Crystal Wilkinson on How We Live, Die, and Love
From the Emergence Magazine Podcast
Emergence Magazine is a quarterly online publication exploring the threads connecting ecology, culture, and spirituality. As we experience the desecration of our lands and waters, the extinguishing of species, and a loss of sacred connection to the Earth, we look to emerging stories. Each issue explores a theme through innovative digital media, as well as the written and spoken word. The Emergence Magazine podcast features exclusive interviews, narrated essays, stories, and more.
In this week’s episode, Crystal Wilkinson offers this contemplation on the intimacy of breathing and breath as she considers how we live, die, and love.
From the episode:
My mother is dying again. I sleep on the couch in the living room while my partner curls up, snoring in our new bed. Within reach are a water bottle, three remote controls, an amber bottle of alprazolam, a novel, laptop, and cell phone. My mother appears just as she did a week before she died. Her mouth pursed into a thimble, panting short, rapid breaths. The bedside monitor sounds. Nurses rush in. I stand in the middle of her hospital room. Helpless. And then I wake up relieved to be lying on the couch.
My mother died four years ago. A dream? A panic attack. This occurs so often it no longer matters what I call it. I reach for the remote control, push the channel button until something steals my attention, until my breath slows. I sip cold water. I almost never read. I almost never write. Sometimes I eat snacks. I almost always post something on social media. Sometimes I play videos. I almost always prefer videos of babies. Sometimes I go to the bathroom and stop by our bedroom to peek in on my partner. He is snoring. He is alive. Occasionally, I slip under the covers next to him, but I hate breaking his sleep. Sometimes I return to sleep an hour or two. Sometimes I cannot sleep for the rest of the night.
“Babe, you okay?” my partner says when he hears me stirring around in the dark.
I always answer, “Yes.”
Any other answer is too complicated.
“You good?” I say back.
He always answers, “Yes.”
Any other answer is too complicated.
We both say, “I love you.”
This is our routine before COVID-19.
Three months ago, one day before what would have been my mother’s 81st birthday, my partner returns home from a routine doctor’s visit with an unidentified lung ailment. The “little catch” in his chest was something to worry about, after all. After five minutes of walking, his pulse oximeter reading dips below 86 percent. I pray for a fluke, hope for a cure. Later we learn that his CT scan is clear of blood clots or masses, but his breath is puzzling, not normal.
“What are they going to do?” I ask.
“More tests,” he says.
I ask him how he feels about it. He does not say much.
More tests in our relationship, too.
At night we return to our separate spaces: I to combat my panic attacks, he to reflect alone. I find myself standing at the bedroom doorway in the middle of the night. I listen to his breathing.
During the day I grow quiet. He can tell I am worried.
“How you feel?” I ask before breakfast, during breakfast, and again after breakfast.
“How you feel?” he says, and exaggerates the word you. It sounds ridiculous. We laugh, but we still do not discuss this new thing looming.
I think about my mother.
I think about my partner.
Four years ago, I slept in a chair at the foot of my mother’s hospital bed for forty-five days. Every morning I helped her wash her face, put her dentures in. I combed her hair and twisted it into a knot on top of her head. I adjusted her glasses. She looked more vulnerable with her hair disheveled and her teeth out, like someone who was at the end of their life. I already knew of the disparities in health care for black people. I refused to let my mother’s life be expendable. I wanted to prove that my mother, even at age seventy-seven and in fragile health, was still a black woman deserving life.
Listen to the rest of this essay on Emergence Magazine’s website or by subscribing to the podcast.
Crystal Wilkinson is the author of The Birds of Opulence, winner of the 2016 Ernest J. Gaines Prize for Literary Excellence; Water Street; and Blackberries, Blackberries, nominated for the Orange Prize and the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award. She is a recipient of the Chaffin Award for Appalachian Literature and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Her short stories, poems, and essays have appeared in the Oxford American and Southern Cultures, among others. She is an Associate Professor of English in the Creative Writing MFA Program at the University of Kentucky.
Illustration by Joe Gough.