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Breathing: A reflection on living with asthma

In an excerpt from a piece that originally appeared in Months to Years, writer Dawn Newton looks back on a childhood with severe asthma.

We played cards sometimes, my mother and I, during my childhood asthma attacks in the middle of the night. I would creep past the bathroom door and to my parents' bedroom door. Mom, I would whisper. Mom.

That's all I needed to say. She came to the living room, where I waited for her, and stayed up the rest of the night to watch me breathe.

Watching me breathe meant making decisions about whether to call the doctor in the middle of the night or take me into his office in the morning.

Sometimes I put my hands on my head, fingers clasped together because latching them and pressing down on my head created more energy to suck in the next breath. As I grew older, I avoided placing my hands on my head, afraid to tip my mother off about how bad the attack was.

For a long and harrowing attack, she woke my father to drive me out into the night air, which we thought helped with the breathing. We meandered through the neighborhoods bordering the hospitals, looping repeatedly down certain streets, our leisurely pace a sham, because really, he remained close to those hospital entrances in case my breathing worsened, propelling us both into the light and warmth of the busy Emergency Departments.

Sometimes watching me meant making honey, lemon and whiskey toddies, or, if we had no whiskey, just honey and lemon, so the hot liquid could break up the phlegm in my chest. But often, as I sipped on my honey and lemon, my mother rubbed my back and shoulders, which were always hunched down with the effort of breathing. Or pounded between my shoulder blades, another strategy to break up the phlegm.

If the breathing became easier, either on its own or because I'd had some of the medicine stockpiled in our cupboard, and the rattling and wheezing diminished, my mother would pull out the cards. She still needed to watch my progress; neither one of us could rest yet. We would play two-handed Euchre. Or double solitaire.

I don't know how my mother's level of anxiety fluctuated when she watched me breathe through the night, but she never smoked in the house during my asthma attacks. For intense attacks, after waking my father, she might take a break from watching me and go into the backyard with a cigarette to look at the sky. She never fretted in front of me. She remained calm and positive.

During my senior year of high school, after a stressful week of classes, a swine flu shot, and a complicated AP chemistry experiment, I suffered an asthma attack, the worst I'd had in years. My pediatrician instructed the hospital to admit me straight to a floor. Some bureaucratic glitch delayed the delivery of one of those injections I needed to open my airways and help me breathe. My mother, summoned from work, told me to keep going, just a bit longer. Later, I told her, "I think you kept me alive." She told me that she'd never been so worried. She'd thought for sure I was dying.

Years later, when she died, her own breathing remained silent until near the end. Small puffs of sound emerged from her lips, like the snore puffs she'd made on those nights I'd returned from college for a visit and lay awake with the hums and creaks of my childhood home. In the hospital, as she lay dying, her brain stem already dead, I couldn't encourage her as she exhaled her last puffs. I just listened.

"Living is about the breathing," I might have said to my mother on one of those nights I clambered through an attack. We both knew that. But sometimes it helped to hear things aloud.

This piece, originally in longer form, is part of an ongoing collaboration with Months to Years, a nonprofit quarterly publication that showcases nonfiction, poetry and art exploring mortality and terminal illness.

Dawn Newton, a writer in East Lansing, Michigan, was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer in November 2012 and has lived with asthma all her life. Her memoir, Winded: A Memoir in Four Stages, will be published in October by Apprentice House Press at Loyola University Maryland. Her blog is at

Photo by Alfonso Cerezo 

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