- Drawing a Breath
It starts and ends with a breath.
The shock of air on a newborn’s cheek, the cold kiss of it. This is what beckons a first breath. It isn’t born of need, not a hunger for air nor scarcity that compels us to fill our lungs for the first time. Rather, drawing a breath is our natural response to the abundance of air. Air stirs the fine hairs on infant bodies, sways lanugo like seaweed underwater. A gale-force rush of stimuli triggers neurons, which spark in the brain. Unfamiliar waves of sound and light roll in: vibrations resonate within the ear canal, and brightness flashes upon the retina in fuzzy shapes.
So it happens upon arrival, within the first ten seconds of extrauterine experience. It seems our first breath holds wonder. More an involuntary gasp of surprise than of survival. Upon encountering the world, the most fitting response is to open our mouths and take it in. We expand as it fills us. This initial inhalation is a moment that is unrepeatable: for the first time lungs trade fluid for air, an exchange of gases, and then, the umbilical cord with its oxygen-rich blood is cut.
My friend, who is a midwife, stands in her kitchen making pizza and talking about the first breaths she has witnessed. Her hands hold the fixed ends of a rolling pin as she leans over the counter, working the dough. She tells me about the small, slippery bodies she catches. She holds these curled newborns up to their mothers’ chests and waits for the shallow expansion and contraction of tentative lungs under her palms.
She pauses and smiles as her toddler interrupts our conversation. He chases a toy across the tiled kitchen floor while exclaiming “woah.” He says this many times, always with the same ecstatic appreciation. He is amazed that a toy man can sit in a toy car, amazed at the pizza pan in the oven, amazed at his own reflection as he presses his hands, lips, and nose against the chilled glass of the back door, leaving smudgy fingerprints in fog. [End Page 124] You can measure a lifetime in breaths. An eighty-year-old: 672,768,000 breaths. A fifty-five-year-old: 420,480,000 breaths. A twenty-five-year-old: 210,240,000 breaths. In and out, impossible to count each one, and yet not one of them is like the first breath.
“I once took a nine-hour seminar on infant resuscitation,” my friend says. “Not just the mechanics of it, but to explore the meaning of it, the significance.”
She tells me what happens when a baby is born but doesn’t breathe, tells me of the stillness in the room except for the effort to bring into being the one small body whose chest has yet to rise and fall.
She tries to tell me what it’s like to breathe in and out, offering air to airless lungs. This giving of breath, to breathe for one who has never known air, is unlike any other resuscitation, more a suscitation, a rousing to life.
In the old-growth forest, the nearness of aged beings silences me. It is the quietude of Douglas firs, hush of hundreds of years of respiration. I sense in the air the scent of reciprocity, stomatal openings receiving carbon dioxide and delivering oxygen in return.
My parents have traveled across the country to visit us and they walk with my husband and me under a canopy of firs as we hike toward Fragrance Lake. Mottled light covers the chipped path before us, carved into a carpet of vigorous sword ferns. All around us, moss makes its patient creep across bark and stone.
The first mile is a steep incline. My father pauses occasionally to unclip his cell phone from his belt and take a photo, to study the globed web of an orb-weaver spider or the exposed root system of a fallen tree. He lags behind us, taking his time, smiling up at us during switchbacks. When he stops again to retie the laces of his sneakers, I...