Inhale. Exhale. Inhale. Exhale. This simple pattern is the essence of meditation, of calming your mind and body. When thoughts arise, go back to your breath. Inhale. Exhale. Although not new to meditation, I am having difficulty with the exhaling part. For a year now, I've been holding my breath as my 19-year-old son, Ethan, got sick, then sicker. I watched him lose 35 pounds in three months and become so weak he needed help walking. I watched him writhe in pain because multiple doses of narcotics were insufficient to ease his misery. I watched him wheeled into multiple operating rooms, knowing his pain afterward would be in the "unbearable" category. I watched him sleep knowing that, for an hour or two, he was at peace.
I am thrilled to report that Ethan is doing so much better, yet I can't seem to exhale. He has regained 25 pounds and looks like a thinner version of his old self. He goes out to dinner and the movies, and our house is once again happily shaking with the booming voices of his friends. He is driving, including to his own doctor's appointments and, for the first time, to his every-six-weeks intravenous infusion. He registered for classes for next semester. My husband and I made reservations for Parents' Weekend.
But I still can't exhale. A year is a very long time to hold one's breath, but I'm here to tell you it's possible. I know parents who have held their breath even longer. Some hold their breath forever.
Who are we, these parent breath holders? We are parent caregivers of very sick children. Not one of us chose to develop our unique breath holding talent, but no one offered us an alternative. I am one of the very fortunate ones because my son was rescued by smart doctors and new medications. Depending on their child's illness, and equally important, their financial circumstances, other parents aren't as fortunate.
I've learned that being unable to exhale is unrelated to being grateful. The gratitude I feel for Ethan's recovery is beyond words. Just typing this brings tears to my eyes. There is no superlative emphatic enough to capture this level of gratitude. Yet I still can't exhale.
Well-meaning people have questioned my continuing to hold my breath given that Ethan is doing so well. What's my problem, they're thinking. Don't be so pessimistic is their message. Let go and move on is the expectation.
I know they want the best for me, and certainly for Ethan, so I listen and smile. What I don't say is having had a very sick child with an incurable illness is a life-changing event, even if and when the child resumes some semblance of his or her previous life. The child is forever changed and so is the parent. It's not that we're pessimistic, but we have seen a world, a hell, that is only imaginary to everyone else. There is nothing we want more than to let go and move on.
No one touches our hearts as deeply as our children. From the day they arrive, our every instinct is to protect and care for them. I am awe struck by my deep good fortune to have the two children I have, as if I won the offspring lottery. There are many other people I love, but my children capture all of me.
So, for now, I will continue to inhale only. This is a small price to pay for being a mother, for knowing how to love with every cell of my body. Nothing comes close to this joy, not even exhaling.