Thursday, April 30, 2020

ONE BREATH AT A TIME – Surviving the Plague

I’m an old man. At least I am when I think about it.

When one reaches a certain age, it’s pretty hard not to entertain, now and then, the stark reality that one’s days are numbered—and that that number keeps ticking away with each inexorable revolution of the planet.

And with each breath.

I’ve been thinking a lot about breath during this COVID 19 nightmare. The virus attacks the lungs, especially of people over 60—which I am—and those who have underlying conditions, including chronic lung disorders—which I do.

Death by this infection is not pretty; if neither drugs nor a ventilator save you, it looks like you either die of multiple organ failure or you suffocate. Some choice.

So, yes, I’m aware, as those old deep-sea divers with air hoses must have been, of every next breath and where it’s coming from. And I’m protective of it to the point of paranoia. When the distancing guidelines say six feet, I maintain twenty.

State epidemiologists and their models project this sobering reality: that somewhere between 40 and 80 percent of Minnesotans will eventually contract the virus. And the way I see it, I’ve got to be among the 20 to 60 percent who don’t.

    I turn off the one prayer that seems always 
    to be playing in the background…and turn on
    one that feels truer to my nature.

My emotions swing back and forth between terror and gratitude—if that’s even possible.

Terror’s a motivator, though seldom in a helpful way. So I’m pretty good at not going there. Most of the time, when I manage to draw in all those sticky appendages of emotion that attach to other times and places, I’m able to put myself entirely in the here and now. If there’s something I can do about my concerns right now, I do it. If not, I let it go.

Then I can turn off the one prayer that seems always to be playing in the background: God, please don’t let me catch this thing, and turn on one that feels truer to my nature: Thank you, God, for this day, for this moment, for this one precious breath.

It’s that one breath that intrigues me. Just now, for approximately the half-billionth time since I was born, it’s made my chest rise, and magically, imperceptibly, swapped carbon dioxide for oxygen in something like 400 milliliters of my blood.

How amazing all the little miracles my respiration performs for me, mostly without my even noticing. Of course there have been times when I did notice: when, as a young boy, I held my breath just to see how long I could do it; in my days as a high school and college athlete after the tenth or eleventh wind sprint; during my frequent bouts of bronchitis; while meditating; or when gasping for the thin air in high-altitude places like Mexico City or Nairobi.

        Nowadays it feels as if every single one
        of my breaths teeters on a knife’s edge
        of uncertainty.

It doesn’t seem a great leap then to go all the way back and imagine my very first breath, that one gurgling inhalation, on March 21st, 1945, that started in motion this precious, now-seventy-five-year-old cycle.

To think, any one of those near-countless breaths could have been the last. The one that fell at the instant the car in which I was riding swerved and struck a tree at fifty miles per hour. The one that occurred just when some inexplicable instinct kept me from driving a metal bird-feeder post into what I learned was an unprotected, live buried power cord.

Nowadays it feels as if every single one of my breaths teeters on a knife’s edge of uncertainty. Will this one be just another of those entirely forgettable, spontaneous draws that have inflated me all these years? Or is it one that’s just slightly off—perhaps getting short or labored as the symptomologists warn—boding that my efforts to elude the plague of 2020 have come up short?

Wish me continued success in not dwelling on the latter.

How often are you aware of your breath? When does that happen? Is that awareness shrouded in fear? In rapture? Or in sheer gratitude? I’d love to hear
from you.


Anonymous said...

I love this article. Breath is important in my meditation practice as I follow my breath when I meditate. When I meditate with my breath time stands still and an hour seems like a few minutes.

When I take a breath everything slows down so I can be more mindful. When I go out in my driveway to breathe in the cold air and look at the stars and I spotted Venus for the first timeI almost lost my breath.

I am waiting for the stop light to turn I am conscious of my breath and it makes me calm. When i go to sleep at night i use a sleep ap machine which lulls me to sleep. When i hold my Chihuahua in my lap i am conscious of her breathing.

When people i love have died and took their last breath I always thought it would be a quick inhalation but it is the letting go of the breath which takes a long time because we have so much air in our bodies.

Jeffrey Willius said...

Many thanks for your comment, Charlie. Glad to see I have a fellow respiraphile out there. I'm enjoying your series of self portraits on FB. Am I going to see one with a smile?

Margaret said...

An interesting start to the article, because if we are fit and fine it seems we really don't think of our age. In fact we probably feel younger than our chronological age until something jolts us back to reality and reminds us of our mortality. Last week I lost a friend to the Corona Virus and it got me thinking about my final hours on this earth. None of us is immune to this dreaded disease. We just try our best to exercise due care and pray for our Lord's protection. Excellent article.

Unknown said...

Dear Jeff,
First, congrats on keeping this blog going. Thanks for this post. It's as if you're in my head, but thankfully the words you write express the thoughts so clearly.

I don't think about breaths. I think about living - loving, cooking, cleaning, gardening, writing, playing the piano,and most of all gratitude for this wonderful life I stumbled upon.

This morning I attended a FB live funeral for someone I didn't know - a friend of a friend; but if a friend grieves, then I grieve too, especially in these times.
As I listened to others reflections of the deceased, I learned she made an impact on many and overall she lived a good life.

Stay well, amigo.

Unknown said...

Jeff, the above is from me Jennifer Holder Monaghan.

Jeffrey Willius said...

Hola Jennifer - How wonderful that you're finding joy and purpose during the plague. You stay well too!

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