We may begin to feel our belonging in the breath – here we may take sanctuary, here we begin to feel our place in creation. Taking refuge in each breath of our life, in each beat of our heart, we find a quiet place of belonging. This refuge, this sanctuary, is neither given nor taken away by the chaotic demands of an unpredictable world. This place belongs to us, and we to it. It is where we make our home.
Wayne Muller in
Legacy of the Heart: The Spiritual Advantages of a Painful Childhood
Tag Archives: Breathe
Stranger than Fiction
You just can’t make this stuff up.
We’ve all heard people say this. We may have even heard some pretty good instances of the phenomenon. Read Kelly Kittel’s Breathe: A Memoir of Motherhood, Grief, and Family Conflict, however, and you’ll find perhaps the best exemplar of it ever.
Kittel’s story starts much like many other love stories: with the birth of a precious baby boy. We learn to know and love Noah, Kittel’s fourth child, right along with her. Amidst the love and adoration, though, there is an undercurrent of tension. Relations with extended family increasingly interfere with the Kittels’ close knit circle of immediate family, creating conditions ripe for catastrophe.
A tragic accident involving Noah is unfortunately and unbelievably only the first tragedy to befall Kelly and her family. In her quest for “an oversized house and a plastic car overflowing with round-headed pink and blue babies while [she] navigated [her] way through the Game of Life,” Kittel experienced miscarriages and an unnecessary stillbirth, unsupportive and argumentative family members.
Through personal anguish and legal battles, spiritual searches and encounters with nature, Kittel somehow arrives victorious on the other end, relishing each and every moment with her family of five living children and the spirit of those in heaven. Even with all its loss, Breathe is always – on every page, in every word – a life-affirming story.
I was fortunate enough to have read Breathe in its entirety before publication. Shortly after Kelly joined our writers’ group, she began sharing excerpts of her story, until we’d read, critiqued, and discussed the whole thing. We stroked the cover of her first proof when she passed it around the circle one night (it really is velvety soft!). We cheered her on upon its release on May 14, the birthday of her dear son, Jonah, his one and only day upon the earth.
Kelly Kittel wrote this story for those precious sons robbed of the oft-neglected privilege of breathing. But she also offers a poignant story of survival – her own. And in doing so, she most certainly will help countless mothers and women do the same.
There comes a time when you see your mother as a being separate from yourself. It’s not as an infant when you realize you exist outside her body. It’s not when, as a toddler, you assert your independence. The tumultuous teenaged years don’t do it. Even becoming a full-fledged adult doesn’t do it.
She will always be your number one fan, miracle-worker, therapist, and helpmate. She will always allow you to be self-centered when you come calling because you are her world. She is your MOM. (No Pressure 😉 )
But there are moments when she does something on an even more amazing level of awesome – perhaps even sublime – in which you see in crystalline form what a perfectly human and beautiful individual she is.
The first time this happened was when I was an early teen. My parents, consummate do-it-yourself-ers, were in the middle of some household project that necessitated the transit of a long ladder through our tiny kitchen. One inadvertent swing of the ladder swept the decorative items off one of the display shelves surrounding the window. A crystal-clear unicorn, whose knobs and nodules captured and refracted the sun’s rays into rainbows, shattered against the stainless steel of the sink below. I heard my mother scream like I never had before: a desperate, anguished wail. She cried as she gathered the pieces. This was another thing I rarely – if ever – had experienced with my mother. These were not the welled-tears of sentimentality; these were big fat gobs of grief.
Being a young person, with no framework within which to place this, I asked my mother what was wrong. She explained that the unicorn had been a gift from her sister when she had lost a baby. Four years prior to my birth, my mother had delivered my would-be sister, stillborn. This was my first encounter with this information, with this grief. While I now had a framework, it was shaky. I knew it was tragic. I knew my mother hurt. But I had no idea to what extent.
Years later, as a mother myself, now accustomed to grief, but still not of that magnitude, I sat with my mother in the parking lot of a botanical garden. We stared out the windshield at the glass squares of the greenhouse. ‘A woman in my writers’ group has written a memoir about her family, Ma,’ I said. ‘About her journey through love and loss. She had a stillborn, too. Much the same circumstances as yours.’ There were some eerily similar details in their stories, though my mother never got the legal vindication that this woman did. ‘Would you read it?’
I didn’t know if I was overstepping my bounds, if I was being too forward, pushy. Was I dredging up feelings that my mother had gladly put to rest years ago?
‘I suppose it might be good for me,’ she said. ‘Therapeutic.’
Months later, I took my mother to the launch party for that book: Breathe: A Memoir of Motherhood, Grief, and Family Conflict by Kelly Kittel. The day before Mother’s Day, we spent the afternoon of the launch together. Ironically, though we were celebrating the ubiquitous holiday, I saw my mother as ‘other than mother’. Hearing her speak to Kelly and share her story, I saw the profoundly deep wellspring of strength my mother’s been drawing from all these years. I saw her as a woman, fighting a soul-crushing battle and winning. I saw her as someone – like myself – who has been curled up on the floor crying, but she got up! She went on. And gave me the best, most important parts of herself. All while, unbeknownst to me, she was suffering a tremendous loss.
It was hard for me to not insert comments or explanations as she spoke. I felt the intermediary between these two women and wanted to help forge the link. But the link between these two women had nothing to do with me. It was in their tragedies and victories, their similar experiences with death and inextinguishable life.
I saw my mother as a distinct individual, a woman with her own suitcase of memories and maladies, a human being with a suit of armor and the soft underbelly of a mother.
Sitting in the driver’s seat of the idling car, waiting for the bus to return my children, I stared at the barren landscape and felt a piercing pull at the point when my left sinus emptied into my throat. It’s just a twinge, I thought. It doesn’t mean I will get sick. If I neti-pot the hell out of it and force fluids, I won’t get sick.
But the pierce persists and I know that as soon as I noticed it, I was done for. Because despite my best preventative measures, my psyche had already talked my body into succumbing to the germs, urging them to multiply and prosper.
When my husband returns from work, we greet by way of hug and I linger there. He kneads (some of) the tension from the inner corners of the upper quadrants of my back. The next morning, the sore throat is worse. Throughout the day, my nose starts running and the body aches begin. I blame him for releasing the toxins into my system, but let him squeeze more out.
Cranky and congested, I don’t go to bed early, thinking, what’s the point. I can’t breathe when I lie down anyway. My husband really knows something is wrong when I arise after the first ring of the alarm – for the same reason I didn’t retire early.
I feel better when I’m forced to socialize at the bus stop and preschool drop-off, but seem even worse when I’m back to my miserable cocoon in the car, sneezing and snorking and cringing. Did I feel better because interacting took my mind off my ailments or off its nefarious plans to infect me further?
My mother has told me repeatedly I’m my own worst enemy – in the most loving, instructive way possible. Apparently, I have not learned the lesson.
How does one shut off the tap of postnasal drip and negative thoughts?
And the song running through my head since that first moment at the bus stop? “Breathe” by The Prodigy. No, the irony does not escape me.
(Warning – video may be more disturbing than the description of my mucus malady)