Air Hunger

I was talking to my mother a while ago about a person I know with cystic fibrosis. I’m aware of the severity of the disease, but I knew next to nothing about the specifics. She’s a certified medical assistant so her medical knowledge is, at the very least, superior to my own. She clued me in on some of the gaps in my knowledge. To some degree, I’m reluctant to have brought it up.

Her description of the illness and how it may ultimately claim someone’s life was terrifying to begin with, but it shifted into further conversations about suffocation or, as the doctors who had taken care of my dying father put it, “air hunger”. It seems like a strange case where the euphemism may be even more horrifying than the term it’s attempting to recolor.

My father died eight years ago. Anyone who knew me at the time may have believed me to be unconcerned. I can give a million excuses why I seemed apathetic towards my father’s death, and the excuses I use to convince myself I’m a decent human being change from day to day. At times I believed I shed all the tears I had over his drunken tirades. At other times I told myself I had to exercise my poker face to carry the emotional burden of becoming the primary breadwinner of the family, painting myself as the hero of the story. Sometimes I just believed it was my own way of coping. There’s a little truth in all of that.

Perhaps it was just a natural response to the absurdity of it all. I was just coming into my own at the time. Since we had (bear with me as this term may seem insensitive) the good fortune of knowing ahead of time that this would eventually be the end, I’d recently dropped my community college classes to take more hours at work. I was open with my co-workers about what was going on, so I began to experience the awkwardness with which people approached death.

“I’m praying for you,” someone would say. This one didn’t bother me so much. I was still new to skepticism, but I had long ago shed my belief in the power of prayer. That said, I can’t be upset that someone is saying they would spend valuable time doing the thing they believed would work best for me. It’s no different from being told I’d be kept in one’s thoughts.

Others would say, “If he doesn’t make it, that was God’s will.” Well, he didn’t make it, and I could only wonder if these people imagine a God who wills fathers to die. I know it’s supposed to be comforting, but I always struggled to see it as anything but insensitive. That said, I never responded harshly to this comment. It’s misguided, but well-intentioned.

When I returned to work after taking some time off, plenty of people asked, “Is it true that your father passed?” Passed what? A test? A kidney stone? I can’t complain too much about this euphemism, however. It’s more comforting than “air hunger.”

Plenty more, however, were simply silent. My mother was told during grief counseling that people don’t know how to handle it when others are dealing with the death of a loved one, so they just keep their distance. I guess I understand, but it’s a piece of our society that I’m not fond of, this awkward avoidance of the inevitable.

I remember one father’s day the break room at work had a large poster that said “My father is…” There were little sticker cards all over with different words you could put up on the poster to describe your father. I looked over the cards, turned to my co-worker, and said, “I can’t find the word ‘dead’ anywhere.” He told me I couldn’t just say things like that, but he let out an awkward laugh. I was chipping away at the stigma.

Since then I’ve made it a habit to bring up my father’s death during both relevant and completely unrelated conversations. Close friends know this about me and join in the joke. Those less familiar become acquainted with this habit quickly and seem to warm up to it over time. It may seem morbid, but it comes from a good place. I know the loneliness of being that person. Many of us do, I’m sure, and that’s the last time in your life that you want the world to feel a little bit colder.

I may never know why I responded the way I did to my father’s death, but even today, when I hear my mother telling me how scared he looked as his extremities began to turn blue, I feel the bits of pain I never allowed myself to feel.


My name is Mark Thomas McLaughlin and I’m a pretentious pseudo-intellectual from the Pacific Northwest. Love me.

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