Learning to Breathe

“No one has ever measured, not even poets, how much the heart can hold.” – Zelda Fitzgerald

Last month, I went to visit a cardiologist for the first time in over 10 years. He took notes in thick blue script as I recounted my history. The catheter in ’84. My last echo. The full-term pregnancy. My child’s death.

I couldn’t remember the details when he asked me for them. Decades had passed, much of which involved deliberate forgetting. And I didn’t want to get the details wrong. He asked me how she died, and what I told him then was this: “She was born with a malformed heart.”

“I’m sorry.”

“That’s OK.”

What I should have told him was this: The right side of her heart was hard. There was no valve. A few blood vessels connected her heart to her lungs, and she was given medicine to keep that connection active until another more permanent solution could be found.

“They had to do surgery,” I said. “It didn’t go well.” I was 21 years old then, 21 years ago this month.

This conversation is never done. Every new doctor I see has to have the history. Except the dentist.

Here is my rudimentary understanding of how the heart works. The right side of the heart, the pulmonary side, I’m told, is made for capacity. It is a canteen, a reservoir. The left side, the aortic, is the pump. It is a muscle, the thrust. I have a valve on my right side that doesn’t fully open to allow pure blood into my lungs. I have a murmur so obvious anyone with a stethoscope can hear the click and swoosh inside my rib cage.

Fortunately I have a very normal baseline and can pace myself. I live my days such that breathing does not even need a thought. Except for when it does.

Louise Hay says that grief is buried in the lungs, and that affirmations like “I breathe freely, without restriction” are key to healing. I acquired my asthma postpartum. I have worked through affirmation after affirmation, never giving up that the secret key, like the lottery, was mine. Breathe in, breathe out.

In this way, I was practicing breath the way my father taught me, when I could still understand him: In = “pu”, out = “toh”. My father taught me this on the concrete stoop of my brother’s tiny apartment building shortly after my baby died. “Pu” / “toh”. His own song. He’d recently returned from monastic sequester, and this was his lesson. Though I doubted it, I knew he sought to provide some lasting legacy, so I tried. “Pu” / “toh” everywhere I went.

Through the decades since, the breath is what continues. Last month I also renewed my yoga practice. I tried to find my ujjayi breath.  The deep roll of ocean tides as they crashed against my cranial cavity, just like the forceful, foaming waves that tackled me this summer along the Cape.

This visualization didn’t help, though. Too subsumed with work, too far away from the practice, too lost from myself.

There once was a time during savasana when I practiced what I termed “gratitude” meditation. During the time I lay in “corpse” posture, I mentally scrolled through my day and thanked people. This involved visualizing their countenance, and mentally saying their names. If I came up short on people to thank, I’d start the scroll anew. But more likely than not, I’d fall asleep before the slideshow completed its course.

The whole point of breathing exercises for me is to relax the body. Be it sleep, anxiety, movement, pain, etc. I have a roster of breath practices, and I suppose that is because I need them.

Also last month, I had my first dental cleaning in 10 years. The technician warned me I might feel pain. Years of build up had to be etched off. She would not administer Novocain.  I consider myself a person of high pain tolerance.  Feeling pain, I have learned in my life, is not an indulgence to be wasted. At least not here.

My missive as I lay prone in the dental chair was this: “Do not follow the knife.” In essence, do not give in to pain. If pain is simply a sensation, no different from drunkenness, exercise, hunger, or birth-giving, then it is ordinary. Ordinary is something I know how to get through. So I went back to what I knew.

Saliva welled up as I took deep breaths through my nose, watching its flow through the expansion and depression of my t-shirt. Instead of focusing on the nerve endings, there were all the beautiful people in my life to whom I paid gratitude. I loved them well during this time. The person I traded jokes with, the person who bought my lunch, the person who drives my bus, the person I fall asleep with, the person I want to become. And so like in Lamaze, pain is just a temporary situation.

Non-attachment, or as Laotian Buddhists call it, “jai yen,” is the practitioner’s master tool. Literally, “cool heart.” I used to think it meant “cold heart” and for many years, I tried to un-feel my life, and refused feeling when I felt their sparks within me. But denial of sensation is the same as indulgence in it. To have jai yen, one must allow feelings to come and go. Like tourists.

I’ll make sure to tell him this next time I’m in, the heart-i-ologist, that I was not a callous mother, nor did I forget. Because when we talk about the heart clinically, it is usually always about the muscle.

When it came time to actually listen, he started to undress me. I assisted, peeling off the white turtleneck, the green camisole. He placed the stethoscope above my left breast, alongside, then underneath it. A good patient, I did not meet his eye. He stepped away and said, “I can hear it.”

I pulled my shirts back on, trying to cover myself.

“I can hear the turbulence.”

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