Learning How to Breathe

“There is a way of breathing that’s a shame and a suffocation and there’s another way of expiring, a love breath that lets you open to infinity.

– Rumi

By Barbara Janoff

When he was 70, about the age I am now, my father taught me how to harness the power of breath. He had been an athlete in his youth, a welterweight boxer. That must be when he came to know, although I think he’d forgotten it for many years.

I was floating in the pool at his Florida retirement complex, keeping myself from sinking with lots of kicks and strokes.

“You don’t need to work so hard,” he called from his poolside chaise. “Use your breath. Watch what happens when you inhale.”

I inhaled deeply, and my body began to rise to the surface of the water.

“Now exhale,” he called, and that made me sink so that I had to splash to rise back up.

“Inhale,” he prompted, and I rose again. It was all in the rhythm. Sink a little. Rise a little. Rise a little more. Playing with the timing, I was in control.

I learned to love floating that day, the ebb and flow of water rocking me while my mindful breathing played its counterpoint, holding me from inside. Facing the sky, I watched the glide of a long-limbed bird in shadow, then tilted my head poolside. My father nodded and held my eyes for a moment before turning back to his newspaper.

Now, whenever I remember to take a deep breath, especially during my yoga practice, my father comes to mind. This is strange because he wasn’t always one to bring on calmness and peace; quite the opposite. He was given to violent rages when I was a child.

Things had changed between us, changed for the better, ten years earlier. It was on Thanksgiving. That was when he and I began to clear our way. But before that could happen, the English boy had to bring me the message.

My older sister and her family arrived around four, bringing her spirit of liveliness and jocularity.

I was leaving my Wednesday afternoon Foundations seminar at Columbia on the day before Thanksgiving. More than half of the students had been absent. That’s how I found myself walking out with a boy I didn’t know very well. I call him a boy even though he was an older student, like me. Something about his effect made me think of him as younger than he probably was. He had some sort of posh British accent, which made whatever he uttered in class sound intelligent, whether it was or not.

We walked across campus towards the gates on Broadway, and I asked him what he was planning for the next day. He shook his head, “Nothing. Home is too far away for a long weekend, and besides, it isn’t really my holiday.”

I laughed. “I know that.”

I might have invited him to come with me to my parents’ house in New Jersey if I had known him better and had different parents. Mine wouldn’t have welcomed a stranger, holiday or not, particularly not a male stranger. My own home had never been warm or welcoming to outsiders. My mother didn’t like surprises, and she’d had enough surprises in the last year. She and my father had been making quite an effort to adjust to my new divorced status and move to Manhattan.

“Besides,” he burst out, “I hate going home!”

I looked at him questioningly.

“They tell me that what I remember from my childhood never happened, and it makes me feel like I’m crazy!” His voice shook with suppressed sobs.

I kept a respectful silence, thinking, so it’s the same in England. That shouldn’t have surprised me, but I was just then reaching out to a larger worldview, and I was only beginning.

I didn’t ask him what happened. It was a short walk to the gates; we were going in different directions, and I still needed to pack and catch a late Port Authority bus home.

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That Thanksgiving, the first since my divorce, was going to be awkward. My divorce perplexed my parents, almost as much as my move to New York and dedication to studying literature. They were practical people. The only graduate work they understood was vocational—medicine or law—and that was for men. Girls married; they didn’t become. And in their eyes, I had married well—a medical student. Unlike my father, whose long hours and night shifts tending bar had been the only way he knew how to provide for his family, my husband’s intense dedication to his studies promised delayed gratification in status and money. How do I explain, even now, decades later, why I needed to get out? I remember nights when I’d leave the rowhouse I lived in with my husband, climb into my car and drive onto the empty New Jersey highway, shove the gas pedal to the floor, and scream at the top of my lungs. Nothing catastrophic happened; I guess I was lucky. After a while, I’d slow down and head back home. The door to my husband’s study would still be closed, his desk light seeping onto the hallway carpet from underneath. I doubt he’d noticed I’d been gone.

My mother was in her element early Thanksgiving morning, all burners lit plus the oven, cooking, stuffing, baking, filling their little ranch house with all sorts of wonderful smells. I followed her orders and fell back on years of routinized holiday procedures. In the den off the kitchen, my father faded into the background. Not quite sixty, he had retired the year before and gone on disability, the result of a bad fall that had shattered his heel. I had never seen him so relaxed. Occasionally I heard the rustle of his newspaper and his murmurs as he read aloud to himself or his snores as he napped.

My older sister and her family arrived around four, bringing her spirit of liveliness and jocularity. We immediately took our places at the table, my father at the head, my brother-in-law at the foot, my niece and nephew on one side, my mother, sister and I on the side closest to the kitchen. My sister and I carried in course after course, giving my tired mother a chance to rest. The family ate in silence, knives and forks scraping on my mother’s good china. Some music would be nice, I thought but knew better than to say. That would be getting above myself.

“What happened out there?” she whispered. 

We ate fast. We always did, vectoring towards dessert. My sister brought in the apple crumb and I carried the pumpkin. The two of us sat back down, all set to dig in. My father looked around the table and barked, “Fran! Tea!” My mother quickly pushed herself away from the table and began to rise. 

I put my hand on her arm to stop her. “I’ll get it Dad,” I said, “Mom’s tired. She’s been on her feet all day.”

He frowned and nodded, his eyes on his plate. My mother sank back, and I went into the kitchen. My sister followed me and stood beside me at the sink where I was filling the kettle.

“I thought Daddy was going to smack you,” she whispered. I looked sideways at her. She had a half smile—part confident, part rival. 

“What do you mean?”

“When you talked back to him.” 

Surprised, I responded without thinking. “He’s never going to raise a hand to me again!” 

After a slight pause she responded “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” 

Even now, I think of the different ways I might have reacted. I might have snapped back with “Talk back to him—what are we, eight years old?” Or challenged her by asking “Why would you think that?” But we were locked in the distant past, where sudden rages were commonplace and instant denials a given. 

An image of myself as a little girl flashed through my mind. No older than four, I had run into the bathroom, the only room with a lock on the door, to hide from my father and his strap. But that bathroom lock was built for privacy not safety. He broke through with a few good slams and dragged me out from my hiding place where I had crammed myself between the toilet and the bathtub. 

To this day, I don’t know why my mother used to wait until after a beating began to scream, “Stop Ben! You’ll kill her!” Why not before? Maybe shock. Maybe to save herself. Maybe to close the windows first so the neighbors couldn’t hear. How confusing it was for me to be forsaken by the same cuddling woman, my mother, who read me to sleep every night of my young life. Little Women. Little Men. The Five Little Peppers and How They Grew. As for my sister, three years my elder, I don’t know where she was, hiding probably. Anyway, she was too small to help back then.

Now herself the grown mother of two, my sister methodically stacked plates in our mother’s sink. Some bad memory of her own had forced its way to the surface of her mind long enough to be spoken and whisked back into hiding. Nothing. It was nothing. Now you see it, now you don’t. What lingered was her denial. She still had that half smile pasted on her face.  All’s well; now and always. A year or two earlier, before I’d left home, I’d have tried to connect through our eyes, but I no longer had the desire to bond. As I watched her toggle between truth and lie (only one could exist at a time)—I wondered how my sister could keep her skull from exploding, but of course she’d had a lifetime of practice. We both had.

I thought of the English boy back in New York. “It makes me feel crazy,” he had said. It—the thing that must not be acknowledged, that was denied in plain sight. What collective will exists in some families—my family— to be able to conjure and maintain a lie over the years. I’d admire their strength if they hadn’t been so destructive.

I set the kettle on the stove without turning on the flame and walked through the dining room towards the front door. I had to get out of there. No more seeking validation from the women in the kitchen. Was that my original thought or something I’d read in one of my literature courses? I still don’t know.

In families like mine, you learned to feel danger before it happens. We three women could pick up an atmospheric shift at ten paces. My mother had not left her seat near the kitchen, and yet she was alarmed. “Where are you going?” she called urgently as I sped past her.

“For a walk,” I said, jamming on my coat. “I need some air!”

“You can’t go out now! It’s dark! Ben—go with her!”

My father rose obediently from his chair. He moved slowly, contentedly, his appetite sated, his family around him. With his limp, a faulty heart and emphysema, he was no longer a physical threat to anyone. The only scary aspects that remained were his bass growl and resting scowl face. 

I didn’t want to walk with him, and yet I waited, still submissive under the influence of family. And silent, even though I was thinking that the street outside was perfectly safe. Margate New Jersey, a nice ocean town, safe night and day. It had been inside our house that wasn’t safe.

My father put his arm around my shoulders as we walked. It felt like an unbearable weight. I was still fuming from my sister’s denial and resisted the impulse to shrug off my father’s arm. “It makes me feel crazy,” the English boy had said. My breath caught in my throat, and my mind was racing. This was a moment to speak; they don’t come often. But what if he can’t take it? His heart? 

“Dad,” I said tentatively.

“What sweetheart?” 

Sweetheart? When had he ever called me Sweetheart? I took a breath and searched for the right words. “No one here will admit what it was like when I was a kid.”

“What do you mean?” he responded, still in the throes of contentment. I was sure his tone would change any second. 

“I mean no one admits how hard things were.” I couldn’t get the words right. “How angry with me you always were.” I was sidestepping the physical violence, but it was the best I could do, better than I expected. He didn’t take his arm away from me. Our pace didn’t change. I was still afraid he’d drop dead, that his weak heart wouldn’t withstand my words. We walked a little way in silence.

“It was my fault,” he finally said. “I had a rotten temper.”

Rotten was a word from his fighting days. Who used such a word anymore unless you were describing spoiled food? Me. I did. 

“I thought I was a rotten kid,” I found myself saying.

“No. No. You were a great kid!”

“I wasn’t great. I wasn’t terrible. I was just a kid.”

“You were great. It was me. I had a rotten temper,” he repeated. He never took his arm away from my shoulders, although I kept expecting it. He didn’t drop to the ground either, the way I’d feared. 

Slowly, I became aware of our surroundings, the crisp, cool November air, the darkening bay water at the end of the block. With his admission, he had come through for me, had shown up, steady and clear. It would never excuse his violence against me when I was small, but I felt freed to make my own sense of that childhood trauma. To hold it up to a clear light and untangle my memories from family myth. 

We continued our walk around the block in companionable silence. I kept my eyes straight ahead. There was no need to look at him. I felt him by my side, and I knew that it felt good to him too after all those years of isolation while we women protected him from himself. When we got back to the house, he walked directly to his recliner, picked up his newspaper and scissors from the end table, and started cutting out supermarket coupons for the weekend. 

My mother was waiting for me by the kitchen door and motioned for me to follow her into her bedroom. She didn’t bother with the light. “What happened out there?” she whispered. 

 “Dad and I talked about the past.”

She searched my face for a moment and then shrugged. “You should have asked me. I would have told you.”

“I know,” I soothed. “I know.”

Barbara Janoff recently retired as an associate professor in the department of English and Communication Studies at FIT/SUNY, where she taught literature and creative writing. Her essays and poetry are published in journals and magazines, such as Columbia: A Women’s Journal, Communication Arts, and The Berkshire Review. The Widow’s Log reflects on end-of-life caretaking and survivor’s healing. She lives and writes in upstate New York.

One thought on “Learning How to Breathe”

  1. If you have family secrets, you will recognize the people and family dynamics in the beautifully written, “Learning How to Breathe.”


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