The Gift of Life

Breathing is an automatic response.  The diaphragm falls; air fills the lungs.  The diaphragm rises, pushing out the air. The action is repeated over and over again, without any mental acrobatics on our part.

So it was with me for most of my life.  Every day my breath came and went, in an endless cycle.  Whether sitting or standing, awake or asleep, the lungs and diaphragm continued the rhythmic dance of life.

Shortly after my fortieth birthday, however, something changed.  In the midst of a soccer game, as my feet pounded their way down the field, my lungs decided to alter the flow of air.  With each step it became increasingly more difficult to breathe.  By the time the goal posts were within sight, as I moved down the field with my team, watching the ball get closer and closer to the net, normal breathing was replaced by a whistling, high-pitched sound.

I played for a few more minutes, but when I felt dizzy, I took myself out of the game and paced the sidelines. I found that if I titled my head back and opened my chest, I could breathe. But it did not happen right away and the feeling of tightness lasted for hours after the game ended.

But, being as stupid as one could be, I did not report this to my doctor. Instead, on the following Sunday, I was out on the field once again, being surprised when the same thing occurred.

Fortunately one of my teammates was a nurse. She heard my wheezing, saw how hard it was for me to breathe, and told me I had asthma. I thought she was crazy, but I did follow her advice and went to see my doctor.

That was the first time that I had heard of exercise-induced asthma.  From then on, a regime of inhalers would be mandatory any time I played soccer, swam, or hiked.

Within a few years, the prescribed inhalers were no longer effective.  There were nights when breathing required so much effort that visits to the emergency room for prednisol treatments were the only option.

December 18, 2002 will be forever etched in my mind.  The day began as all my days, with an early morning trip to the gym.  After the workout, breakfast, a quick shower, I got dressed and drove to my high school where I worked as a teacher for the learning disabled.

The school day passed as usual, except that sometime in the afternoon a rasping cough appeared.  As the day progressed, the coughing became worse. I had some cough syrup in one of the closets in my classroom, so I doused myself.  It helped a little, but not for long. As soon as four hours were up, I took another swig. The coughing continued, now accompanied by a deep gurgle. My voice was a hoarse whisper, and every time I moved another round of gasping and choking was triggered.

I was so relieved when my word day ended and I could go home. I thought that if I could sit and rest, it would go away. That if I drank enough cold water, it would end. But I was wrong.


By the time evening fell, my sides ached as if I had multiple broken ribs.  Standing required supreme effort and walking even more.  I was both dizzy and disoriented.  Breathing was a forced activity.  Breathe in.  Cough until my eyes saw black spots.  Breathe in.  Cough some more. I couldn’t stand up straight, instead stood in the kitchen bent over the counter, holding on as if my life depended upon it.

Finally, around eleven o’clock, I begged to go to the hospital.  My husband ushered me into the car and drove to the Kaiser Emergency room in Hayward.  Shortly after we checked in with the clerk, an orderly appeared pushing a wheelchair.  It took both the orderly and my husband to maneuver me into the chair, a feat that would have been impossible on my own.

I was pushed through double doors and into the main treatment room.  I recall glaring lights, blue uniforms and white lab coats.  After a few preliminary checks, I was transferred to a quite hard bed in a private room.

“Breathe,” the nurse said.

“Breathe,” the doctor said.

“Quit coughing,” they both said, almost in unison.

“It’s all in your head,” the doctor said.  “You’re hyperventilating.”

Call it whatever you like, my mind wanted to say, but the coughs stole away the words.

“Breathe,” the respiratory technician said until she put her stethoscope to my chest and listened.  “There’s fluid in your lungs.  X-rays will tell if you have pneumonia,” she said as she walked out of the room.


Coughs and more coughs.  Drowning in a pool of water would have been less painful, or at least more merciful, as it would have taken considerably less time.

“Sit up,” a cart-pushing technician said.  A huge white machine was placed behind my chest.  It zapped and snapped and popped.  Then off went man and machine.

Minutes that felt like days passed.  The respiratory therapist returned.  “There’s no fluid in your lungs.”  By now breathing was extremely challenging.  Tears poured down my face, soaking my clothing.  Sitting up was virtually impossible, but reclining was not a solution either.  No matter the position, fluid prevented all but the tiniest bit of air from entering my lungs.

“She’s going into distress,” the therapist shouted through the door.  Within seconds, a horde of emergency room doctors and nurses surrounded my bed.  “We’re going to have to intubate.  Do you object?”

My head indicated no problem.  Living was a priority, and so whatever they chose to do to me would be wonderful.

“Wait, there’s one more thing we can try,” the therapist said as my entourage began pushing my bed toward a waiting elevator.  She asked for some type of injection, and as the doors closed, she stabbed my right arm with the needle. It must have worked, for when I came to, I was not intubated nor was I hooked up to a ventilator.

The next several days passed by with me barely conscious.  I wore a mask that produced prednisone steam twenty-four hours a day.  Whenever possible, the nurses encouraged me to stand next to my bed.  One minute was all that my wobbly knees could tolerate.


After three days of around-the-clock treatment, the doctors decided, in their infinite wisdom, that it was time to wean me off the prednisone.  Why?  Who knew.  The coughing had never subsided, and my lungs still gurgled like a fountain.  Nevertheless, the mask was removed and the machine turned off.

It was easy for me to predict what would soon happen, but optimism became my mantra.  Breathe.  Don’t cough.  No, don’t cough.  Hold it in.  Breathe.  No coughing.  Oh, no!  Here it goes again.  Call for the nurse.  Where’s the button?  There it is.  Push.  Did it work?  Will someone come?  Please come.  Breathe.  Breathe.  Breathe.

By the time a doctor arrived, my hands were tightly wrapped around the IV pole, my head throbbed, and the fluid in my lungs had gathered into an invading, nearly victorious army.

The machine was turned back on.  The prednisone provided some relief, but the coughing continued.  Even after several more days of treatment, my lungs refused to cooperate.  At one point death seemed preferable to living.

I asked my husband to call our kids and have them call me. I didn’t want to die without hearing their voices one more time.

They did call and each wished me well.  Tears poured down my face, and sobs made it difficult to speak.  My heart told me that this would be the last time that my ears would ever hear their voices, and that my eyes would never see another Christmas.

On December 20 the respiratory therapist decided to try antibiotics, even though repeated x-rays showed no sign of infection.  For some bizarre reason, the medicine worked.


By the next day, the fluid was nearly gone, and the doctor was able to reduce the prednisone treatments to once every three hours.  I was able to eat a complete meal for the first time in days. I felt stronger almost immediately, and that night my legs supported my body.

The day after that the nurse said that ICU would no longer be my home and I was moved to the regular ward.  Finally, on December 22 the doctor released me.

As my wheelchair passed through the hospital doors and into the crisp afternoon air, a smile crept across my lips.  My sides hurt, and breathing still did not come easy, but I had a glimmer of hope.

Driving home, we passed countless Christmas displays, but there was one that pushed me over the edge.  On a lawn was an old-fashioned manger scene, with figurines made of cheap plastic.  The baby Jesus reclined in His mother’s arms, and she looked at Him with a beatific smile gracing her face.  My heart filled with joy, for now it was made clear to me.  He had given me an opportunity to live, and for that, my entire family was grateful. 

Grandma’s Gift

When I was a little girl, probably five or six years of age, someone gave me an old, cheap plastic doll. It’s arms and legs moved and I could rotate its head a bit to the right or left. Its hair was painted auburn and its lips a light shade of red. It was nothing fancy, but it was mine.

And when you’re poor, you appreciate those hand-me-downs more than a rich kid receiving another shiny toy. So that doll meant a lot to me and I brought it everywhere I went.

At the time we lived in a suburb of Dayton, Ohio, in a housing development that I later understood would have been called projects.

My older brother was the bain of my existence even then. He teased me, pushed me around, took things from me and ridiculed my appearance and my parents did nothing to stop him. As a small child, I understood the power he held over me and the lack of presence I had within the family unit.

Anyway, my mother’s parents lived in Galipolis, Ohio, a long drive from home. They lived so far away that we usually only visited them once a year. While we had little, they had even less. We had furnace heat, they warmed their house with coal. We had running water in the bathroom and kitchen, they had an outhouse which terrified me and a pump in the kitchen that poured out the coldest, most refreshing water I’d ever tasted.

On one journey to visit my grandparents I brought along my doll, as usual. During the ride, my brother took it away from me several times which brought me to tears. He would eventually give it back, only to steal it away almost immediately.

When we arrived at my grandparent’s house, after getting hugs from Grandma, I went outside on my own to play with my doll. My brother followed me. A chase began, which I lost due to my shorter legs and slower-moving body.

My brother stole the doll, threw it on the ground and stomped on it. He repeated this over and over until the arms, legs and body were little more than shattered pieces of plastic. I howled, long and loud.

My grandma came to investigate and listened carefully as I told her the tale. She chastised my brother and told him to go sit in a chair on the porch. She took me inside and wiped off my face. Gave me a cup of cold water. And held me close, brushing my hair off my reddened face.

When we left that night, of course there was no doll to take home. Months passed. In time I forgot about my doll as I moved on to other things. I colored obsessively, filling page after page with drawings that I meticulously colored, staying within the lines.

The year passed and nothing changed in my life. My brother still teased, pushed, pulled, pinched and ridiculed. My parents still did little to stop the abuse.

When summer came we returned to my grandparent’s house. As always, Grandma greeted me at the door with a hug and a kiss on the cheek. But then a most magical thing happened. Slowly, ever so slowly, she pulled something from behind her back. It was my doll!

Actually, to be precise, it was my doll’s head attached to a hand sewn body.  The doll was now made of some type of beige cloth. It had lines to indicate fingers and toes. It had underpants, a slip and a dress. It was beautiful!

I brought it to my chest, tears in my eyes. The words of thanks whispered from my lips.

Then my grandma turned to my brother and told him that he had better, never take that doll from me or he’d have to answer to her, and she would not be gentle.

My grandma gave me a most precious gift. It goes beyond the doll and its clothes. She gave me a symbol of love. A toy that made me feel special. Unique. But most importantly, loved.

I still have that doll. It is now more than 62 years old and it occupies a place of honor in my house. Whenever I see it, think of it, it speaks to me of the one person who loved me as I am.

Mystery Unfolded

I don’t know for sure why I am who I am

But I can guess

It could be because I was raised in a

Conservative, controlling family

In which I was expected to marry young

Like at fourteen

But I rebelled and graduated from high school

Went on to college, but not to the one of my choice

I had to live at home until my brother went away

And then I was required to attend the same college

But something unexpected happened because

There I learned to think

To believe in my abilities to tackle difficult subjects

And succeed

To stand on my own two feet and have opinions

That I was willing to say out loud

My first real job required me to go out into the community

And knock on doors

Talk to total strangers about a difficult topic

At first I was terrified

But in time I gained confidence and could speak up

Say what needed to be said and do what needed to be done

This newer, stronger me met a man who not just acknowledged

My right to be me, but encouraged me to stride out

And try new things

For this I love him, respect him, admire him

Motherhood didn’t come easy to me

I’d never held a baby, cuddled one to my chest

Or kissed the top of its tender head

So I learned by doing and making mistakes

But I love my kids, now adults, unconditionally

And because my husband is a good man, I worked hard

To encourage and be proud of my kids in a way that I never felt

My husband is my rock. My example. My shining star

Who leads me along the path of life

So I may not know for sure why I am who I am,

But I can give credence to the belief that

My husband is the creator, the shaper, the one

Who should be given credit for all I have accomplished

And continue to accomplish

When I stop to think about it,

It is because of him that I am me

And that makes me proud

The Real Deal

Every day I pack my bag with

Swimsuit and fresh beach towel

And drive to the gym

Optimistic that a few pounds will be shed

Just enough to make a slight difference

I drive past workers stringing new telephone lines

Bicyclists, young and old, wavering in and out

Of the narrow confines of their allotted space

I bypass trucks that stop at train tracks

As I listen to my favorite country music stars

Wondering how crowded the pool will be

And picture my fat self  walking

Nonchalantly to the pool’s edge

Sitting on the top step as I put on my fins

Pretending that my suit isn’t stretched too

Tightly over my abdomen

And then I step into the water and begin to swim

Feel the current that my hands create

My breathing rhythmic and the motion calming

Lap after lap I glide

Outlasting younger, stronger, faster men

When I’m finished, I smile

Proud of what I have accomplished

And in those peaceful minutes

I forget about my size

And what others see when they gape

For I know, that in that moment of time,

That they don’t know the real me

And never will

Night Visitors

Imagine the dead walking at night

Arising from their daytime beds

To visit. To observe.

I think of my mother and what she’d say

How she’d bend down and count the wrinkles

Around my eyes and comment about my age

How my dad would want to fix things

Toasters. Microwaves. The awning on his windows.

My Grandma would smile, laugh, encourage me

To be the best possible person imaginable

And then she’d slice cheese and add crackers

Never worry about her weight

Who else would come to visit?

The previous owners of our house.

They’d drop by and tsk about the changes we’ve made

Or maybe they’d snicker at the pathetic state of the gardens

Because they don’t know about the drought

I think of them floating about in the night

Gathering together to discuss my life and shake or nod

Or smile or reach down and brush the hair off my face

And kiss my cheek and say “I love you” so softly

That it feels like a gentle breeze on a warm summer day

Then I’d wake and sense their presence

I’d sit up and look about, knowing that someone was there

See only darkness and hear only the silence of the night

And wonder. Just simply wonder what I’d missed.