It was not a loud noise, but I could hear it from across the room.
I had trained myself to listen for it.
The sound of air being slowly pulled in through the nose and held deep in the lungs.
Sometimes so very slowly it would have been noticed by no one else, sometimes held for just seconds and other times it was held for what seemed a lifetime. And then the sound of the air slowly being released.
I heard this sound for years. I remember once wondering if she had always done this or if it was something that had developed over the years after her journey of motherhood began.
Sometimes I would hear it just before she released on me her fury of words over something stupid I had done.
Sometimes times I would hear it as she sat down for dinner to listen to our unending stories of school, friends, and activities. To our complaints about the food we were expected to eat and the homework we were expected to do.
Sometimes it was at the grocery store as she slowly wrote the check for the groceries when we were struggling to make ends meet.
Sometimes it come from the front seat as we made the long journey to Tennessee to visit my grandparents. In back we sat complaining about the length of the ride, the cramped accommodations, the lack of stops, and the brother who wasn’t touching me but whose finger was held steadily just millimeters from my nose. My dad in the front seat slowly losing his temper all while she wondered if we truly had enough money to make the trip and would the car last.
I remember laying on the hospital bed once about age six, heading in for some tests.
Routine they said, no big deal, but as they wheeled me away and she handed me a stuffed lamb for comfort I clearly recall her taking in that breath, holding it deep within her. I don’t remember hearing the release but I imagine it happened just moments after I passed through the double doors or maybe she held it until she was back at my side.
When at seventeen I sat across from her in tears explaining how I had driven her car into a mailbox on a road I shouldn’t have been on, she said nothing but I heard the breath.
One afternoon as we sat in the living room of our home I recall the deep breath and slow release that came right before the announcement.
She and Dad had decided they could no longer be together.
Their marriage was ending and our lives would be forever changed.
Months later as we sat across from each other sharing lunch my trained ear heard as the deep breath came again. I prepared myself, I knew this sound was never without consequence and this time was no different. This time she told me she was remarried,
moving to Germany and my younger siblings would be going with her. Now I took my own deep breath, maybe the first, I can’t be sure.
For years I associated this sound with her preparation to deal with us, her children,
the five of us, our many demands, our many needs.
But then I stood beside her one afternoon, I heard her take in the slow deep breath.
I looked at her, elegant yet exhausted, dressed all in black, she held that breath for what seemed like an eternity, and then I heard the slow steady release and at that moment I realized it had nothing to do with us
and never did.
It had everything to do with her.
She was drawing in her strength, to bear the world for us.
She was taking a moment.
How will she handle this,
how will she sustain the life she has built,
how will she protect those she loves?
As she stood in front of the crowd with four children at her side,
behind her a memorial to the Marine,
the young man, the son,
one of her babies
……..how many words of sympathy can she handle, how many hugs can she accept, how many times can people say they were grateful for her sacrifice ……..How many before she breaks? A deep breath.
And now as I take my own slow deep breaths I hope my children know,
“it’s not about you, but about me
how strong can I be.”
And if my mother is any indication, I can bear the world on my shoulders if it means you won’t have to.