Of Held Breaths and Skipped Heartbeats

I heaved a deep sigh.

I felt lighter, like a ton had been lifted off my shoulders. As I watched the coffin being covered in earth, I was happy. Finally, I thought, he can rest. I let out another sigh. I could finally breathe. For a long time, it was as if my life was one long held breath. Living between hospitals, having him near death, only for him to fight hard and recover—albeit temporarily—and then watching the cycle repeat itself, made me feel like breathing would bring everything crashing down. I remember how my heart would skip a beat anytime my phone rang and I saw that it was from my cousin. I must have braced myself a million times in the past 8 years to receive the bad news each time my phone rang. I had a near heart attack once when I went on an errand without my phone and returned to 50 missed calls from my cousin. My fingers trembled as I dialed her number. I swallowed hard and dried the perspiration forming on my forehead as her phone rang, all the while whispering to myself, be strong, be strong, be strong, you can take this. My cousin tried calling to remind me not to forget to bring his favorite shorts to the hospital. To say I was terrified before the call is a gross understatement.

My cousin Dawn and I took turns staying with Mr. D at the hospital. Whenever I had to be at work, or run errands, Dawn would watch him and update me of any new development. I knew Mr. D’s extended time in and out of hospitals took its toll on her too, but to me, she dealt with it better. I would sometimes walk into his hospital room to find Dawn telling a joke to an unconscious man. She would end up laughing alone at her jokes. Regardless of how well she took Mr. D’s illness, I could perceive the relief that washed over her and the look of gratitude in her eyes whenever I came in to take over from her. Nathan, be strong, she would encourage me with her hands on my shoulders, and give me a hug before leaving. I will, I always said, but I was never sure how I would accomplish it.

The good times were when Mr. D would recuperate, and we were allowed to take him home. Even though Mr. D became a shadow of his healthy self, the gaunt, bald, shaky, wrinkled person he had become still knew how to be the life of the party. He would attempt to dance to his favorite tunes while Dawn and I teased, and these were the times he would laugh so hard at Dawn’s jokes. Some days, he would be somber and reflective. I will leave soon, he would say, but I think I will be happier when I leave. We never argued when he made such comments, or tried to stop him from thinking along those lines. He was telling the truth, and we all knew it. There was no point pretending about it. He would die sooner than later, it was only a matter of time. However, even though I knew that at this point, death was inevitable, I was not prepared for it. My heart still raced when he relapsed and had to be rushed to the hospital yet again; I still deliberately refused to answer my phone sometimes, especially when I guessed it was Dawn calling from the hospital. Many times I put my phone off altogether, just to have some moments of peace; some moments without the fear of a phone call or text message that may bear bad news.

One long held breath.

The times that Dawn would spend the night at the hospital, I would cry myself to sleep. Crying helped me. I felt sane afterwards, and the bubble of fear that constantly surrounded me abated each time I allowed myself to cry. The nights I cried were the nights I slept well. I never cried around Mr. D, not even when he was unconscious, nor around Dawn. It was my duty to be strong for them. Meanwhile, the bubble of fear never went away for too long. Soon, it was back, surrounding me, haunting me, sucking the life out of me like a black hole.

One long held breath.

His demise was beautiful. It was during one of the remission periods and he was home. I had just arrived from work. It was a perfect night. Whenever Mr. D was home, he liked to sit on the veranda and take in the air. This particular night, it was a lazy breeze that blew. The moon was full and the stars twinkled brightly. Not one cloud was to be seen. It was a clear night. We all had dinner together on the porch. After dinner and drinks—Mr. D still liked his wine after every dinner—he told Dawn and me a story:

There was once a man, who thought he had everything he needed in life. He was wealthy, he had good friends, a good wife, and happiness. He was respected and greatly admired by the community. Then he fell sick, and all his wealth went into paying his medical bills, his friends disappeared because the parties stopped and the money dwindled. His wife left, because she could not cope with caring for an invalid and because luxuries were no longer available. Happiness slowly diminished, and depression started to set in.

Not long after the sickness hit; after spending heavily on the best medical therapy available, he began to feel better, his strength returned, and before long, he was healthy again. However, he never forgot a lady who would always come to his bedside and crack jokes. She was good! She always got the man laughing hard. At a time when everything the man had placed his hopes on had failed him; at a time when he was starting to slip into depression, this young lady, who looked not more than 14 years old, would joke by his bedside and provide respite from his pain. Since he was now alone, without friends or family, he found himself thinking more and more about that young girl. One fine day, he went back to the hospital to inquire of her. All the hospital staff knew her as ‘the comedienne.’ She was a cleaner; and as she went about her duties she would spend time with the patients who were awake, making them laugh. This middle aged man met this young girl again, and invited her out to dinner. Imagine! Mr. D chuckled at this point; Dawn and I smiled. He continued: In fact, it was the best dinner of his life. They went to a fine dining restaurant, it was very formal, and they talked and laughed from about 7 pm till near midnight. When the man dropped her off at her ‘home,’ he couldn’t believe his eyes. It was a rundown shack of a building in a dirty slum. He asked her who she lived with, she said her cousin. Where were her parents, her family? Dead, she had said. It was then that the man decided to adopt this young girl and her cousin.

Fast-forward to 10 years. The girl and her cousin are his pride and joy. The sickness returned a few years after they were adopted, and this time it seemed as if it was having the upper hand, but the man is no longer happy, he is joyful. It’s as if he’s back to the beginning, having everything he ever needed. Perhaps he was relieved from the first bout of his illness to experience true joy. Perhaps he was struck with the first bout of his illness to meet true joy. For that, he is satisfied, and eternally grateful.

He wiped a tear from his face with his shaky hand as he finished his story. Do you know why I renamed you Dawn? He asked, that’s what you were to me, it’s what you still are. You are the dawn of a new morn for me. Both you and Nathan have blessed me in ways you may never know. Dawn and I drew closer and hugged him, and we remained in that tight embrace for the longest time. I love you both. You have no idea how much. Thank you for bearing with me these many years and carrying this burden with me. He whispered to us.

He slipped away in that embrace. He was gone.

One long held breath, finally being let out.

He was at rest. Dawn and I were extremely sad at his passing, but we were happy that he would never have to feel pain again.  Relief flooded my entire being. It was over. There was no reason to be afraid anymore. There was no reason to live in constant anticipation of the worst. The man who brought us into his life, and transformed our lives was at better place.

I heaved a sigh.

One long held breath, finally let out of the lungs in a gust of air.

So, as the earth was shoveled over his grave, I was happy, I felt lighter, freed. I held Dawn’s hand and we looked at each other, Dawn’s eyes glimmered with the tears she was holding back. He wouldn’t have wanted me to cry, she said, he would have wanted me to crack a joke.

So, don’t let the tears flow, I said. Don’t let the tears flow.

 

Image Credit: Madamenoire

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