Anna Magnusson, writer and freelance radio producer, writes:
Air. It’s not a scientific word. It’s poetic. It has many meanings and shades. It’s a heart word. A word that you feel, a word that holds memory and experience and emotion.
My mother told me I had my first bout of bronchitis in 1961, when I was three weeks old. After that, it was several times a year. I had what was called then ‘a weak chest’. What it meant was regular absences from school, countless nights bent over a steaming pan of water with a towel over my head, nightly rubbings of Vick, and long hours with my mother sitting beside me on the bed, teaching me how to deep breathe.
She used to sing to me, too. In the long nights when I couldn’t get comfortable and every breath was a rattle, I’d put my head against her chest and listen to her heart beating strongly, and she would sing a song from her own childhood, called Wheezy Anna. It was a jolly, lilting song and it made me laugh:
‘Wheezy Anna, Wheezy Anna, down where the watermelons grow –
like a big fat football –
Wheezy Anna, Wheezy Anna, she is the sweetest girl I know!’
Years later I discovered she’d changed some of the words, but it’s a real song about a girl who swallows a mouth organ and sounds like a harmonica. So when I couldn’t get enough air, Mum made me laugh with a funny song about breathing.
Air. A lungful of air into my chest is a most beautiful thing. I cherish it.
My brothers and sisters and I played football in the back garden a lot. But I was always coughing and out of breath. After a few minutes I would have to stop and, because I didn’t want to be left out of the game, I used to sit on the ball, with my head down, wheezing and panting. Usually the others waited for me, but sometimes they got angry and impatient.
When we went for walks up the hill to the moor, I always trailed behind, and my sister used to shout down, ‘Hurry up, weakling.’ I got my own back by calling her Fatty, but it was hollow revenge: she wasn’t fat, and I suppose I was a weakling.
I remember something called a Kaolin poultice for when my bronchitis was very bad. It was a sort of paste which was smeared, hot, onto a piece of cloth and laid on my chest under my pajama top. I can still feel it, warm and soothing at first, but stiff and cold and unpleasant when it was peeled off.
Eventually, after years of breathlessness and bouts of bronchitis, I got my first inhaler. I can’t remember now exactly what age I was, but I remember sitting in the living room with the doctor while he showed me how to work it. It had just become available, he told me, and if I took it regularly it would keep my airways open and free of congestion. It would give me a chance to get stronger.
I was delighted by the strangeness of the device. When I twisted the top off it revealed a tiny little white fan inside, with a space for the orange and white capsule. I had to put the capsule into it, screw on the top and slide the top section up and down once. There was also a little blade inside and the sliding movement pierced the capsule. When I sucked on the mouthpiece, the tiny fan spun round, and whirled the contents of the capsule into my mouth and down into my chest. For many years to come, the Spinhaler, and all the others that followed – we breathed together.
Lear: She’s dead as earth. Lend me a looking-glass.
If that her breath will mist or stain the stone,
Why then, she lives.
My mother developed asthma in her 70s. She’d always been inordinately proud of her lungs. She used to say that the doctor asked her if she’d been a swimmer, because she had such big lungs. But as she aged, her breathing became congested and difficult, and she, too, was prescribed an inhaler.
She was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, and as the disease worsened, it was very hard for her to use her inhaler. The act of pressing down and then breathing in perplexed her. Eventually, I would sit beside her on the bed, hold the inhaler in her mouth and press it for her, so that she could just take a breath. During the long, agonizing process of getting up in the mornings, the inhaler came last: it meant that I’d washed her, dressed her, brushed her hair, and put her slippers on. After the inhaler, the initial torment of the day was over.
In her last year she had two bouts of pneumonia. One evening I sat at her bedside, holding her hand as she slept, watching her flushed face, listening to her stertorious breathing, and wondering how many, many times she had kept vigil with me.
Lear: This feather stirs. She lives. If it be so,
It is a chance which does redeem all sorrows
That ever I have felt
My mother loved singing. She knew hundreds of songs, and had a wonderful deep contralto voice. She harmonized freely, as a jazz musician improvises. Every song you started to sing, at some point Mum would gloriously join in with a harmony. The effect was like transforming a stick man drawing into a portrait.
When Alzheimer’s took away Mum’s memories, her words, her ability to walk and control her bodily functions, it could never dislodge the music. In the last week of life, when her breath was fainter each day, still she breathed a song. An air. I would get into bed with her, cradle her in my arms, and sing to her, out of strong lungs and heart, the songs she’d sung to me all her life.
Anna is a freelance writer, broadcaster and radio producer. She works across a wide range of networks and subject areas including Sunday Morning with... (BBC Radio Scotland). Her award winning 2016 programme 'Breath of Life' features Life of Breath's Jane Macnaughton.