Holding my breath
Earlier this month, my parents both tested positive for Covid. Scared, I forced myself to remain hopeful. I asked a few friends to pray with me, specifically for protection for their lungs. Knowing how fast things can turn with this virus, my niece, a nurse, brought them a pulse oximeter. Although Covid hit them with multiple symptoms, their oxygen levels have remained within normal range, and they have been able to weather the virus at home.
When we celebrated my parents’ 60th wedding anniversary in March, we did not know that future visits would be rare, brief, masked, mostly out of doors, and distanced.
In this year of so much loss for so many, I am sharply aware of the privilege it is for both my husband and I to have our parents with us. At 81, my parents live independently, keep a garden, and enthusiastically receive visits from even their most rambunctious young grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
“I feel like I’m missing out on so much of their life,” my mom said the other day, over the phone, her voice cracking. I grieve this, often. In the timeline of a child’s growth and development, nine months is a big deal.
Back in March, still waking to the reality of this pandemic, we watched Italy’s lock-down. We witnessed the defiant joy of accordion concerts on balconies. When a priest in Northern Italy gave up his ventilator to save the life of another man, that ventilator became a sacrament, the priest’s death a final act of sacrificial love.
As the first cases hit these shores, a nascent sense of “We’re in this thing together” brought spurts of collective joy, even amid the fear and the loss. And we were together. Until we weren’t. Until leading scientists became targets of conspiracy theorists, masks symbols of tyranny, and performative patriotism and selfishness clasped contagious hands.
320,000 people are dead from Covid in this country. There is no way to grasp such a number.
I’ve been thinking a lot about breath.
A week ago, I was diagnosed with severe sleep Apnea. In short, my airway closes during sleep, my oxygen levels plummet, and my brain wakes me up, multiple times each hour. A sensation of panic lurches me awake.
Miss Karen, I can’t breathe!
At seventeen, and a camp counselor, one night I raced across the grounds to pound on the sleeping nurse’s door for a little girl’s Albuterol inhaler. (Why we didn’t keep them with us in the cabins is beyond me). I’m forty-four and I can still picture that child’s face, eyes wide with fear. That desperate, breathless feeling is something I would never wish on anyone.
I can’t breathe!
These words have filled the mouths of generations long before this crippling respiratory virus erupted across our planet. They are words uttered from beneath the crushing weight of oppression.
In May, it happened again.
George Floyd felt that weight for a full eight minutes.
Some of us stood up and said “Enough!”
Some of us put our bodies in the way.
Some of us looked away.
Some didn’t mind seeing jackbooted riot police clubbing protesters.
Where are you, God?
The Romans used crucifixion as a method of execution, death by suffocation. In the final excruciating moments of incarnation, the divine, fully human, struggled for breath.
Carlos Rodriguez writes, “Christmas is about believing what a woman said about her sex life. Christmas is about a family finding safety as refugees. Christmas is about a child in need receiving support from the wealthy. Christmas is about God identifying with the marginalized, not the powerful.”
Christmas has very little to do with the extras we take upon ourselves for the sake of tradition, family, and our tinsel-eyed children. I don’t mind doing these things. Celebration, tradition, family, all of these are good. Among what brings me joy, what gives me hope, is seeing my parents’ faces, hearing their voices on video chat, and hiding the secret chocolate I bought for our children. It’s singing through the third verse of O Holy Night, a lump in my throat, “And in His Name, all oppression shall cease.”
It’s that minute and a half between lighting the Advent candles and fighting over who gets to blow them out, those 90 seconds that we sit together in a candlelit, life-cluttered room and sing the first two verses of O Come, O Come Immanuel.
God with us…who cannot breathe
with us…who are cynical
with us…who are anxious
with us…who are filled with rage
with us…who stand by graves
with us…who are traumatized
with us…whose children were taken
with us…who are suicidal
with us…who sit in cells