The Number of Breaths

The wise one who knows Breath thus becomes immortal -Prashna Upanishad

She is listening to her father’s breath. Today it rattles with death, every breath an elegy performed to unwelcome ears.

Breath in. Breath out. Breath in. Breath out.

His mouth, open and dry, sucks and chokes on molecules of oxygen sputtering and wheezing through metal-laden lungs. The uneasiness of his respiration makes it hard for her to concentrate on breathing so she sings to him to restore the cadence, the pulse, to time. His breathing quiets. He is still there with her and her music mixes with his hastening tempo in their final requiem. This is not the first time she has counted breaths with her father.

When she was young enough to be light on her father’s chest she and he listened to his inhales and exhales gusting through his chest like the wind through sails on perfect blustery day. It was early on in the love affair between father and tobacco, before pollution, like invisible serpents, would steal down his throat and hide in his lungs, spewing undetected, slow acting lethal venom. There was no hint of a limited number of breaths then, only the gentle purring sound of his life blowing in and out combined with the rise and fall of his body reminded her of waves against the boat, seemingly endless and reassuring, like an anticipated, but never certain perfect sunrise. Time is suspended and we believe the world has made us a promise to be kind.

Breath in. Breath out. Breath in. Breath out.

When she was old enough to recognize a sadness in her father’s chest she and he listened as the new baby drew the first and last breaths of his two day life. We listened together, alone in our beds in separate bedrooms, eyes uselessly closed, but practicing sleep to keep the pace of life’s clock steady. Even though we crave faster minutes when our breath is knocked out of our chests, we hope to know slower minutes when our breath is stolen. The baby breathes in, breathes out, breathes in, breathes out. Tiny gasps, barely breaths, an anguished metronome of struggling gulps of air followed by tiny puffs, a little bird chirping as the life leaves his malformed heart. We hang on those drowning breaths until, as predicted, they suddenly end. Then peals of foreign sounding sobs from a forever-after son-less father and inconsolable mother. She has often thought, as her father probably had, about the end of those breaths and with them, the ever growing fracture in a trusting relationship with the world.

Breath in. Breath out.

His chest barely rises now and the gusts and waves have given way to a pre-storm stillness. He has his granddaughter lying on his heart, taking the first new breaths, sweet perfume billowing out. Tiny baby smiles fall over her perfect mouth as her history is introduced to her future through a chemistry shared only by family, by the continuation of life. Both fall asleep, one with many breaths ahead and one with many behind and we make a truce with the world.

He breathes in. He breathes out.

Then, no more breaths.

As the sting of death begins to throb she must, like many, face the ledgers of life. The balance sheets show where quantities are limited so spending must be wise. Then she thanks the world.

Breath in.