Waiting to Exhale by Thom Wright

Thom Wright: I am the CEO of Lathrop Community in Northampton, MA. This piece was shared with residents and staff the week of 5/24/20 as part of an ongoing series of COVID-related communique. I am a Ph.D. with over 25 years of service to elders.

Waiting to Exhale

When my children were born, I anticipated their first breath as a sign of health. Each night, after I read them stories and said a prayer as they drifted off to sleep, I waited by their bedside, often on the floor right next to them, not daring to move a muscle until I saw the rhythmic undulating of their bellies filling with air followed by whispering and whistling exhales through their open mouths.

I have taken wellness classes focusing on the breath; trying to overcome my tendency to hold my breath in times of stress rather than completely exhale. I can hold my breath for quite a long time and most certainly could give Michael Phelps an underwater swim for the money. Through exercise, I learned to control my breath; appreciating the energy it produced for my body to lift weights, run bleachers and eventually, challenge my children to sprint races.

In 2004, I was privileged to be bedside as my mother drew her last breath and exhaled into eternity.

A few years ago, I discovered that my breath could not sustain me; walking a mere 20 paces caused extreme shortness of breath and physical weakness. Doctors said I had allergies, pneumonia or COPD but more tests revealed Stage 4 Hodgkin Lymphoma. With every chemo treatment to shrink the tumors pressing on my lungs and diaphragm, breathing once again became effortless.

Now, we all are facing COVID-19; masked and afraid of one another’s breath. This virus spreads by exhaling droplets, softly or forcibly, within each other’s presence. Some reject masks as restrictive, unnecessary, or trampling on civil rights while healthcare providers can’t find enough to keep frontline heroes safe. Masks are as elusive as unicorns and toilet paper. Thankfully, generous people craft them from dresses, shirts, and dinner napkins.

According to scientific and government agencies, face coverings are lifesaving accessories to be worn when unable to physically distance 6 feet from others. Masks save lives by preventing exhaled, pre-symptomatic droplets from infecting others. Masks are heroes but cause headaches as CO2 is breathed in, render it difficult to breath or articulate, and hide smiles (but there is smizing). People hard of hearing and the deaf community suffer greater isolation unless masks are made from clear material to read lips.

ZOOM makes it possible to not breathe in the same space together as we celebrate birthday parties and graduations, attend meetings and free virtual concerts, and play BINGO with celebrities and royalty. As meaningful or fun as it is, by not breathing in the same space we lose both the energy of the collective breath and the subtle cues within conversations from another’s quick inhalation at a thought that suddenly comes.

COVID-19 is a breathtaking pandemic. We are socially connecting on a global scale whilst physically distancing but we are all waiting to collectively exhale. When will this be over? No one knows – best guess is sometime in 2021. But, don’t hold your breath. Keep breathing!