She took a deep breath then plunged beneath the water’s surface. Down she sank, to the bottom of the pool. Beneath the pool’s clear, barely-rippling surface, with long tendrils of hair drifting slowly around her face, she floated underwater. Ethereal, calm.
I counted. Eight…nine…ten…eleven…
With a splash she broke the calm, broke the surface of the water, and surged upward, gulping air into her lungs, a huge smile stretching her face.
“Eleven seconds!” I called out.
“Wow!” Wonder glowed on her face. “Eleven seconds! That’s a long time!!”
She ducked under the water again and swam the width of the pool, then came back to me.
“Time me again, Mama, okay? I have to keep practicing so my lungs get strong. Then I can stay underwater a long time. Maybe even an hour!”
I smiled at her contagious excitement. “An hour might be a wee bit long, Beary…but you can try! Okay, then. Ready for me to start?”
She filled her lungs with precious air, nodded, then plunged beneath the water again.
I started counting.
I think about what she said: I have to keep practicing so my lungs get strong. My lungs are not as strong as they used to be. Kevin was my air and I feel like I haven’t taken a good deep breath since he died. It’s too hard to breathe without him. The life-filling oxygen of his love is gone, and I struggle with the thin air left behind, managing only shallow breaths – just enough to keep me going. The world seems foreign, alien. Without him beside me, I’m not sure I trust the air that’s left behind – the air that’s supposed to sustain me, keep me alive, but doesn’t have the most important element in it anymore: my husband.
I watched her splash up, inhale gratefully, and wait for me to announce the result.
“Ten seconds that time!”
A nod, a deep breath and down she sank again, to the bottom of the pool.
Making her lungs stronger.
I started counting again.
I think maybe that’s what I’ve been doing this past year. Counting the days. Trying to get stronger. Trying to learn to breathe, to live, in this new life where the air is unfamiliar. Breathing Kevin-less air isn’t easy; it doesn’t feel natural. Not yet. But I do feel a little stronger. Not better…but stronger. I’m not sure I believe there is a “better” in grief. Every day feels different, my emotions swing back and forth. There’s no graceful arc charting my progression through grief: good, better, best. Sometimes it’s overwhelming and I feel like I’m drowning in the sadness. And sometimes it’s a tear stinging my eye at the same time the corners of my mouth turn up in a smile at our beautiful girl and her goofy antics. The grief never leaves completely; it just doesn’t feel quite as heavy some days.
Those are my practice days, I guess. The days when I’m taking deeper breaths, getting used to feeling a different oxygen fill my life. I laugh more, get out more, maybe try new things. I gratefully gulp the joy that God lovingly sends my way: my daughter’s hand in mine as we walk the grocery aisles, my cat’s purr, the right song lyrics at the right time, a text from a friend. I drag these great drafts of love into my weak, Kevin-starved lungs, and feel hope and peace circulate through me. Each new breath makes me stronger.
She popped up again, sputtered and drew in the chlorine-scented air, then slicked hair back from her Daddy’s blue eyes which aimed the question my way: how long?
“Thirteen seconds that time, Little Bear!” I announced, kneeling at the edge of the pool with a towel. I marvel at her tenacity, her bravery. For all the days that I’m hesitant to fully breathe in this new life, she takes a big gulp and plunges deep into the water, trusting the air to sustain her.
She nodded, a proud grin stealing across her face.
“Can you believe that I stayed under that long, Mama?”
“I believe that you can do anything, Baby Girl.”
I just hope I can, too.
I take a deep breath.
If she can do it, so can I.
If I could make a wish, I think I’d pass
Can’t think of anything I need
No cigarettes, no sleep, no light, no sound
Nothing to eat, no books to read
All I need is the air
That I breathe
And to love you
(The Air That I Breathe by The Hollies)