that could referee.
The shallow end was where we spent those earlier summers before making our way past the plastic rope into the deep end. This time in the water was also for tag, chicken fights, races, and diving for coins when we had our goggles. During the break, it was adult swim when we were banished to the cement with a nerf ball that we were slinging at opposite gutters. But most importantly was that the summer was ours. Those days were filled with miracles before I could appreciate them.
I read after he died that it was possible for a human being to go as long as sixty seconds between breaths. Years later, I can’t tell you how long the whole thing went on, but I remember each breath. Maybe my time in that room lasted an hour? I don’t know, but I do remember the lengths of the intervals. Fifteen, nineteen, twenty-three, twenty-seven. Somehow, my eighteen-year old sibling hung on to this world and provided a spectacle while I watched. His chest rose so slowly and then fell gradually while I somehow could still find his last act to be beautiful.
Outside the door in the hallway, my grandma sat waiting for us to come out when the performance finally finished. I remember her telling us how the night before she heard a lone thunderclap that woke her. She insisted that this is when his spirit left his body behind.
Thirty-nine seconds passed for the finale. At the time, I didn’t know that it was the last breath— how could I? It was only after I watched the second hand make a full rotation that I realized my watch had come to an end.
My father sobbed on one side while my mother cried on the other. I stepped out into the hallway before the tears came. Hundreds of days for our family in hospitals came to an end at that moment. His pattern of steady rises and falls forever etched into my memory.
I stand outside the door listening, but I can’t hear anything. At least, I think it is a minute. Carefully, I open the door and close it just as quickly before any light can escape inside. I make my way in the dark to the Ikea crib where Ryan’s namesake is curled up. I lean in, but it is too difficult to confirm the movement of his chest in the dark while my eyes adjust. His knees are pulled under his toddler stomach and his bottom is in the air. In my mind, I know that he is breathing just fine, but I want to see it.
Tayla would think I’m crazy, but I have to see it— I need to risk waking him. I reach out and lower my hand onto his back. I wait and although it is only a second, it feels like an eternity. During that time, my mind takes me to places that no parent should go as I imagine the worst. But just as my worries are about to explode into full-blown fear, I feel movement. Quickly, I draw my hand back and reach up to my eyes wiping away a stray tear in relief. I am then able to rest my chin on the crib and watch his masterpiece.
Twenty-six years later, I know that there is an art to breathing. The rest of the world may find it to be more of a science, but every night I will respectfully disagree.