Bring your awareness to the breath. Without judgement and without attempting to change it in any way, simply notice the breath.
I have a confession. I often find myself thinking, “Enough about the breath already. What’s the big deal?” My yoga teachers explain that the breath, prana, is the vital life force. We can survive for a short time without food or even water, but without the breath we die. I understand the importance of the breath on a theoretical level, but I can’t seem to summon the kind of passion my teachers possess.
I complete the exercise anyway. There is tension in my jaw. The breath catches in my throat. My Adam’s apple feels like a boulder obstructing my airway. Small, shallow breaths fill my lungs, high up in my chest. My stomach is in knots. I feel sick. Nothing is happening down there.
I watch Paul Kalanithi walk into the room. Of course it’s not actually Paul, the author of When Breath Becomes Air. But I think of Paul. I think of all the schooling this man has been through, all the hours he’s spent training, practicing, tuning his skills on the job. I wonder how long he’s been working since his last break and how much sleep he got last night. He looks tired.
I listen carefully to the words he chooses. He has trouble maintaining eye contact. I can’t help but think Paul would do a better job with this.
“Out with it!” I want to say.
And then he says it.
“Of course we could operate. But there’s always the question of should we.” There’s character in these words. Like they were strung together with care and consideration. Clear, yet gentle enough. They are the right words to say in a situation like this. This isn’t the first time this man has said these words and he will use them again. Surely Paul wrote them down as well, blessing them with ink.
A blast of oxygen fills the bag attached to the mask that covers my father’s nose and mouth. It sounds like he’s snoring, and I wonder if his tongue is getting in the way. He’s working hard to breathe.
I try to relax my jaw. I tell myself to breathe deeply. I make an effort to fill my belly. I notice that I am alive and breathing.
Over the next several hours they will gradually reduce the amount of oxygen feeding my father’s mask. Soon he will die.
* * *
With love to my father, who passed away last Tuesday, January 31, 2017.
May his breath become the air that fills us with life.