There is a grown-up party downstairs. I am little. These adults — their tinkling laughs, their clinking glasses, their swells of convivial sound — tell me just how small I am. I need my mother right now, but she is one of Them, these party-goers. She doesn’t smell like herself. She doesn’t look like herself. Her face is painted. But need her I do, so I sit in a small tight ball on the top stair as I try to work up the nerve to wade into a sea of painted, raucous tall people. I need my mother because I can’t breathe. No, that’s not right. I can breathe, but my breath is coming ragged and short. Breathing is automatic until it isn’t, and at the divide there is a moment when it seems to be wholly dependent on one’s own self, and how is one to breathe in, breathe out over and over and over again, a hundred times in a minute or two? I am frantic. It all seems overwhelming, even impossible. And I tip over into a state of anguish: I will simply forget to breathe, and that will be the end of me, crumpled up on the top stair with my thumb in my mouth, still wearing my cotton candy pink blanket sleeper with its rubber feet.
I determine that I can’t stand this for one more second. Fear begets nerve. I run down the stairs and rush headlong into my mother’s legs. I am sobbing, my face surely red, surely wet with snot and tears. My mother looks surprised, but to her credit crouches down and runs her hand through my tangled hair. “What’s wrong?,” she croons, in a full-throated, lush vodka voice.
I realize that I should have broken into this party long ago. I love my mother’s voice like this.
I stammer out the story of my fear, and she explains to me that people’s breath comes fast and funny when they’ve been running, or when they’re excited, or nervous, and that it means nothing, nothing at all.
I am relieved.
When I am in the hospital after birthing my first child, I will suffer a hormone-induced panic attack, and I will flash back to being five or six years old and waiting, afraid, on the stairs, while the grown-ups partied, carefree and loose.
Lately my breath is coming fast and funny. I am worried all the time. This feels sensible, actually. The upcoming election, the girl shot by the Taliban, the nanny stabbing her young charges in the bathtub, the storm that’s supposed to hit this week and leave us without power, the trial on Monday for which I will serve as juror and sit in judgment of another human being, the polar bears that have to swim longer and longer to find a bit of ice on which to rest, the garbage spilling out the tops of our landfills, the pesticides and carcinogens… Well. It’s a toxic world, but it’s also the only world we’ve got.
I will celebrate a birthday on Friday. When people ask me how old I will be on my birthday, I answer with a joke: “Forty-five, still alive.” Like most jokes, it’s not really a joke at all.
I’m trying. I am, but it’s hard. I’m trying to forget how to breathe so that I can remember how to breathe.