Breathe

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(Editors Note: This appeared originally as a blog in Skirt Charleston magazine)

The symbol for oxygen is O2.

I like to think of it as “Oh, to…” as in, “Oh, to be able to stop and take a breath!”

It sounds ridiculous to forget to breathe. You don’t have to think about it. Breathing is just natural.

But sometimes, I need to remind myself.

There was always a moment, when I got home from work, that my daughter would want to launch into the rapid-fire recap of her day. From an early age, I taught her…just wait.

Let Mama breathe.

Give Mama that bubble of time, just five or maybe 10 minutes, when I could shuck the stress from the day like an ugly snakeskin. Silence. Breathe. Let my chest rise as I pull in air. Loudly exhale out, letting the shoulders sink.

And then, the “How was your day” could start.

This is the reason you put on your own oxygen mask before turning to your child in the next airplane seat. Because you have to be able to breathe if you want to have anything at all to give someone who depends on you.

The day could be full of the slings and arrows of nasty clients, jealous coworkers, kamikaze commuters. And the nights could be off-the-rails races to fit in dinner, bath, storytime, dogwalking, meaningful conversation, and the occasional – okay, more than occasional – glass of wine.

But for just a few minutes, I could breathe. In. Out.

Later in life, I attended a challenge course. We had to climb a 30-foot telephone pole, stand atop a platform at the top that was no bigger than a personal pan pizza, and then leap into space.

Of course, the whole time, we were harnessed in, safety lines monitored by the seasoned challenge leaders.

But it didn’t feel safe. Once you crested the telephone pole, there was no place to put your hands. You had to stand, 30 feet up and balance on a pole that – how did I not notice this before? – swayed ever so slightly in the wind.

From below, came encouragement from the rest of the class.

“You can do it!”

And then, the leader, well-versed in the sudden cowardice and panic I felt: “Breathe, Helen! Slow breaths, now! Just breathe.”

Just breathe. In. Out.

Not quite bravery as I sucked air like a starving man, but at least the panic receded.

I looked around at the beautiful sage-green mountains, laid out before me. I pushed down on my trembling thighs and straightened from the frightened crouch. Slowly, but I straightened until I was standing.

And I breathed. In. Out.

Oh, yeah. Now I remember. Breathe.

 

Missing the Gold

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When I let my mind wander, I’m a crappy mom. Ask my daughter.

Now, to be fair, my daughter was a prattler. Driving along with her in the car seat in back was like being bathed in word vomit. She would tell herself stories, she would make up songs, she would report on every day’s events at the molecular level, and sometimes, she would ask questions that she already knew the answer to, just to make noise.

As a busy single mother, I learned to tune most out, my mind a sieve that sifted for only the nuggets of gold amidst all the verbiage. Sometimes, I would miss the gold.

Like the time she was sick and the nurse mentioned pneumonia as one possibility. It seemed a fairly remote possibility, so I immediately discounted it, which is why I wasn’t paying attention when she asked, “Mama, is pneumonia serious?”

“Oh yes,” I responded, probably thinking about what to make for dinner. “People used to die from it.”

It was the unaccustomed silence from the back seat that finally got my attention. A tiny little hiccupping sob. Oh.

“No, sweetie, you’ll be fine…”

But even that pales for my daughter in comparison to the time I told her she had an ugly smile.

For the second semester in a row, she had come home with a terrible school photo. My daughter was a cute little girl, but somehow she got it into her head that smiling for a photo meant grimacing and baring her teeth.

When she bemoaned her bad picture with the usual excess of words, I said absently, “You just have to stop smiling like that. It’s not cute at all.”

Again, silence. But I didn’t pick up on this one, didn’t pick up on what she needed me to say, and it wasn’t until later that I heard her crying in her room because her mother had told her she had an ugly smile. Not what I’d said exactly, and certainly not what I’d meant, but she brings it up to this day, and she’s 26.

And today, I still try to listen to what my very verbal daughter does not say…that’s where the gold is and that’s when I can redeem myself for the crappy mom times.

Panning for Gold

Grown Up But the Same

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My daughter stood on a stage, wearing fringe and sparkles and wailing in harmony with the other vocalists in the indie rock band. A friend from her high school days leaned over and whispered, “What must it be like to look at that on stage and know you gave birth to it?”

Weird was what it was. And yet, not weird. Because overlaid on the face accented with cat’s-eye eyeliner was the wide-eyed little girl, bobbing her head in time to rap music at an Easter celebration I had wandered into, the only white girl in a sea of head-bobbing dark-skinned children. The same girl, grown up.

And that made me think of an article I read about what it is that makes us “us” even as our bodies grow, even as we get a completely new suit of cells through the years.

The article asks what makes us “us” – and what does it take for us to stop? Is it mental illness? Is it amnesia? Is it death? What if you wake up one morning feeling not quite like yourself? Is your identity slipping, or is it an anomaly?

I believe we are all essentially ourselves during all our days alive, despite experiences and years. Not sure about after death, but I at least feel I have evidence of the living sameness.

My daughter is not just a rock singer, but also a nurse, and I can trace those twin desires to perform and to caretake all the way to the first days she showed a personality. I knew and fell in love with my husband the first time I met him and, though he has changed much through the years, the essential person I recognized during that long-ago lunch together, is consistent. And, whenever I enter a room of mostly strangers, the shy only child I was, swims to the adult surface.

Grown up but the same.

Emily Clair Morgan debut

Photo Credit: Joey Wharton