Spring 2010 #1
I’m campaigning for a ‘Wall of Fame’ at the Respiratory Clinic; with top billing in recognition of my own truly inspiring lung capacity. Just a few days before last week’s railway excursion into Unknowing, I attended a regular appointment with the Respiratory Physician. Actually, ‘attend’ is too plain a word by far: my quarterly clinic appearance is a tournament event! It’s a contact sport, a competitive opportunity to crack my own P.B. on the spirometry machine. And crack it I did! I’m chasing the Holy Grail of 6 litres lung capacity; and this time I got to 5.85, a significant gain on the last round. It should have been a Glory Day, toasted with Champaign, acclaimed in the sports pages, lauded on local radio. But one small detail of my post-spirometry consultation with the Professor has deeply rattled my equilibrium. In the midst of my triumph I mentioned that I don’t seem to sleep too well any more; and so I’m booked for an overnight ‘sleep study’ in a few weeks. (Though one would have thought the chances of a sound night’s sleep in a hospital bed would be slight in the extreme!) Apparently neurological deterioration in lung function shows up first at night, where the prone breather must battle gravity with each breath. This, it would seem, is what I’ve probably begun to do.
In every breath we take there is a molecule of Oxygen that was exhaled by Napoléon. In that same lungfull of what we euphemistically call ‘fresh air’ there will also almost certainly be molecules that were inhaled by every single person in history that preceded the great Napoléon: Joan of Arc, the whole suite of Caesars, Aristotle, even Christ. I learned this at University, and as I recall it is true because of the volume of the earth’s atmosphere, the theory of probability, and the discoveries of a certain Avogadro*, an Italian Courtier scientist. It’s a rather lovely fact; at one level a curious novelty, at another a resonant reminder of the ephemeral life we share together on this planet. Those who breathed these shared molecules do so no longer; they have had their turn, and ours too shall soon pass by. Perhaps nothing so evocatively captures the essence or the precariousness of life as a single breath. It is, as they say, all that separates us from eternity.
I returned from my Melbourne experience last week with a heavy heart. Usually – and I’ve had ample opportunity to observe this – I recover from recurring bouts of Clinical Non-Diagnosis** after about 48 hours. The sense of bewildered disorientation passes soon enough. But this time, for days on end, I have been unable to laugh much. My best smiles have been vaguely dishonest, and the pressure of tears lurking somewhere behind my eyes has been ever present. It took some direct and helpful questioning from our good GP to draw out the suppressed truth: the Melbourne clinic’s tight-lipped silence wasn’t the issue at all; I just don’t want to run out of breath. With 6 litre lungs and 3 minute breath-holding antics I honestly thought that I had this one in the bag. But it seems not; suddenly I feel like I’m breathing in a bag. Of course, in one way all this is no surprise: there must, after all, be some reason the lung doctor calls me back every 12 weeks. I knew well enough what might lie ahead, but there is a wide gulf between knowledge and experience. When the body tells you plainly what you thought your mind had known, the impact just might take your breath away.
While staying in Melbourne, my wonderful Cousins introduced me to a remarkable piece of music. In Gavin Bryars’ “Jesus Blood Never Failed Me Yet” the feeble, evocative voice of a homeless Londoner sings a few short phrases over, and over, and over; a sound bite that loops continually for more than a full hour. Strings, orchestral harmony, a tolling bell, a choir, a pipe organ and finally a gravelly soloist’s voice all combine with the old man of the streets in a celebration of humanity. The rhythm of the music revolving around and around these simple words is mesmerizingly breath-like, declaring at an all but subconscious level the essence of life, of frailty, of resilience, of faith, and of hope. It’s becoming something of an anthem in our home; and it does us good!
“And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into him the breath of life; and man became a living soul”. The wonder is all that a single breath can hold. Oxygen, health, a fragrant memory, a word of love, a gift of affirmation, inspiration, exhaltation, hope, the moment, life itself!
*Lorenzo Romano Amedeo Carlo Bernadette Avogadro di Quaregna e Cerreto !! (1776 – 1856).
** Clinical Non-Diagnosis has now become the primary symptom of my non-condition. A typical attack starts with the sudden onset of a clinic visit, followed by some poking and prodding. Soon enough a little professional brow-furrowing will develop, and ultimately the episode becomes full blown failure to diagnose!