At twenty-three, my son was diagnosed with congestive heart failure, a condition in which the heart becomes weakened and fluid builds up in and around the lungs. This creates pressure on the heart muscle, as well as a constant feeling of drowning which, essentially, he is. For the past eight years, as I watch him go about his days and attempt a normal lifestyle, every breath is measured, counted, treasured. The very act of drawing a breath that is deep and life-sustaining is rare; his lungs hunger for more, beg for it, but space is limited.
Until the time of his diagnosis, the act of breathing seemed to be a given. The human body is designed with a motherboard of automatic responses, allowing our hearts to beat and our lungs to function separately from our conscious thoughts. They are on autopilot and we are not required to remind ourselves to take a drag of oxygen every few moments. Until he became so ill, we feasted on our air supply as if it were an endless smorgasbord.
But now, my son’s breathing has become a tangible commodity, to be counted out like coins, which he regularly deposits in an account that charges outrageous fees and accrues no interest. And because of this, I have begun to count my own breaths; to ponder on that space between breaths, those beats of time when our bodies are soaking up the essential components of the gulp we just took and expelling the unusable chaff. To put these moments into a lyrical cadence, scratch them out on paper, and offer them up as a ritualistic sacrifice as a way to ease the ache that pulls at my chest and tangles my thoughts. And to help me to continue breathing.