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.