Counting the Good Breaths

At 3:30 (or so) in the morning I found myself twisted and balanced precariously on the edge of the bed. My arm - not the convenient one - was stretched and bent back under the bed. My hand sandwiched between the floor and the warm heavy body of an aged dog. Gasps of breath and coughs punctuated the less labored wheezing.

My temple rested lightly against the corner of my bedside table just inches away from the clock. But I wasn’t really looking at it. I wasn’t in the mood to know how fast or how slow time was moving that night.

I was busy thinking about being a mom.

Mother’s Day is just around the corner so it was a natural thing to do I suppose. At 3:30 in the morning. Half off the bed. Uncomfortable. In a little bit of pain, even. But willing my body to not move. Ignoring the need to use the restroom. Or slip down to the floor and curl half under the bed myself. It was more important not to move. Not now that she had finally settled down for a moment. Maybe she would lie there peacefully for a few hours. Or only seconds. Who knew? It was my job to stay still and not be the one to disturb her rest.

My job. As the mom.

I thought about the hours I had paced with fussy newborns through nights long past. The silent gazing at pneumonia-filled teenage chests in order to catch evidence of the rise and fall getting better or worse. The two visits to a hospital with a baby who struggled to breathe and to sleep. How I forced my body to stay soft and restful when my soul wanted to scream and throw breakables and demand that God and the Universe make this pain, this discomfort, this fear just go away.

I found myself, at all these times - as many others do - breathing. In overly clean and deliberate ways. And therefore maybe provide the relaxation and vital oxygen needed by another. Don’t worry, Little One. Rest now. I’ll do the difficult breathing for a while. And though clearly futile, we do it anyway. Wishing our breaths could be theirs.

As mothers do.

Earlier in the night the dog had come to my side of the bed in her restless pacing. That was unusual - she always woke up my husband for walks and treats and possible threats to the house - but not this time. When my husband remarked that maybe she knew she needed a mommy right now, I snapped at him. Downplaying its significance and clinging to my denial. Besides, love and compassion and gentleness shouldn’t be the sole territory of one gender - or an even narrower definition of our human existence.

Dads, and children, and random strangers alone in the world can find in their hearts the strength to sit still and witness the struggling breaths of others, can’t they? Is pain really more bearable when we ignore it or distract ourselves from listening to it?

I knew my thoughts were too maudlin even for such a uniquely sad night. Even during a pandemic so characterized by difficult breathing, uncertainties and loneliness. So, in the quiet between my worried thoughts, I found myself counting the good breaths. And I tried to reflect on and gather up the happy memories. All those moments of unlabored breathing that slipped by unnoticed in her life. And in mine.

On the phone with my 82 year old mother today, I listened to her stories and counted all of her good breaths - all the beautiful breaths pouring through. We get so many good breaths. For such a long time. You, me, everyone.

About 15 every minute.

Notice them. It will be easier to count them up later on.