Epitaph in Long Refrain
I was born in a season just like this and, for a short time, my stomach rose and fell in deep baby's breath. But as I grew older, my stomach no longer held the breath of life. My chest tightened and my lungs refused the seasons' bountiful air.
When I was a girl of seven, doctors told my mother that we ought to move to Arizona where the air is not pollinated. Instead, she had an air conditioning unit installed in my bedroom window, blocking my view to our garden.
Anything might trigger the malady – a stray kitten, playing freeze tag among the dandelions, eating corn in August. First, my throat would itch, then, my eyes would swell. Welts covered my forearms and I scratched until they bled. Then – and most shameful of all – came the wheezing. A high whistle from deep in my chest, up through my windpipe and out my lips though I did my best to purse them and suppress what made me an outcast among my summer friends. Winded, welted and defeated, I entered the prison of my bedroom, sleeping away the best years of childhood.
When I reached the onset of womanhood, my mother took me once again to the doctor who said we should move. This time, he covered me loosely in an over-sized cotton dressing. My back exposed, he scratched me with a needle starting first at the upper left corner, moving left to right, and then on down, as if my back itself were parchment and he were scribbling a letter to a friend
The nurses then came and lay me down on my stomach and reminded me not to scratch, though my entire back became inflamed and itched to the point of near madness. Obedient child that I was, I endured this treatment with nothing except tears. I tried to sleep through what felt like hours of torture, but I could not do more than wiggle a little here and there to try to catch a wind that would mollify the unbearable.
As I lay in distress I saw the earth expand and contract; I saw a host of angels surround the earth. Each held a moon in its hand and, when the earth contracted, they joined together and the moons became – for an instant – one moon. It seemed as if the angels were in ecstasy when this happened. The whole time a shimmering fog hovered over the earth and the angels. I do not know how I knew, but it was clear to me that the fog was a song and as the angels came together, the song grew louder. When the moons became one, the song reached a crescendo of such beauty that I have never heard before or since. One note, held for what seemed an eternity as the great white orb expanded; one voice from which the fog lifted to reveal one clear pulsating white light.
In time, the doctor and nurse came in to look at the art they had created on my canvass-back. Each scratch had created a large welt that took different shapes. I later saw the nurse's hand drawn image. My back, in full bloom, took on the appearance of a three dimensional topographical map.
With gratitude I received the ointment that relieved the torture of my sentence. I dressed and left the office quietly but filled with great hope. I had the idea that this test was done in order that these white clad shamans would cure me of my allergies forever. But nothing came of it at all, except that now the doctors and nurses knew what I already knew – that I should not touch soft furry animals, that I should not eat pecans, almonds or any other nut meats. I should not climb trees. I should not roll down a high hill or jump in the autumn leaves. I should not eat corn in the autumn, or watermelon in the summer. I should not dust the furniture or vacuum, which they thought would make me happy but just served to increase the burden I already felt myself to be.
As womanhood progressed, I vacillated between caution and reckless abandon. I held large rabbits in my arms and bore the tongue lashing of the old aunts. I plucked wildflowers and brought them home, eyes half shut and teary, to my finger-waggling mother. But the burden won out in the end. I could not dance without losing air. I could not hike through the forests that called out from our rural home. I could not farm, or garden, or lay my head on plush carpet. My breath was stunted, and so did my life become.
Eventually I obtained work in a climate-controlled office, behind the wall of a cubicle, before a desk with a computer screen perched upon it, blipping and bleeping orders at me. I returned home to eat meals that gave me no pleasure. In the evenings, I curled up on a pleather couch reading other peoples stories, watching the exploits of other people's lives framed by the confines of my television set.
Each day the sun rose and set to my routine. Each day grew more wearisome. How many breaths I had left I did not know.
I lost my breath once to a green-eyed stranger and he carried me to the highest point in the city. Leaning up against the window, my white lace veil mingling with his boutonniere, I saw lights below form the shape of a phoenix and fly up, up up, until it met the clouds and exploded like fireworks into a million shining stars.
In the daylight, I could not find the phoenix, and I could not find the stars. We settled into a small ranch in the city where trees were sparse and concrete abundant.
I insisted on a living Christmas tree that first year, and decorated it myself, and watered it, placing my arms deep into the branches where the needles made deeper cuts into my arms until they bled. My eyes welled up, my chest tightened, my trachea emitted the high-pitched whistle of a poorly played flute. I switched on the white string of lights and for an instant I was happy.
The following spring I learned about yogic breath. I placed my mat in front of me and lay sleepily in savasana. Breath in...two, three, four, five, six, quoth the yogi. But I could only make it to four. Breath out, quoth the yogi, seven, eight, nine ten. But I could only make it to nine. Your breath is shallow, quoth the yogi, and in that moment I understood what is meant by life breath. Shallow breath = shallow life. Here was my answer. Here, finally, was a formula for the elixir that would cure me forever.
April, May, all the summer months passed in practice of yogic breath. But when October came, that month in which the soul exposes itself and the trees themselves cannot contain the glory of life but burst into flames, I experienced my first contraction, forgetting all yogic breath, all patterned breathing. I was hastened to hospital on a metal gurney. In hope and desperation, I pushed my son from the threshold of heaven to the sterile, hypoallergenic, pollen free, starch white hospital room. He took his first breath, full and deep, and together we cried a beautiful agony.
During those first few weeks, I had strange dreams while he lay at breast, alternately feeding and sleeping. In the daytime I saw my son looking so far and deep into the spirit world from which he had emerged that I admit that I was at times jealous of him. I longed for this world of angels and song again, yearned for the peaceful soul of an infant as his stomach rose and fell in perfect, deep breath.
In the heart of winter I returned to yoga exhausted, overwhelmed and out of shape. I could not do tree pose or triangle. I toppled over in eagle and tipped over in warrior. Taking pity on me, my yogi placed me in savasana and told me to stay there until all my limbs began to fall asleep. When I arose, she taught me a new breathing practice. This was the Ayurvedic practice of Nadi Shodhana – alternate nostril breathing. With the thumb and outer fingers stretched under the nose, you press one nostril with the thumb and breath deeply through the other. Then, placing the ring finger to the other nostril, you breath out the other side.
Nadi Shodhana, I learned, would balance out my hormones and infuse my body with oxygen to pass on to my infant child. For my dual dosha prakriti, my yogi suggested a fennel tea and sent me home with a small container of cardamom to add some flavor to my morning de-caf.
In January I treated myself to singing bowls, which kept my young love rapt and helped to calm my inner chi. I tried to rearrange the furniture into something more Feng Shui but the ceiling sloped too far down for the bed, which my husband proclaimed gave him nightmares. Besides this, the plants all died.
Spring came and with it flues and colds. My poor husband took ill and in order that he did not feel isolated, we touched and he implanted in me a virus that I had hoped to fend off with zinc and Vitamin C. Instead I woke the next day to no voice at all.
I have not yet explained my voice to you, and, dear reader, I do apologize, for this is important knowledge for you to have in order to understand the story I am relating. As stated earlier, the malady I had suffered my whole life – that is, allergies and what is called asthma – was a plague that I carried like a cross. It suffered me pains equally internal as external. I was, in fact, ashamed of it, for I could not partake is such things that make life extraordinary – such as singing, or running or pet ownership. I had to say no to foods cooked lovingly by friends, to invitations to homes where cats sprawled themselves across couches and wove themselves through your ankles and perched behind your shoulders. I had to say no to hiking and raspberry picking and Jazzercise.
It affected my voice as well, so that the sound I produced was by chance either a flutey soprano or a gravely contralto. My conversation might be in the vein of a croaking frog or a squeaky mouse. I never knew which would emerge and so I did not speak much, which either suited or created my introverted personality.
So, in the spring that immediately followed my son's birth, when I was no longer young but not yet old, I suffered a cold that brought with it laryngitis. I slept much, with my newborn beside me, and we dreamt in harmony as we breathed in harmony. He did not speak himself and so did not require me to speak either. Together we lay as the rain pattered above us, and the flowers bloomed and pollen covered the bricks of our home like a giant spiderweb and we remained entrapped for days on end.
When the third night descended, I cried myself to sleep, sorry for myself, for my son. In my mind I retrace the map a doctor had etched on my back years before. In a thin tunic and bare feet I journeyed from Marrakesh to Casablanca. I continued north along the coast to Tangier. At the Straits of Gibraltar, I looked into the sea below and saw reflected back at me the unbearable truth that I could never live in the deep.
I awoke to the knowledge that I would swim in the shallow all the days of my life. I would create, erase and re-create, a vision of the depth and no more. The 7, 8, 9, the attainment of the 10, the utopia, would always be out of reach, unknowable. All life's longing nothing more than a sigh.