The Waking Breath

By Jean Sheridan ’59 / May / June 2003
June 22nd, 2007
What is that sound? I open my eyes to a pink dawn and remember that I am in my daughter’s house and in the huge king-size bed she shares with her husband. I remember that while they are skiing in Aspen I am here to take care of their three children. I kick away the pile of books and notebooks I have accumulated since I’ve arrived and stare at the rising sun. It is 5:30 a.m. But what is that sound?

Then I remember. It is the sound of another person breathing, a sound I have not heard in the night for nearly ten years. I find the source, my six-year-old grandson, who has dragged his sleeping bag into the room and settled on the floor next to the bed. I look down at his often-antic face in repose, his small chest rising and falling with each breath.

I had forgotten how comforting is that sound of someone breathing in the same room. When did I last hear it? Oh yes, I remember now. It would have been the breathing of my ex-husband as he rested, poised for flight as soon as he was refreshed.

“Stay. Sleep,” I would have said.

“Can’t stay. Can’t sleep. Gotta go. Gotta go. Work, trip, phone calls.”

I close my eyes against the memory. But I remember more. My husband’s soft snoring and the other sounds of intimacy, sounds my married friends take for granted and grit their teeth against: morning hacking, electric toothbrushes, flushing toilets, crunching corn flakes, slurped coffee. In the end my husband left for good, and in the years since, I’ve wakened in my single bed at home hearing only my cat scratching in her litter box, or crunching her dry food, or lapping water.

Constancy is at the root of all true relationship, whatever its dynamic. A woman in Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal Dreams says to her lover that all he needs to do to prove his love is to stay in the same room with her. How easy a thing to do, how profoundly difficult. I remember, too, the words of Thomas Aquinas, who, supremely confident in his belief that God is intimately present to each of us, once said that he experienced daily “the certain joy of waking bliss.” I think of those words every morning and wonder why I, also a believer, am greeted only by anxiety when I awake.

When I meditate I sometimes repeat the word Yahweh, the ancient Mosaic name for God. Actually it is not a word, but four consonants, YHWH, with vowels added for those who boldly commit blasphemy by assigning any name to the ultimate divine person. The four letters, I read somewhere, describe the action of breathing—breath in, YH; breath out, WH; in, YH; out, WH.

Looking down at Xander sleeping on the rug, I think of something amusing. Relationships are like rugs: the wall-to-wall carpets of long-term marriages, the area rugs of the pre- and post-marriage dating scenes, the pull-the-rug-out-from-under-you rugs of breakups and divorces.

But now the musing time is over; day sounds break into my reverie, as alarm clocks go off and my other grandchildren begin to shower. Xander yawns, stretches, and says good morning. Together we go down to the kitchen, and I get the school lunches ready—juice boxes, snacks, and sandwiches of meat and cheese. I beat eggs for French toast. At the end of the day will be car pools and soccer games and gymnastics practice. There will be dinner to make, homework to oversee, baths and bedtime routines to honor. I will be too busy to listen to the sounds of breathing, too distracted to attend to the thoughts that bloom only in the intense quiet of the night.

And that is just as well. The breathing goes on, after all, day or night. Sometimes you hear it, sometimes not. Perhaps in the final analysis it’s all the same: the sound of breathing in the night, of breathing in the day, and the breath of something else—YHWH?—sustaining it all.

Jean Sheridan is a writer based in Portland, Maine.
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May / June 2003