Breathing Lessons

I really was an interesting child.

I thought I’d close one eye and see everybody cut in half. I used to have nightmares about it. People’s insides spilling through the wound, half the heart still beating, spurting blood everywhere. I’d spend hours thinking about pirates and eye patches – poor people, having to witness their loved ones butchered day in and day out – and I’d close my eyes tight, pressing both lids with my fingertips just in case. I was a frightful child. Darkness, gipsies, death in my sleep. Pools. Vacuum cleaners. Carnivorous plants. I had more fears than I could count and I could count forever. It was the first thing they’d taught me, counting my breaths.

I was two when I had my first asthma attack.

I don’t remember it, but they’ve told me the story so many times, that in the end I’ve built myself a disturbingly intricate memory of it, complete with bright colours and sound effects and lodged deep in my brain even now, when you’d think I’ve got a million other painful, embarrassing things to involuntarily remember and feel depressed about. Instead, my tangled synapses choose to torment me with this invented recollection of the first time I almost died, and endless armies of spidery Organic Chemistry formulas. Fun and games.

My first real asthma memory dates from a couple of years afterwards. I was sleeping alone in the little bedroom I’d later share with my sister, and the sound of my breathing woke me up. They’d left a door open in my chest, I thought, unable to find another explanation for the screeching. It must have been the doctor Mother had taken me to see the day before. A bad man. He hadn’t even blown on the stethoscope before pressing it against my ribs. It made me shiver and cry and Mother gave me one of her frowny you-need-to-be-a-big-girl looks and everything was quiet again. Except for the sound of air forcing its way into my lungs. I must have been four.

I was born in 1984 in what was then Communist Romania, in a family of medics. My mother was frail and her doctor opted for C-Section. When they’d finished with me, they couldn’t wake her up from the anaesthesia. My dad, a doctor himself, stood by in terror as the operating team tried to slap Mother out of her coma. He had to run to a nearby pharmacy to get the vial of adrenalin that would later bring her back among the living. The hospital didn’t have any in stock. The lack of stock was, I’d later find out, a defining quality of the time.

Mother recovered. She lived to tell the story of how she’d heard the noise of the doctors slapping her face, but didn’t feel any of it. It may well be an invented memory, like my first asthma one.

I was a sickly child. Sick wasn’t something you wanted to be in those times. People were queueing in endless queues for most of their waking hours. Oranges, flour, salami. You’d hear a rumour that they were delivering something to your local grocery shop and you’d drop what you were doing and run for it, ready for a several hours long queueing session, not even knowing what you’d be queuing for, not even caring, anything was good as long as you’d have something to put on the table in the evening.

There was no queueing for asthma medicine. There wasn’t any. No promises of secret deliveries to your neighbourhood pharmacy either. No salvation in sight. In Romania, it was better not to have asthma if you could help it.

My parents tried everything and when everything failed, they made friends with people who had friends who knew people who could get us some medicine from Germany. Mother used to tell me this story again and again when my attacks got bad. There was hope, she said, just hold on, and don’t mention it to anybody. Germany. It was dangerous even saying it in those days, but I used to whisper it to myself in the dark, in between counting my gasps for breath. One…  Two… Three… Germany. Our little secret.

No magic German made salvation ever came.

Dad would torment me with horrible, bad tasting concoctions he’d picked up from his Grandma. She’d passed away long before I was born, but I was sure she’d been a very cruel lady. Only that would explain the vile smell and taste of these make-believe cures, most of which contained some form of grated horseradish. Mother was gentler. She heated rough salt in a frying pan, poured it into a sock or a tied up handkerchief, and put it on my chest. It was almost too hot to bear, and smelled like roasted sunflower seeds.

I don’t remember if any of this helped. Mainly I just remember fighting for breath. Coughing myself to tears. Not being allowed to go out and play in the snow. I remember watching cartoons with the TV muted, Mother dozing on the sofa after yet another sleepless night of attacks. I hadn’t realised I was coughing, but then she suddenly rolled in her sleep and yelled at me to stop it already, so I must have been. Coughing. Always coughing. Stupid Germany.

I’d just had another attack in the first days of December 1989. Dad had taken time off from work, which he never did, and industrial quantities of horseradish mush were spooned into my mouth after every meal for a couple of weeks. The day the revolution began, my sister and I were visiting neighbours. Dad had run to the shops and Mother was working. Turmoil erupted in the street and we all went out into the front yard to see what was going on. No one cared that it was cold and I wasn’t wearing my jacket. Dad came running through the gate and locked it behind him. Revolution, he said, and I wanted to ask what it meant, but everybody was dead silent. A short while later, Mother arrived. She tried the gate open, but someone had misplaced the key and she had to climb onto the railing and let herself drop into Dad’s arms. The commotion was still in full swing outside the gate and I thought, if Mother could do it, and in her impossible looking heels, then they could easily jump over the fence at any time too. They sounded mad and strong.

The aftermath of the revolution brings back memories of burnt presidential portraits littering the streets. Flags with round holes cut in the middle, where the coat of arms had been. And the unexpected end of my asthma episodes.

Once Communism fell, our German connection sent us the miraculous asthma cure. I didn’t get to take it, there’d been months without an attack and Mother stored the wondrous parcel in one of her drawers my sister and I weren’t tall enough to reach, where I wouldn’t be surprised if it was still gathering dust to this day. I never needed it. My body, no doubt inspired by the events of ’89, rebelled against the asthma and broke free.

For more than twenty years, I didn’t count my breaths once. I almost forgot how to do it, I certainly wanted to forget.

But these days my asthma is coming back. It’s not been as bad, yet there’s no mistaking it for something else, a friendlier cold or an allergy I could easily push towards the back of my mind. I might have been only a child on our first encounter, but I know my enemy. It’s true, I don’t need dangerous connections to get medication these days. Nothing is as complicated and frightening as it used to be, and I’m full of hope. But sometimes I’m scared, really scared, grownup scared, and I wish I could just close my eyes, press my eye lids tight with my fingers, and feel safe.

3 thoughts on “Breathing Lessons

  1. ❤ I know I'm not THAT much older than you, but right now I'd just hug your worries away. Asthma is quite common these days, due to pollution and many other wonderful things our nicely developed society brought us.
    My sister has asthma and also a friend of mine. My daughter had a mild form, when we lived in Bucharest. I have asthma attacks once in a while too, so I know what you're talking about. It's not all fun and games, but you can still do whatever you want, even go out play in the snow, or swim your way home in the evening 🙂


  2. Pingback: A Day in the Life | London Geek

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