“Just breathe,” I thought, as I sat up all night, listening to the ragged breaths growling and gasping in and out of my feverish little girl. I had plenty of time to contemplate how the most intimate, profound, and intense moments of my life have centered around breath.

just breathe

I was young when I learned that people could die in their sleep, about 5, I think. I would sneak out of bed in the middle of the night to do bed checks, making sure my family was safe and well. The snorers were easy. I could listen for my parents’ snoring from my bed. My grandfather snored, too, but not Grandma. I’d watch her low profile for signs of movement, but I had to be stealthy; she was a light sleeper, and still had mothers’ ears. I’d check on each of my brothers, as well, before I could let myself settle down, and go back to sleep.

When I got older, and couldn’t sleep, I’d sync my breathing with that of my parents’ snoring. It worked better than warm milk for sending me off to dreamland. Something about that snore meant “situation normal,” and the cadence was hypnotic and soothing.

Sometimes, I find myself in situations where I hold my breath. My large family stood around my brother’s bed in the ICU, each of us reaching out to touch him; a hand, a leg, I held him near his left elbow. The doctor turned off the life support, and I held my breath, hoping for a miracle. I held my breath for so long, but he was gone.

A few years later, in another ICU of another hospital, I held my breath as my mother was extubated after weeks on a ventilator. This time, it worked. It wasn’t easy, but she took a breath, and then another. Eventually, she made eye contact, and squeezed back with the hand I was holding. And soon, she was back to her old, talkative self.

I exhaled when my husband said, “I do.”

I held my breath through the frequent, and impossibly long pauses in my father’s breathing during his last weeks.


My breath gets away from me during a panic attack; I often hold my breath when I’m hopeful, and I use my breath to blow away eyelashes, and blow out candles to make a wish. Exercise, excitement, engagement, even lovemaking are all tied up in breath. Breath is life.

“Breathe,” my husband coaxed, as he counted through my contractions.

“Breathe,” I silently willed the air in and out of my newborn’s body.

“Breathe,” I commanded an empty room, wishing I could send my strength to my husband, who was in the midst of a medical crisis in Istanbul. “We can deal with anything else, as long as you keep breathing.”

I think of my newborn niece, just 3 weeks old, and she’s spent most of that time connected to machines that help her breathe, or breathe for her. Each time I pray for her to breathe, I imagine her mama has prayed a thousand times more. And she is improving, needing less and less assistance each day. Enough equipment has been removed now for her to cry – how beautiful is the sound of a baby’s cry? Especially after this.

Our breath is completely tied up in crying. And laughing.

I’ve experienced joy so overwhelming that I momentarily forgot to breathe. I’ve experienced pain so intense the entire world disappeared. There was nothing left but me, and the pain, and my breath. The slightest movement had to be orchestrated; rest on inhale, exert on exhale. Each breath is painful, yet each breath is progress.

Sometimes all we have left is our breath. Sometimes breath is all we need. One more breath, to take us to one more moment. Inhale. Exhale. Repeat. A slow, quiet meditation on now, until our strength returns, or a renewed hope, even if just to get through another day, and we’re able to slowly start incorporating the rest of the world back into our reality.

If the only thing left to do is breathe, then breathe.

As long as you have breath, you have this moment.

P.S. The little angel is feeling much better, and had more energy than me today. As usual.

 P.P.S. BlogHer selected me as a Voice of the Year 2013 for this piece.

Judy Schwartz Haley


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