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Learning to breathe

My mother was one of those mothers that hovered over her children. She wanted us to feel safe, be safe in a world that she knew to be very hostile. She and my father had come from the East Coast and made a life in California at a time when interracial marriages were not only generally a subject of derision, but rare enough to attract unwanted stares and rude questions. There were not many people to whom my mother entrusted the care of my older brother and me. There was Ivy who with her soft West Indian voice and long welcoming arms who taught three year old me how to thoroughly wash my hands before letting me linger at her table for hours, slowly eating her delicious food, tasting each bite unhurriedly. My father tells a story of leaving me and having Ivy put some lunch on for me and then returning hours later to see me still eating. I was incredibly thin so it was a constant joke as to where the food went. The only other regular adult care taker I remember was Marion Cotton. Marion was a painter like my mother. My favorite painting of hers was a house with peeling paint that sat on a hill and seemed alive.
I loved Marion Cotton. She had a house that smelled of oil paints and cats. She loved the color red, in her hair and her clothes, in her house curtains, in her paintings. She embraced the colors of fire. Her car was a yellow convertible jeep. Her hair, once turned purple in a dyer’s misplaced confidence, usually bloomed in orange red. She lived off of Union Street in a top floor back lot apartment that had big windows and a porch that let the seventeen cats come and go as they liked. Perhaps there were a few more, maybe a few less. There were always so many. Her house, logically, should have been forbidden to me. I was an asthmatic child, allergic to, among dozens of other things, cats. But I not only loved Marion, I loved cats. Although cats literally took my breath away I loved them.
There are many things most people take for granted; one of them is breathing. It comes faster and slower, harder and easier but the breath fills the lungs and leaves before the thought. The ritual in out of the lungs, not thought of much more often than the lub-dub of the heart. As a once severely asthmatic child I know breathing from its other side. I know the feeling of the attack when suddenly it is as if the very air that you struggle for that has become the enemy. First the chest starts to hurt. It is not unlike a headache coming on, quiet, insidious, almost creeping. Only instead of coming up the neck it squeezes on the chest. They call them attacks, a word that speaks to barrages of gunshots from a hidden barricade, or a hidden guerilla warrior emerging from a glen assault focused on you. You are breathing and then your chest begins to tighten, the lungs stiffen and will not allow the air to enter, as you reach for a full breath there is a stab, a resistant screech, the lungs whine as you clutch for air that will not enter. Suddenly there are stones across your chest and tears in your eyes and you wheeze in each rough stabbing fragment of a breath. And the more you gasp the harder it comes so you sweat, as much from fear as from the effort of pulling in the next breath, and the next, and the next as the wheeze becomes louder and stronger and the pain radiates out as terror engulfs you. Breath, after all, is life.
Whenever I had an attack my mother would zip into action. Maybe it was drugs, maybe it was a trip to the doctor, maybe it was steam. She would try to calm me down to make me at ease knowing that that would at least slow if not stop short the attack. But I could feel her fear in her cool soft hands that would stroke my brow. I could see it in her tight mouth that tried to smile but betrayed a nightmare fear. How bad would this one be, how long would this one last.
Preventing attacks became the challenge of those years. Keeping allergens away an absolute necessity. Our home had no carpets that would attract dust. No birds or cats. Rarely a dog, and the two we did have were only allowed after my asthma had abated, and never stepped foot in my bedroom. The house stayed dusted and there were certain chores I never had to do, like emptying the ash from the fireplace or weeding in the Spring, as they would aggravate my illness. I was, it seemed, a frail child. I, as it happens, did not know this. I knew I was sick a lot., but I did not know I was frail. I did not want to know that cats made me sick, and birds were even worse. I did not want to know that running could compromise my lungs and rolling down grassy hills could bring on an incident, so I denied those truths and lived my life.
I was also a quiet child. I could sit and dream as adults took care of their chores, when bored invent and then go to other lands. At least that’s how I remember myself at Marion’s house, looking out windows, sitting in corners, petting the cats. My parents would always leave me after worried conversations with Marion. Here is her medicine. Here is the number of where we will be. Please don’t let her pet the cats. Could you open another window? Can you take her outside? It will only be for a couple of hours. Marion would usher them out the door assuring them that she and I would have a grand time. They should not worry; they should not rush. I would be fine.
I do not remember if she read to me. Probably she let me draw. Everyone did. When I was young I had a certain talent at rendering, especially flowers and trees. But I do remember that the time always flew by, and I remember that I always spent the better part of the time with Marion, playing with her cats who would brush against my calves, leap into my lap, run their tails under my nose, stroke their warm bumpy tongues against my fingers and purr to me as I purred back and laughed. I loved Marion and I loved her cats as only a child can, openly and without expectation of anything more than be able to listen to their soft gentle hum.
My eyes would start to run, my nose would start to itch and then to drip out hot clear phlegm. My eyes would burn and grow red and I would pet. My chest would tighten but not grip, and I would pet. I would breathe and I would pet. I would sneeze, and lightly wheeze and sniffle, and I would pet. I would be calm and trusting and talk to the cats, and my breath stayed. It fluttered, my chest tightened, but I never lost total control of my lungs.
My parents would return, after leaving me at Marion’s because there was no other place that could be trusted at that moment, as soon as they could. And when they entered her house and found me embracing the cats they rushed to disentangle me. Running nose and eyes, sniffling and smiling they were always amazed, because I breathed. At Marion’s house the cats didn’t hurt me. The dander irritated, but it did not stop my rhythms. My parents and I could never quite sort out the mystery. In other places a cat, even when unseen, would cause me to wheeze and gag and I would have to be taken home. Yet at her house I somehow always was able to hold on just enough breath to keep me clear headed and unafraid.
I am lucky that as I grew my body adjusted and my lungs forged a relative peace with my environment. It has been decades since I had a full blown attack. It took me years to learn to breathe. I didn’t realize the lessons, but I took them. Finally, the breath revealed itself. It poured back, back from the thorns and wire, back from the scratches and wheeze, back from the razors and tightening elastic bands without the use of drugs. Breath became reliable. Reliable when excited, reliable when exerted, reliable when impassioned, reliable when at rest
reliable when safe, reliable when giving and receiving love. I think that is what Marion was trying to show my parents and me as she rushed them out the door, sure, in her crazy, erratic heart of hearts that she had a home of life and color and love where I would, indeed, be fine.