Trying to Find a Breath
in a Pandemic
Emily Rapp Black and Lisa Glatt on Balancing Panic and Relief
Last night, before I fell asleep, I made a mental note to tell my husband David that if I become infected and am one of the unlucky ones who can’t breathe that maybe he should hold off on telling the doctors and nurses about every physical condition I have. I was, in those moments before sleep, greedy for time, and worried about having to compete for a ventilator. I was certain I’d lose out to someone who’s a few years younger or hasn’t gone through the early stage ovarian cancer and chemo I went through nearly three years ago or who still has her spleen. Now, I feel guilty for wanting him to lie, for wanting my life to continue, and I haven’t mentioned it. I am, as we all are, terrified of not being able to breathe. It’s the most primal fear. It’s every drowning nightmare. It’s every last sound we make. It’s what I listen for at night when David’s sleep apnea interrupts his snoring and he gasps, so hungry for it. It’s what my brother and I both listened for when we watched our parents die, my mother in 1998, and our father just last year. It’s what we watched for, their chests rising and falling with it, their increasing struggle to get some, to take it in. We even have a name for the way it changes when we’re on the way out of here. The death rattle has started, we say. Come quick.
Each night, when my son Ronan was alive, I put him to bed and watched his chest rise and fall with deep, sometimes stuttering breaths, and thought this may be the last time I see him breathe, and almost overlapping that thought was another: it might be better if he stopped breathing now, before every function is taken from him. A monstrous thought, a merciful thought. Then I’d get on my computer and log on to the community of other mothers whose babies and children were dying of Tay-Sachs disease, an illness so severe, so ridiculously brutal and swift, that it was like being touched by the plague: you have it, you die. My friend Rachel said you got robbed, and it was true. There would be no milestones, no conversations, no art projects, no math scores, no college, no bad or good partners, nothing. My son would be ten this month; he never made it to three. The first time I stepped into a group of affected kids and their parents, every few moments a mom would stand up, take a tube from a special bag on the back of the child’s wheelchair, crane open the child’s slack mouth, insert the tube into the lungs, and then flip a switch on the suction machine. And then the sound: as loud as a lawnmower churning underwater as the fluid snaked into the bag that the mother would later dump in the toilet and flush away. Every few minutes, that sound. It’s like they’re drowning, I said to a mother whose child had died 20 years earlier. She said, they are.
For the six months I was in chemo, my husband smoked copious amounts of pot. Mostly at night, but sometimes he’d start in the late afternoon. Before I got sick, he was a man who’d smoked weed a handful of times. After my diagnosis, he bought a machine called a vaporizer—a small device, round and silver like a tiny spaceship. He’d attach a bag used to cook a turkey to the vaporizer, stand at the kitchen counter in his flannel pajama bottoms and black T-shirt, screwing the nozzle in and waiting for the bag to fill with vapor. Sometimes we’d be watching TV and he’d leave for what I thought was a trip to the bathroom, but he’d be gone too long, and then I’d hear the hiss. During my treatment, I was sometimes nauseous and always bald, no eyelashes or eyebrows, and I’d miss the eyelashes the most because they have such an obvious function when you don’t have them anymore. My eyes were dry and itchy. My husband always had a turkey bag of vapor at his side and his eyes were always red. One hit from the bag was enough to make me high and two hits would bring on my anxiety, so I mainly stayed away. But my husband smoked bag after bag after bag—the Olympian of pot smokers, and mostly I was gone too, in my own kind of chemo fog. We’d watch TV and sit on the couch together. Sometimes because of how we were sitting, I couldn’t see him, but I’d hear that bag crinkle when he’d lift it to his face and then I’d hear the hard suck of a man trying to survive.
You should be breathless, my coach used to tell me during box workouts to help improve my performance as a disabled downhill skier. I was good, but he said I could be great, and of course I wanted that too. A simple wooden box, about as big as one you might use to move house and label “kitchen stuff”: I called it the Barf Box. The routine was simple but punishing: hop up on the box, do pushups on the box, lift the box, run around the box, hop over the box for what felt like endless time but was only 45 minutes. I hated it. Breathe through it, he said. I was thirteen. The worst part was the first ten minutes, when panic shifted the breath pattern while the heart kept slamming away in its cage of ribs. Up and down, down and up. Faster, faster, and then the muscles took over the movement, and the breath felt secondary; the body would just keep moving no matter what. Then a skier I knew fell during a race and broke her neck. After that, whenever I put on the helmet and stood, waiting to fly as we called it, my breath was electric and erratic, as if actively working against me. I tried to fly anyway, because I wanted to be great, but after the skier—who was far better than I—snapped her neck and died, I only felt panic. On one of my last runs I barfed in my helmet and bit through my lip. When I arrived at the bottom of the mountain, I tore off the helmet and dumped blood and vomit into the bright white snow and said I’m through. I couldn’t breathe. I can’t do this anymore.
My friend Suzanne and I are professors at the same school and throughout the day we come in and out of the same classroom. At the beginning of this Covid-19 mess, when many intelligent, thoughtful people weren’t yet afraid, I was already terrified. Early on, before talk of quarantine and closed schools, when the rare person in a mask was scoffed at, someone had left their inhaler in my classroom. My students sat in a circle, one of them reading his essay out loud, and I tried to be present and focus, but every few minutes, I’d be distracted by the inhaler. I’d glance up, see it, and become afraid all over again. I called Suzanne in between classes from the quad to complain about such a thing being left on the desk. Is it blue? She asked, reminding me of her asthma—an illness I’d forgotten because she rarely mentioned it. I don’t know, I said. Are you going back in there? She wanted to know. And I wasn’t—my next class was in another building, but I could have gone back, could have snatched it up and dropped it in my purse. I thought about the inhaler throughout the day and into the next, how Suzanne needed it to breathe, how I’d left it there, how the blue was the blue of cornflowers.
The woman from the medical supply store who brought the oxygen tank to my house smelled like cigarettes—a ripe, stale smell. She was fat and sweating, and she huffed and puffed as she pulled the machine in behind her. When she passed the beanbag where Ronan sat when he wasn’t asleep, the wheels made a rattling sound over the hard wood floor. I judged her for being fat, for how she smelled. I said, my son has an acute respiratory condition. There’s a “no smoking” sign in the window. She looked at me with watery eyes and said I’m not smoking right now, am I? She sat down at the kitchen table and asked me to sign the rental agreement for the machine, which came with one refill tank and a series of clear, skinny nose tubes. I began to sign the papers. She coughed. A little flame of anger shot from my chest into my throat. Her fingers made wet-looking prints on the glass. She smelled like the men who spilled from the country bars of my childhood in their tight jeans and elaborate belt buckles, the gray plumes from their cigarettes disappearing into the gray sky. When she coughed again, the flame was a fire and I said Get the fuck out of my house. She didn’t move. I gripped her arm, pulled her out of her chair, and said, Out. If the smell of smoke gets in my son’s lungs it could kill him. She lumbered out the door and I rolled the tank into the closet, sat on the couch and cried until I couldn’t catch my breath.
Our house is full of cleaning products, canned beans and tomatoes and dried pasta. We’re avoiding fresh fruit and vegetables—my favorite things. The kids that used to play in the driveway next door have gone inside, how irritated I once was by the sound of their screeching, the sight of their play swords and daggers. Our close friends left us food on the porch last night, homemade pizza and peanut butter cookies. We waved at them and blew kisses from the window. When David and I first got together I’d sometimes have these nightmares where my breathing would change or I’d whimper in my sleep and I’d be loud enough to wake him up and he’d gently shake me awake. It was right after my mom’s death. I’d see his face and be surprised all over again that I found him and he found me. I’ve had nightmares since, but not like I had early on. Last week, he was working in his office, and heard my breathing and whimpering from another room. He came into our bedroom to interrupt whatever horror I was experiencing. I looked at him, my favorite face, and was relieved that I hadn’t actually missed a turn in a parking garage, wasn’t really flying through the air toward certain death, was relieved to be awake and in this world, even this world.
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