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Breathing Lessons

By Rachel Adams


“Oh, darn!” chirps my eight-year-old son Noah as he plays Minecraft, fingers darting across the screen, “I was just killed by a zombie; gotta get back to my bed so I can respawn!” Watching him, I’m once again struck by how unconcerned he is about death. Last year when he developed an obsession with the Titanic, we worried that he might find some parts of the story disturbing. Instead, he rattled off facts about death and destruction as if they were baseball statistics. “50% of children on the ship survived” he would report. “Although only one from steerage. Women and children got the lifeboats first so just 128 out of 776 men were saved.” He watched the movie, replaying the disaster again and again, seemingly oblivious to fear, chaos, and devastation. A part of me wishes Noah were more empathic. Another part is glad death is so alien to him that a horrific maritime disaster might as well be a session on Minecraft, where characters die and respawn none the worse for wear.

I don’t remember ever being unaware of death. When I was four, my mother Ruth was diagnosed with lung cancer. She was told there was no cure and died 18 months later at the age of 42. My earliest memories are of my mother’s illness. I remember when she cut off her long hair because she was too weak to take care of it; oozing sores left by needles that tapped fluid from her lungs; fits of uncontrollable coughing.

One morning not long after Ruth died, our babysitter Molly came to work in tears. Her dog Brindle was missing and she was sure he had been hit by a car and killed. My sister and I loved Brindle. We put our arms around Molly and cried together. Recently I mentioned this incident to my father, who told me that Brindle had been found alive a few days later.

“Why didn’t you tell us?” I asked incredulously. “We were devastated.”

“Because your mother had just died,” he said. “We didn’t want you to think there was any chance she might come back.”

Ten years later, Ruth’s best friend Barbara learned she had lung cancer. I watched her suffer with an awareness I had lacked during my mother’s illness a decade before. At Thanksgiving, my father had to carry her up the stairs to our house. Her dinner was pureed in the blender so she could take it through a straw. When she went to the hospital for the last time, I had tonsillitis and was too sick to visit her.

I know my early experiences of death shape the way I parent my sons. I have trouble saying goodbye, and tend to weep embarrassingly over small transitions like the last day of school or the start of camp. I’m consumed with guilt about missing time with my children while I’m at work. When we’re together, I’m determined to make every minute memorable. There are so few things I can control, but I can spend a week decorating a birthday cake or stay up all night making thank-you gifts for my sons’ teachers. I’m constantly taking pictures and movies, aware of how few mementos I have of the years I shared with my mother. Of course this kind of helicopter parenting isn’t unique, but mine is motivated by awareness of just how short and unpredictable life can be.

The year I turned 42 I worried constantly about my breathing. I had two boys, exactly the same ages as my sister and I when our mother died. Although my doctor said I was perfectly healthy, I was terrified I would die and leave my children to grow up alone. At unpredictable moments, I became convinced that each intake of air might be my last uncomplicated breath. For all I knew malignant tumors were already colonizing my chest. There was no way to tell. My doctor discouraged a lung scan, saying it was likely to cause more harm than good.

Since I passed that milestone I’ve tried to be better about managing my fears. I know it isn’t healthy to be so obsessed with death and dying. In her journal, Ruth wrote resentfully of the hypochondria that drove her mother to bed for the last decade of her life. I want to make the most of whatever time I have, and hope that my sons will remember me for something other than my incessant countdown to my own death.

In the fall, I volunteered to be a guest reader in Noah’s class. I chose a story Ruth wrote for my sister and me. I found the manuscript while visiting my father the summer before. Written in my mother’s neat hand, it’s about our stuffed animals, our cat, and the excitable dog who lived across the street. I loved the thought of my mother sitting down to write for and about us so I had the pages scanned and bound into a book.

While I read to Noah’s class, I felt moved at the thought that I was the connecting link between my son and the grandmother he never knew. Afterwards, I asked him whether he had liked the visit.

“It was okay,” he said noncommittally.

“What do you mean, okay?”

“I don’t know.”  He shrugged, “the kids in my class were kind of bored while you were reading.”

I bristled with irritation. This wasn’t the reaction I had hoped for. How could my son be indifferent to something so meaningful to me? Later, I changed my mind. I decided I was glad the book didn’t fill him with longing for his dead grandmother or awareness that life can be short and cruel. He has plenty of time to learn that lesson. For now, how lucky he is to live as if mothers who die can, like characters on Minecraft, respawn into a world untouched by their absence.

Rachel Adams is the author of Raising Henry:  A Memoir of Motherhood, Disability, and Discovery, as well as essays on parenting and disability in The New York Times, Salon, The Chronicle of Higher Education, The Times of London,, and Huffington Post.  She lives with her family in New York City, where she teaches at Columbia University.

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