Deep Breaths by Lois Villemaire

      The fluttering in her chest began as she entered the destination address into her phone. There was no pain but a distinct uneasy feeling that spread to her diaphragm and transformed into a mass of swirling butterflies. In the rear view mirror, Alex checked her appearance. She created a smile by turning up the corners of her mouth but her eyes didn’t cooperate. Her long, dark hair was pulled back into a low ponytail tied with a scrunchie and she wore a thick stretchy headband to tame any stray hairs. Not very glamorous, but there was no time for the flat iron.

     She took a few deep cleansing breaths as the yoga instructor prompts in class. In and out, in and out – through the nose.  Or was it in through the nose and out through the mouth? She tried it both ways. When had she become so nervous?

     It didn’t help her state of mind that things were not going well with Adam. They were supposed to be living together by now, but he had lots of excuses. He was in a bad place these days, unable to find a satisfying job and his obsessive behavior regarding eating and exercising made things complicated.  All he wanted to do was work out, run, and eat grilled fish and veggies. She, on the other hand, liked her chocolate desserts, cheesy pasta dishes, and sleeping late whenever possible. At 27 years old and after almost three years together, she hoped that they would be making wedding plans. This clearly was becoming less and less likely.

     She recalled the yoga instructor’s chant – “breathe in good intentions and breathe out negativity.” 

     Maybe it was the ordeal of having to drive in the rain on the chaotic expressway. It’s like a racetrack and so unpredictable, with changing lanes, big trucks, motorcycles whizzing past and weaving through traffic. The unexpected back ups due to roadwork and accidents could appear out of nowhere. Had she left early enough to be there on time?

     Alex was meeting her dad at a restaurant about 30 miles away. Her dad. She called him Jack, never “dad”. He left when she was not yet 4 years old. She didn’t remember much about life then except that Mom was always so sad and angry. The worst times were when Jack picked up Alex or dropped her off after their visits. Sometimes Mom would come out to the car and there would be fighting. Alex wanted Jack to see her pink bedroom and her beanie babies collection, but he never came into the house – the house that Mom called a money pit. 

     They divorced and Jack married “the love of his life from his college days”  – as he told everyone. Ann was fresh from her second divorce when their paths crossed. They moved into an apartment in the historic area, overlooking the river at the other end of the city. Due to the distance from the suburbs and the hectic traffic patterns, Jack was often late when scheduled to pick her up after school, attend a gymnastics meet, or a teacher’s conference. He even forgot a couple of times. Mom said he was unreliable. 

     Every morning, Mom drove two miles to the train station and commuted to center city, walking several long blocks to the office building where she worked as a paralegal. The law firm was one of the largest in the city and nearly filled the 32-story structure. She became an expert in real estate law and didn’t seem to mind working on weekends to meet deadlines. She rarely dated.

     In the sixth grade after the shocking and scary events of 911, Alex grew very nervous about Mom’s welfare as her office was located near the top of the towering building. She cried, had bad dreams, and hung on to Mom. An appointment was made for Alex to talk with a counselor about her worries and fears. Finally, Mom allowed her to carry a cell phone in her backpack to alleviate her anxiety, even though this wasn’t really permitted in school. 

     Sure enough, a couple of emergency vehicles flashed by heading to a crash that Alex could see up ahead on the expressway. A rolling backup turned into a dead stop as traffic had to merge to avoid the congested lane. Alex was lucky to move around the accident without too much delay, but wondered if the rest of her day would go as smoothly. “Breathe in confidence, breathe out doubt and uncertainty.”

     Alex thought about how close she had been with Mom while remaining distant from Jack. At first she saw him every other weekend, but starting in middle school and when she was in high school, there were dates, and other activities that got in the way. Time together decreased until Alex saw Jack and Ann only on Easter and Christmas. Mom didn’t celebrate those holidays, so it was okay. 

     One winter Mom got sick and at first she was treated for bronchitis, but it progressed to pneumonia. The world crashed into smithereens when the doctors told her the unthinkable – lung cancer. She was a non-smoker, followed a healthy lifestyle, and was a runner. None of it made sense. Pneumonia and lung cancer were a horrible combination and she was hospitalized. After the prescribed x-rays, ulrasound, MRIs, and blood tests, doctors determined that when she recovered from pneumonia, treatment would begin immediately with surgery.

     Alex continued the yoga breaths as her car followed the predetermined route to the restaurant. She was halfway there. “Breathe in positive energy, breathe out fear and anger.” The yoga instructor explained that shallow breaths increase anxious feelings, while deep breaths are calming. 

     The tumor was so large that when surgery was performed her entire left lung had to be removed. They were told that living with one lung usually doesn’t affect everyday tasks or life expectancy. It was an extremely painful and difficult recovery, but there was hope that she would now be cancer free. After only one clear scan, the dreaded cells appeared in her remaining lung. Mom endured chemotherapy, various drugs and their horrendous side effects, radiation, immunotherapy, and clinical trials. Nothing worked.

     The yoga instructor began each class with a short meditation session. “Be mindful, stay in the present, and allow deep breathing to have a soothing effect on the body.”

     Alex met Adam after the diagnosis but Mom was still working and trying every treatment that her oncology team recommended. He was there to help Alex through it all. She leaned on him and depended on his strength and support. If she and Adam didn’t have a future together, that link would be broken and lost forever. Any new person in her life would never have known Mom. Is this why he was so important to her? 

      Mom decided to spend the time she had left being involved in life, not laying on the sofa feeling weak, nauseous, and lightheaded from some type of ghastly treatment. Oxygen and morphine came into the house. Steroids were prescribed for added energy and she attended a niece’s wedding. Mom looked so beautiful that night, surrounded by family, and no one could have imagined she had only two more months. She danced even though breathlessness was an issue. Alex recalled that when the invitation arrived, she wasn’t doing well, but that didn’t stop her from replying “yes” and mailing it away – typical of her positive attitude. 

     Alex spoke at the funeral. Mom’s combination of love and strength was the emotional message of the eulogy that she somehow presented. Mom had insisted that when the time came, Jack would be told not to attend her funeral. Alex wondered if he ever planned to be there anyway.

     “You have arrived at your destination on the right.” The mechanical voice interrupted her thoughts.

     Alex pulled into the parking lot and saw Jack’s red sports car. Again she felt the wild fluttering in her chest. More deep breathes. She grabbed her purse and found her way to the front porch of the restaurant. When she pulled open the heavy, wooden door, Alex took a deep breath and inhaled the overwhelming aroma of tomato sauce and garlic. She saw Jack when she reached the hostess stand even though the lighting was low. He was facing the doorway seated at a table for two. Standing and smiling, he motioned to her as their eyes met. When she approached, he moved in close to hug her, but she turned her head and shifted her body so that the hug was minimal and a kiss was out of the question. 

     “Hey, Alex. How have you been? Right on time. I guess you had no problem finding this place. It’s one of my favorites – great Italian.”

     “No problem. I just used my GPS.” 

     “I’m so glad that you wanted to meet. It’s been too long.”

     “Yeah, I have stuff to tell you.”

     They both sat down and the server filled their water glasses and took their drink orders. Alex took a sip of water and unfolded her white, cloth napkin, spreading it out in her lap. Her friends always joked that she didn’t have a filter. She never held back on announcing good and bad news, took criticism hard, and made her feelings known. 

     “I’m moving to Charleston next month,” Alex said.

     “Moving to Charleston? What about your job? Are you transferring?” 

     “I quit. They promised me a raise and a promotion which I never got, and then there was a merger and I was tasked with firing a bunch of people.” 

     “That’s pretty much expected when you’re an HR manager, right?”

     “I’m changing careers. HR isn’t what I thought it would be. Remember, I always wanted to be a physical therapist, but you talked me out of it.”

    “Why Charleston? That’s at least a ten-hour drive from here. Have you been there?”

     “No, not yet, but it’s warm and near the ocean. I need to be by the beach. It makes me happy. We scattered Mom’s ashes in the ocean three miles from the New Jersey shoreline.”

     Mom had made it clear when she explained her wishes to Alex about spreading the ashes. She was always a rules and regulations person. Alex arranged for a ceremony at sea on a small sailboat with just enough room for herself and Mom’s siblings. The captain took care of all the details so Alex knew that the laws were being  followed.  That was about a year and a half ago. 

     Jack was silent. 

     “I want to attend the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston. I already spoke with a counselor about the program. It sounds perfect for me.”

“Are you serious about all of this, Alex? You quit your job and say you are moving to a city that you’ve never seen? Does this have anything to do with that boyfriend I’ve never met? Are you following him there?”

     “ It doesn’t matter that you’ve never met Adam. I’m going there by myself. I only came to tell you that I’m leaving.”

     She looked at Jack – really looked and saw that his hairline was receding and what hair he had was turning gray. His face was fuller, too. He looked different – older. 

     “There’s nothing for me here. I miss Mom. She is “home” to me but …”  

     Alex was unable to go on. She had to stop talking. Then there was only silence between them. Alex felt tears coming and her heart pounding. She crumpled up the napkin and put it on the table. Breaths came quicker and she felt pressure in her chest. She kept her head down, gathered her purse and bolted for the door. She told him what she had come to tell him. She would start the slow, deep breathing as soon as she got into the car.

Lois Villemaire is living the retired life in Annapolis, MD where she enjoys yoga, reading, writing, and researching family history.

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