Sunday, February 24, 2008

Every Breath

My head can’t find the surface. There is a deep intense burning in my chest. I kick and thrash about, arms flailing in search of a handhold, and finding nothing. I’m trying to see, but only small pin pricks of light swirl in my field of vision. Then, I come fully awake, sitting bolt upright in bed gasping for air.

My cold has turned nasty overnight. My nose, ears and sinuses are all congested. I start to cough in earnest and the chest burns again at the attempt to breathe. This is not good, but I’m awake. The drowning was a dream. I sit upright for a long while, letting my nose and sinuses drain so that I can take a decent lung full of sweet oxygen. I will not sleep again this night.

In the darkness, as I calm my heart rate and use meditative methods to quite my body and focus on each breath, it isn’t my own struggle that is distressing me. A startling realization of just what others have suffered is.

Last night, I watched an episode of 48 hours about a serial killer’s strangulation victims. I’m now thinking about these four women and their last moments on this earth. Struggling, gasping for air, their lungs burning, their head swimming and the last pin pricks of light before their breath came no more. Until this intense burning in my chest at lack of air, I had little understanding of dying by strangulation.

Then there is my friend, who found himself gasping for air at work, and drove himself to the hospital. Despite the cold weather, he needed to run the air conditioner in his truck and keep his face near the vents just to get enough air and make it to the hospital. His blood pressure was sky high, his heart rate nearing 180, his lung capacity reduced to 20 percent function. The diagnosis eventually determined as occupational asthma. In his retelling of this event to me, I had no understanding at the time of the fear of death that enveloped him. He said to me, “I made my peace.”

Other people are flashing into my mind, like visitors in the night. Their image vivid and the recollection of them so real and tangible, that should I have tried, I could have reached out and stroked their faces. There is my neighbor, who perished in an earthen collapse while digging a well with his son-in-law. The young boy, from the neighborhood where I grew up, who dug a tunnel into the side of the sandpits, the grains of sand, then sliding in around him like a million tiny ball bearings to entomb and take him for their own.

I’m not sure why these individuals are tapping my shoulder this night. I could just have easily realized my congestion, attended to it and returned to sleep. But these people will not let me rest. Are their spirits restless? Do the dead try to teach us lessons? Am I supposed to become enlightened in some way? I don’t have any answers. With every breath I take, what I hope is that those who loved them never have such an awareness, but should they, I now have more compassion for their suffering than I did an hour before.

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