To the initiated lung, breath comes with ease. Steady in, then out. Its housing rises and falls to an inner rhythm, broken occasionally by changes in task or by the entrance of an unwanted speck of dust or emotion. It is such bliss to its owner, when accompanied by delicious scents and flavors, such as chocolate, roses or hemp.
One begins to appreciate this function of life as the rhinovirus takes a firm grip on tender membranes. Nasal passages swell and drip, forcing a new pattern of breath down your throat. The tissue is like Dacron: drip-dry and scratchy. Hoarseness creeps into your larynx and deep honking coughs erupt from parts of the lungs you never knew existed. For four or five days you sound like a freight train running amok in New York City. Mercifully, the tube into the ears also swells, making these noises more painful to the outside world than to oneself.
As a child I often listened to my mother’s breath while she slept. Her snoring was loud and incessant. To this day I can’t listen to a chainsaw without thinking of her. My breathing adjusted to the same rhythm as hers, with no effort. The effect was hypnotic. Occasionally she ceased abruptly at the height of an inhaled breath, not a sound uttering from her lips…or mine. Both if us hung on that pulmonary precipice for many seconds, until an equally sudden snort ripped the air, her spirit returning to ground.
Breath is precious; hold it, at all costs. We children played games with this theme. How long can you hold your breath? Time it; the winner gets first pick in the cookie jar. Usually some other purple-faced child poked a finger in my ribs and tickled me, thereby assuring his or her own win. On rainy days when my father babysat us, we played hiding games. How many can hide beneath the skirts of an armchair? All breath was held in the balance, as his feet thundered past. The line between real and imagined terrors was fragile, his alcoholic temper being subject to flare at any moment. Some forty years later I still hold my breath in times of anxiety or excitement.
And then there is that last gasp that everybody fears. I have been there and back. In a fit of anaphylaxis I tried everything in my asthmatic’s arsenal to open my swelling bronchial tubes. The swelling was relentless, tightening its grip like a vice around my throat. I radiated heat and my ears began to ring loudly. I clutched my boyfriend and asked, “Do you think this is one of those times you call 911?” Seconds later I blacked out. Fortunately he had already called the rescue squad, and ten minutes after I took my last perceptible breath, they arrived.
Most people don’t survive past ten minutes without breathing. I survived beyond all the odds. Even the ER physician counseled my boyfriend that, if I made it, I probably wouldn’t be the person he knew. I think my lifetime of holding my breath must have enabled me to pass this ultimate test. Now it’s my turn to have first crack at the cookie jar.