breath: a love story for my dad

I used to think my dad was a superhero. No matter that he’s always been a stocky looking guy with a big gut, tattoos, and a full beard covering his face or that much of my life, he could be found outside with a cigarette in one hand and a tool in the other.  In my mind, he could make anything happen.  A former Navy man and mechanic by trade, my dad’s hands have been worn from work and for my entire childhood, and into my young adult life, he had a layer of black grease under his nails that no amount of Lava soap seemed capable of touching. Despite his hard exterior, though, I knew as a kid that my dad could do or create anything. He cooked, cleaned, worked on cars, wasn’t afraid of electrical work or plumbing, and created magic out of a blank landscape. He’s also always been incredibly talented at telling often inappropriate jokes and has one-liners that would make Howard Stern recoil. His laugh never fails to make my heart sing, even when I’m cringing from the topic.

My dad built much of the house that I grew up in with his own hands, and if I said I wanted something extravagant like, say, a princess canopy bed or a larger than life Barbie doll house, my dad was the man to drop that information on. He would pull together materials from his “shop” or, at times, the local dump, and he could whip something up that made my head spin with excitement. Of course, my mom was the one who put the finishing touches on most everything, but it was dad who I ran to first. And it was my dad who I had moon eyes for. I still do.

Now, at 74 years old, my dad is connected to oxygen and can’t walk very far without having to stop to catch his breath and rest his legs. His voice is still booming at times, but he no longer works as hard to demand attention or give what he believes to be sage advice on life (anything ranging from how to plant vegetables properly to how much one should reasonably pay for an oil change). In the past several years, diabetes and heart disease have caught up with dad (or “Papa Bear” as I affectionately call him), and after being hospitalized with pneumonia this winter and subsequently being diagnosed with asbestoses, he ended up on oxygen for what looks like the long haul. What was once my dad’s metaphorical superhero cape has now been replaced with a long stretch of tubing that goes from his nose to a large apparatus called an oxygen concentrator. This machine sits in the middle of my parent’s house and makes a whiney sound as it pumps enough oxygen to fill my dad’s lungs. I love that this contraption exists and yet it sits as a reminder that my dad’s lungs are failing him.

When I was visiting my family this past weekend, I watched as my dad worked hard to focus on his breath. There were moments when I found myself paying extra attention to my own breath as I listened to the pumping sounds from the machine, and I thought about just how much I’ve always taken breath for granted; my own breath and the breath of the people I love. I thought about the fact that every one of my inhales is connected to the exhales of the people who surround me, and that I, too, contribute to what the people around me take in. There is no denying this- we are all connected through the very act of breathing, whether we want to be or not. The people we love, the people we detest, the people we don’t even think about are all contributing to our living through this simple act of inhaling and exhaling.

One of my favorite aspects of a community yoga practice is listening to the lovely oceanic sound of everyone breathing together.  When I feel tired or distracted, I just tune in to the melodic rhythm of Ujjayi breathing in the room, and it helps me to gain strength and focus (mostly). This didn’t exactly help me when sitting with my dad, because his own breath is barely perceptible when compared to the audible whisper of yogic breathing practice. But it did help me to think about my breath being a source of strength for him and, as corny and mushy as it sounds, I tried to envision my breath as being positive and healing.

Simply put, we need breath in order to live. I don’t think about that when I practice pranayama, but the fact is that these exercises in controlling the breath are on some level preparing the body and the mind to face the ultimate reality of death. I get that these practices are also about controlling prana and working on increasing oxygen flow in the body, but in my own mind, there’s something about breath practice that always makes me think about my mortality.  I value the calm I feel when I can hold my breath and focus on the quiet stillness of my mind.  I inhale and receive and I exhale and let go. I relax into my breath and I notice the lovely effect this has on my body.

In the real world, however, I find myself tightening with resentment when I can’t breathe freely. I hold my breath on the street when I see someone puffing a cigarette and I breathe shallowly through my mouth when a homeless person sits or stands next to me on the bus. What’s the difference? Each is an opportunity to practice controlling the breath. Just putting on yoga pants does not make holding my breath easier or more important.

So, because of my Papa Bear and his newly acquired attire, I am thinking about breath in a different way. Thinking about how much I love the act of breathing and the fact that breath is a thread of connection between people. It is my breath that feeds your breath that feeds the world’s breath. And that is as sacred and beautiful as it gets.