In an essay that first appeared in Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction (Spring 2011, pp. 117-118), professor of English Joanne Jacobson writes:
What lives, breathes. Listen.
It’s not my strokes that I hear when I swim, not muscles working through choppy water, slaps and kicks breaking the surface, but the sound of my own breath: spitting, animal hunger for air. Open-mouthed, needing, I rise, sucking from what’s just above the wet. Every heaving breath—the living body knows—could be the last.
In the high quiet above the earth, migrating birds can hear life itself: the beat of wings and of breath, taking them to where there is food and where they can breed, the cycle beginning again every year. They sweep the sky in flocks so thick that they shadow the land below. The monarch butterfly—one fifth of an ounce!—finds its way the length of the continent north to south, fuelled by air, sweet air setting wafer wings in vibration.
From every room in her apartment I can hear my mother’s breath. The steady hiss of force—not her own—drawing from tubes and canisters in the interstices of television sound. Clear plastic is clipped in her nostrils, crossing her face; tubing curls and uncurls in her wake. She turns and whips the knotting line behind her, untangling and clearing, making her careful way from the hall to the kitchen. She is feeding on oxygen.
I remember how her breath used to quicken in the summer sun—how she inhaled in even gulps between sets of tennis, balancing casually on the handle of her racquet. What required air she could easily do: take the green lawn with the mower in long, circling rows, leaving stacked clippings drying behind her in the heat; rake the heavy leaves to the curb at the chill, wet end of autumn; paint the kitchen walls; unload groceries from the car, lug bags up the sidewalk from the garage, jam open the screen door with one crooked arm while she balanced a sack of canned soup and frozen vegetables and a half-gallon of skim milk with the other. She’d wait for my little sister to climb the back steps one by one and then steer her through the spring door that strained against her own back: Scoot!
Her oxygen is delivered now, pumped into a green drum half my height in the front hall. She fills a canister when she leaves the house and straps it to her back, counting the minutes. Breathing has become work. She crosses slowly to the window every morning, laying down a cord trail behind her bathrobe, and pours seed for the birds that wait at her feeder. In her little yard cardinals and jays screech and flicker, bold red and blue above the ragged lawn. They dive and grab for what my mother gives them, recklessly leaving a cloud of discarded husks, squandering the fresh air.
Joanne is Professor of English at Yeshiva University, New York.