Breathe.

The first time I remember losing my breath, I was a child riding with my family on our small motorboat near Emerald Isle. My long, blonde ponytail was an impossible tornado in the wild breeze, and we were going fast when we crested a wave, came down, and my back snapped against the hull of the boat. I gasped, but air wouldn't come in. I remember the panic on my mother's face and the feeling of my own eyes, large. I lay down on the floor of the boat, taking in the big sky and my terror. And then, the air came back.

***

In college, I lived at the bottom of a steep hill. Most days, I'd walk up it to campus, then trek back down when my classes were over. It was spring, and I was walking through the arboretum, thinking about my poetry class, when I realized I needed to sit down. I found a bench and sat beneath a crepe myrtle, its white petals floating down around me in the breeze. I wheezed and sniffed - Chapel Hill in the spring is terrible for allergies - and gathered myself enough to make it the rest of the way down the hill, where I rifled through my apartment for an inhaler that I knew I probably had, somewhere.

***

I moved to New York to go to grad school in August of 2001 - an inauspicious time. For weeks after the Twin Towers fell, I coughed. I didn't have health insurance and couldn't see a doctor. I didn't have an inhaler, so I bought an over-the-counter nebulizer that made me jittery and didn't really work. My lungs cracked and groaned, and the city grieved around me. My insides matched my new world. A few weeks later, my beloved grandmother died of lung cancer from her lifelong habit of smoking. We were all choking.

***

The event was unremarkable, but the memory has sharp edges. I was 30, and I was emerging from a dark mood that had held me for months. The air had the crisp smell of pine trees and that first hint of fall, and I couldn't get enough of the smell. It was like I could breathe, breathe, breathe - every breath reaching down into my toes. I felt so alive. 

***

I lay in bed next to him, counting his breaths. I couldn't sleep because I wanted to make sure he didn't stop breathing. I rested one hand on his chest and lightly dozed, feeling my hand rise and fall with his breath. Each breath, a gift. 

***

I was exhausted from being the glue that held the world together, so I went looking for someone else to be God. I tried lots of things, including a vigorous yoga practice. I learned from it a whole new language around the power of my breath - it is the stuff of life itself. The energy of my life rides in and out of me on the air I breathe. My breath became a thick, healing whisper. Gentle waves. Smooth, steady, even.

***

My sister held one leg as I pushed and pushed, and she looked into my eyes. I wanted to cry - it was all so painful and so beautiful. She said, "Don't cry. Breathe. Breathe the baby out." And I did.

***

At night, my daughters lie in my arms, one on each shoulder. They snuggle deep into my chest, smelling my nightgown. I kiss the tops of their heads and breathe them in, savoring their smells like sunshine and a bath. We could find each other by smell alone.

***

We tried to take a walk this evening, but everyone is walking. There's no way to stay far enough away from the other people. I am afraid of other people. I can feel my chest constrict, but I've been reading too many articles about people dying, or sick, doubled over from pain and the inability to breathe deeply enough. The children ask me who will take care of them if I die. And then what if that person dies? And what if that person dies? I tell them that all the people won't die at once, and there will always be someone to love them. They're grim, like me, and worry about the worst. The news allows me to imagine the worst - tens of thousands of people dead, my daughters motherless. My lungs folding in on themselves. The light going dark.

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