I knew it when I opened my bedroom door that morning.

The air was thick.  Like inhaling anger.

I tied my robe a bit tighter at the waist, and went to the kitchen.

My brother cast me a look from the table.  He’s still here, it said.

But my appointment’s today.  Is it still on?

I heard the scratch of a lighter being flicked in the living room, hours after he should have left for work.  I snuck into their bedroom.


My eyes adjusted to the dark, and I saw her in her Migraine Pose.  Washcloth on forehead, meds on nightstand.

“Please.”  I begged.  I can’t lose this appointment.

“He’s taking you.  You’re going.”

Nothing more to say, since she can’t see me.  Can’t open her eyes to have one of our silent conversations about what she won’t admit and I can’t discuss aloud.

“Feel better”, I whisper.

I slip into my room next door and pull on clothes, brush my hair.  Hoping for answers.  Dreading what I have to deal with on the route to get them.

I hear my brother say goodbye, the rustle of his school bag, not letting the screen door slam, not when he’s home.

I let him know I’m ready when he is, and sit, eyeing the clock.

A few minutes later he wafts near to grab his keys.  “Come on.”

We pile into the car, the peppiness of the 1950’s dancing with optimism out of the stereo speakers, filling the air between us.

I roll down my window, despite the season.  He lights another, ignores my wheezing.

We get to the hospital, are directed to Pulmonology/Respiratory Services.  Clean cool air washes into me, calms me.  The secretary’s nose crinkles when he’s close to her, but she catches herself, breathes through her mouth, like me.

We sit in silence again, waiting for me to get called in.  I feel his heat next to me.  Know where he’s going once I’m with the Pediatric nurse.   He taps his yellowed square fingertips on worn corduroys.

They call me in, a kind nurse placing a hand on my shoulder.  My first touch of the day.

He disappears while I’m sent for chest x-rays, returning with a fog to watch me huff into a Spirometer.  They measure, listen, prod, image and ask me questions.   They throw a few his way, and act pleased with his frankness.  At least it helps the diagnosis.

We are led to a small room for the results, the head Pulmonologist clutching a clipboard fat with results.

“Your daughter has asthma”, he says.

The clean white coat, softly graying hair and evenness of tone didn’t quite blind me to the doctor’s frustrations.  As professionally as possible, this specialist pointed the finger.  It was my father’s fault my lungs didn’t work right.  Still just a kid, I already inhaled enough to be considered a heavy smoker in my own right.

Daily medications had to be taken so I could breathe.  I had to carry a rescue inhaler with me always.  If I got sick, I had to measure my breath on a Peak Flow Meter.  If I fell below the marked line, I had to get to a hospital.

A red rage spun up from my feet screaming I knew it! as a blue calm swirled down from my ears and said I got my answer, I’ll be okay.

The doctor insisted on a home full of air purifiers.  I almost laughed at the idea.  Something being bought to help me?  An expense for me?  Yeah right.

I thanked the kind doctor and met his worried eyes.  I tried to let him know without words that he did so much for me.  That I’ll be ok.

The nurse came in to hand me my medications.  “We put the paperwork through for you. Refills will be mailed to your home.”

We left, me gripping the white paper bag in little girl hands.

He lit up in the car on the way home, radio blasting.

I followed him into the house, sent a “thank you” his way before going into my room and closing the door.  I changed out of my smoky sweater.

I sat on the bed, shaking out my inhalers, my Peak Flow Meter onto the old, faded bedspread with one thought in my head:

I win.

Air Supply

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

This post was written for The Red Dress Club Memoir writing prompt .

The prompt went like this:

I think we’ve been too nice to you.
It’s time for another image prompt.
Write about the first (or second) memory that comes to mind when you see this:

(hover curser over image for source link)

I always had trouble breathing.  Always.  I had even more trouble breathing when people would smoke near me.  It was the early 1980’s and not everyone got the message yet, but I knew one had to do with the other.  Just knew.

My father smoked generic Kool cigarettes with the filters broken off since he was about 12 years old.  It took its toll on both of us.

That day I had an appointment I somehow talked my mom into making.  I had to miss school for it, I don’t even think my father knew about it.  When she got her migraine and got him to take me anyway (he normally was at work by 5am, she was a SAHM), I was floored.

But I got my diagnosis, my medications.  I was right all along, and I got the medical help I needed.  I was just a little kid trying to get the adults around me to help me breathe right.  On that surreal day, despite the odds, it happened.

I even got that air purifier for my bedroom…eventually.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

If you are new to Let Me Start By Saying…welcome!  I have some more short memoir posts here.  Or check out the About Kim page to learn more about me.  For some funny, check out my Favorite Posts page.  Thanks for visiting!

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

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About Kim Bongiorno of Let Me Start By Saying

I'm the author, freelance writer, public speaker, and award-winning blogger behind Let Me Start By Saying.
This entry was posted in Health & Cancer, Me & My Time, Red Dress Club Writing Prompts, Writing and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

35 Responses to Exhale

  1. JD says:

    Oh, Kim. This is heartbreakingly beautiful. And I am so sorry this is a memory of yours. I know you’re not looking for pity. I just want to say that I’m sorry you went through moments like these.

    I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: You are an amazing writer. And I can’t wait to read your book someday.

    • Thank you so much for feeling that way about young me. I just knew smoking had something to do with the problem, and though I couldn’t change my environment, just knowing I was RIGHT made me feel like I won that battle.

      My lungs may never work perfectly, but at least I learned something I can share.

      I promise to finish the book before we are too old to be able to read it. Just for you!

  2. momfog says:

    Love it. I’m currently trying to stop smoking and it’s a struggle. Reading stories like these help make it a little easier. Thank you for that.

    • I totally understand why people start smoking and why it is so hard to stop (I don’t even hold it against people who smoke, I just pray they do quit). But being a child of a smoker is worse than all that. You see your parent doing something every day that is, truly, killing them and chipping away at you. It is hard not to be mad about it.

      My father eventually quit, but after 50+ years of smoking the damage was irreparable. I understand all those ads on tv that show the more grotesque effects of smoking, because I wanted to drag all my loved ones who I know still smoke (though never near me, which I appreciate) into the hospital to see my father on machines, slowing fading away because of this.

      Please don’t let this happen to you. You are clearly loved and have a talent we all need you around to keep sharing.
      *off my soapbox now*

  3. Bluebird says:

    Did “he” quit smoking around you? Did your mom stand up for you? Is he still with us? It sounds like maybe not if he was a multiple pack a day smoker.

    Thanks for your post. I really felt for you and your situation. You kept me captivated throughout wondering what was going to happen.

    I guess I’m always looking for the happy ending, I hope you got yours 🙂

    • He didn’t stop smoking around me, but I began using my official diagnosis as a valid reason for excusing myself from his presence whenever he lit up. He eventually quit (much later), but it was too late. Both of us were damaged by it too much by then. My mom was very passive back then, which is why I was so shocked that the appt was still on. She distracted him when I got up to leave each time he’d light up. I also never sat behind him in the car, I got the other side with the window wide open.

      He died a little over a year ago. The smoking helped do him in, making for a very slow, horrible death. He was on life support for I think 10 months then decided to turn it off.

      My father had 3 kinds of cancer, and once he died my mom was diagnosed with another. Was his smoking a factor? No one knows for sure. But smoking and cancer are topics that are woven here into this blog because they have bookended my life so far.

      I can breathe now, and I have enough respect for & from the people around me that those who do smoke know never to do it near me, and take no offense when I privately ask them to please quit. They get it. I don’t harp on people about it. But if you know my story, you know I earnestly want everyone to stop smoking.

      I guess I do have the happy ending you want. Thank you for hoping for that for me!

  4. I, too, wondered if he quit. What a hideous insight–to know that people are willingly poisoning you and that you can do so little about it. Beautifully written.

    • He quit a long, long time after that. (see more in my reply above)

      Thank you as always for the compliment. It is pretty crazy knowing that my own parent knew he was making it difficult for me to actually breathe, and didn’t change his behavior.

  5. Roxanne says:

    This may have made me tear up just a little bit for little you. I’m glad you felt like you’d won by getting that diagnosis, but so disappointed in a parent who couldn’t see what he did to his child.

  6. The piece is packed with so much. The tension between your parents, the neglect of your father and mother to a certain degree, a home of walking on egg shells and unintentional yet very real damage. I thought that it was so interesting that the only adult care, physical and emotional, you actually got in this piece were from adults who though they didn’t know you, saw the same things that you did. It’s amazing how one adult validation can carry you so far in a difficult childhood.

    • I’m so glad you saw all this.
      I really think that people don’t stop and really SEE what is going on around them. I love the tv show House because his motto is “everybody lies”, so his team relies on what is not said, what they see with their own eyes, to understand the big picture better. If more people did this – rely on what they pay attention and watch rather than what others tell them – I think we’d all understand each other a lot more.

      I had many adults like that in my life, which was a gift.

  7. NatureGirl says:

    I should know better. I should know to grab the tissues BEFORE I start reading! I should know that the tightness in my chest as I read your memoir will eventually be relieved, even if only by the passage of time. I should know that I am going to be amazed by the way you so effortlessly bring each of us into your story…oh wait…I know that!

  8. Victoria KP says:

    Wow. That was powerful stuff. More impressive that it was done without an ounce of self pity. Bravo!

    • Thank you! You should know I’m not really a ‘woe is me’ kinda girl. Even when I was little. I’m glad it didn’t sound like I was looking for pity (which I didn’t even think of til reading your comment).

  9. Frume Sarah says:

    I kept hoping for a sign that “he” was someone other than your parents. It saddens me that he was blind to the damage he was causing you. Your inner strength has clearly been a part of you since you were young.

    This post is beautiful in its painful honesty.

  10. Told in such a real way. Thank you for straight up honesty. I felt so for you and relate because my dad had lung cancer also. I am so sorry you were made to feel so unimportant.

  11. “The air was thick. Like inhaling anger.”
    Not having asthma, I can’t say that I understand, but I think this gives me that little bit of insight into just how painful each breath was…

    This is so beautiful in it’s brutal honesty. I’m so glad you won.

  12. SoberJulie says:

    Very well written, I felt your little girl emotions and could understand the tension in the house. The walking on egg shells and the waiting. I fully understand it. I’m sorry that your father was obviously an ill person when you were young….nobody would choose to hurt another without being ill in some way. I’m glad that you’re opening the window to this perspective, it’s important that we understand it.

    • I must admit I’m a little surprised that so far I didn’t see more people with this perspective on this writing prompt. I know I’m not the only one!
      Thanks for letting me know you get what I was saying.

  13. MamaRobinJ says:

    Great recall of that story. How awful for you. Love that you ended it with power.

  14. Cookie's Mom says:

    That was so tragically beautiful. I’m only sorry that it actually happened to you. I’m always amazed by the strength and resilience of children. I hope that you carry this strength with you still. Thank-you for sharing your story. It brought back some memories for me as well.

  15. Anastasia says:

    Wow, that brings back so many memories of my dad. I love how you describe him, you don’t use many words but I can see him standing there, next to my dad I guess.

  16. Terry says:

    You captured so much here with your word choices, the images and lettting us inside your little girl mind. I see so many of my students take on this kind of role….amazing what a kid can do and will do, and survive it all. Then they grow up with this extra special something surrounding them. I see it and feel that in you. That was done through your gifted writing.

  17. Katie says:

    This breaks my heart. You captured so well the feeling behind your memory. I think I was most struck by your maturity in the face of all that you had to go through. From this, you seemed to have just kind of taken it in stride in such an adult way. I think that’s really what got to me most. Thinking about your young lungs having to endure all that smoke, thinking about your young heart…

    The image of your mom in “migraine pose” is one I’ve seen many times before. I watched my mom suffer throughout my childhood, and now, I suffer myself with them. They are vicious. They steal entire days.

    Beautifully written, as always. Thanks so much for linking this up. It was a really amazing piece.

    • I could be very practical, even at that age, when it came to stuff like this. I never really got worked up about things until I was older.

      I get migraines, too. Have since I was a kid. Ugh, they SUCK.

      Thank you for taking the time to really respond to this.

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