I’m an Expert on Your Breath

I was chatting with Catherine’s doctor about changes in her breathing—it seemed like it was slowing, and changing cadence and, to be honest, I was panicking 5 or 6 times a minute when it seemed like the next breath wasn’t going to come.

I’m kind of an expert on Catherine’s breath,” I joked.

It’s okay,” the doctor told me.

These breathes may be different but, it seems, they are not typical of final breathes. So I relaxed. A little.

Later on I did the calculation: 15 breathes a minute over 28 years is about 13 billion breathes since we met.

So I am an expert.

I’ve missed a lot of them—work, travel, grocery shopping, watching The Office.

But I’ve never had a more intimate relationship with someone’s breath. I know its sound and its shape and its feel. I’ve been inside her breath and outside her breath and joined with her breath. Annoyed by her snoring, delighted by her singing.

As I write I am listening to her breathing beside me. If I knew drum notation I could write it down: it’s new music; she is not struggling, but the breath also doesn’t come easily.

This time after treatment ends remained a mystery that nobody would talk about over these five years that Catherine’s been living with cancer

We’ll cross that bridge…”

It’s different for every person…”

How many times have I googled “how do you die from breast cancer,” with hopes that some kind soul had written a helpful play by play. I found lots of Mayo Clinic bulleted lists about dry lips, but not very much written by humans, for humans.

Which is no surprise: who wants to dwell here. There are precious few epic poems written about the Frankfurt Airport transfer lounge. For much the same reason.

Conservation of dignity gets in the way, too. I spoon-fed Catherine fish chowder for supper tonight; even telling you that seems like revealing a confidence. After all, this is, not really, my story to tell.

But there is a reason that cancer memoirs end prematurely. Or with a “before she could finish this manuscript….” epilogue written by the partner.

And so the story of this time seldom gets told.

And perhaps we don’t have the language to do it justice: the time for battle-words is done (if it ever had a place at all). There are no longer villans or heroes (if there ever were). Everyone knows the ending.

It is a slow and unusual part of the story that we’re uniquely untrained to hear: familiar breath becomes unfamiliar breath becomes familiar breath again, for a moment, and then.


Vivian's picture
Vivian on January 12, 2020 - 23:25 Permalink

I’ve been through this when my mother was in palliative care. I remember listening to her breathing.

Ton Zijlstra's picture
Ton Zijlstra on January 13, 2020 - 05:05 Permalink

It is a slow and unusual part of the story that we’re uniquely untrained to hear.....

Yes, even if all of us find ourselves in such a story at some point in our lives, and it says so much about our humanity. Odd really. Thank you for writing this.


Robert Charles Paterson's picture
Robert Charles ... on January 14, 2020 - 08:48 Permalink

Breath becomes the thread to life for those of us who watch over our loved ones die - Listening to my mother's breathing or some times remains my most vivid memory of her last days and nights

Oliver B's picture
Oliver B on January 14, 2020 - 19:03 Permalink

That’s so hard, Peter. I recognize enough to know I don’t know what to say that could help.

L's picture
L on January 15, 2020 - 14:48 Permalink

Before I was diagnosed with lymphoma, there were no symptoms, just my partner of two decades telling me something was wrong. I wasn't breathing right when I was sleeping, he said. It didn't sound right.

I went to a walk in clinic, then for X-rays, and then quickly into the vortex that is scans and surgery and chemo. Five years later, I still wake up to find him checking my breathing at night. Not often, but every now and then.

Having someone in your life who knows your breath like music is a beautiful gift.

Wishing you strength and peace in these times.

megan stewart's picture
megan stewart on January 17, 2020 - 12:45 Permalink

Reading this brought tears to my eyes...thank you for sharing such intimate writing, Peter. My deepest condolences to you and Oliver. Sending love.

Trina's picture
Trina on January 17, 2020 - 16:03 Permalink

That is a most beautiful description of love, thank you for sharing Peter.
I am so sorry for your and Oliver’s and our loss.

Kent's picture
Kent on January 19, 2020 - 16:48 Permalink

Condolences to you and family.