I used to hate cats. It was the easiest marital decision we ever made– we’ll never have a cat. The smell, the claws, the hassle. We’re not cat people, we agreed on time and time again. That was before I watched my child be weaned off a ventilator. Huddled in the corner of the room, surrounded by doctors and machines, pleading into space and time with a god I don’t believe in to let her body do the one thing she wanted it to forget: breathe, breathe, breathe. 

She pleads with me through the car window. She has prepared a speech about how hard she has been working, and how she deserves this kitten. Working hard has new meaning now.  It isn’t school, or sports. It is appointments and meds, coping skills and strategies. I see what looks like the closest thing I can remember to happiness spread across her face as she senses my hesitation. If only happiness, like kittens, could be earned by hard work. 

I’m asked a variation of the question “How is everyone holding up?” time and time again. We are unraveling, is the truest answer I can provide. Maybe the best indicator of how close to someone you are is not how well you get along, but how quickly you proceed in falling apart. We are dominoes, and one after another we fall. I feel like my job is to just run down the line, and restack the bones so it can all happen again, and again. 

I tell my doctor that if I hear the analogy about oxygen masks on a plane one more time I’m going to snap. Every parent is told this scenario in order to justify locking the bathroom door and taking a bubble bath. We can’t help our children if we can’t breathe. But who actually does it? I want empirical data, I tell my smirking doctor, on how many parents actually follow those directions if their oxygen masks deploy. There must be a study out there. I demand more information.

I’m outside my car the first time I see it happening. My mind can’t quite get past the idea that this is the wrong child. This isn’t the one who is supposed to be suffering. This isn’t the one who has to work so hard in the hopeless pursuit of happiness. But she is the next domino, and her unraveling manifests itself in panic attacks. She is frozen in the middle of the street, gasping for breath. I look at her desperate face and I know that she has to stop trying to hold everyone up. She has to stop restacking, and restacking, or she might become unstackable herself. My hands reach for hers, clammy and frail, and I chant as calmly as I can: breathe, breathe, breathe.

What if I AM the oxygen mask? This is the thought that consumes me the first time I take a swim in June. This is the agreement I’ve reached with my doctor. I will swim three times a week, and then I won’t have to hear the analogy anymore. What if I’m the only thing that can save her, and I’m too busy saving myself? Isn’t that every parent’s worst nightmare? We’ll get the mask on ourself and run out of time. Suddenly I am my child in the middle of the street. I’m swimming, I’m breathing, but no air is making it into my lungs. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t be the oxygen mask. I have no oxygen to give. 

I have a tattoo across my chest to remind me of the Zen Proverb, Chop Wood, Carry Water. I used to think that I could write my way through anything. It was the way that I chopped wood, it was the vessel to help me carry water. But there isn’t an axe strong enough. There isn’t a bucket deep enough. Instead I swim. I gasp for answers and air simultaneously. I can’t force my mind to process the fall, so I find solace in pushing my body to its limits. 

I chuckle when my therapist asks how my anxiety is doing. I’m having panic attacks when I do the one thing I can think of to help myself. She asks me what I was doing when it happened. What was I doing when the first domino fell? I was sitting in the hot tub. Now, I put on my swimsuit, I get in the water, and my body remembers that first sharp inhale, followed by a desperate search for air. I’ve been holding my breath ever since. 

The thing about cats is that they hold still. When everything else is constantly moving, there is this small, purring kitten that is content to sit on my lap all day. I said yes to the kitten in the same way I quit my job, quickly and with a lot of reservations. Nothing really matters anymore, without words to write or air to easily breathe, so what does an extra animal or one less job really change? 

I only had one goal for the summer. Swim a mile, don’t have a meltdown. The first part ended up being easier than the second. At some point, I just started breathing. I can’t be the oxygen mask. I wish I could. But I have to be ready to get it on as fast as I can. I have to understand the way that air flows through tubes and lungs. I have to dig myself out of this hole that has dulled my axe and dried up my water. I have to swim until my lungs burn and my body forgets. Breathe. Breathe. Breathe. 


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