As giant fluffy flakes of snow powdered New England this morning, 200 some teachers sat in a high school auditorium listening to an expert on child anger and bullying. Despite being distracted by the prospect of driving home in two feet of snow, I listened to this man as intently as I could. He said a lot, but it was really a single question and the one word answer that stuck with me.
This man described bullies and victims of bullying and angry children. I have many memories of Eric's experiences with teasing and staring and harassment, and I knew the anger that he felt at times as a result of the more pervasive and perpetual bullying. This man described the brain activity of an angry person, which is so similar to someone with impaired executive functions and he explained that anger and fear result in the intense activation of the frontal lobe. Then he asked, "Do you know what is the best antidote for this intense activation?" The answer: Oxygen. There it was, in that one word... that gestalt, that instant moment of getting it. It's breathing, not medicine, that makes it better. Breathing IS the medicine.
Strangely, this reminded me of an experience I had once with a crossword puzzle on an airplane. I was a young mother, and my first experiences of mothering involved being intently vigilant about my son's breathing. I know lots of us are awestruck by the fact that these tiny little creatures actually know what to do, and will continue breathing (and eating and sleeping) even if we aren't standing over them watching them, but my situation was different. My son was born with a benign tumor that pushed on his airway, and for 7 weeks, until he got a tracheostomy, breathing was NOT a given for him. And even after he got his trach, I was guarding his airway every moment of every day. I knew what every one of his different breathing sounds meant, and because the trach tube blocked any air from passing over his vocal chords, the only way he could tell me anything was by the noises that came out of his trach. His breathing sounds were our language.
I was flying out to Indianapolis for a job interview when he was just under a year old, and I found myself alone for the first time. I tried to relax with a crossword puzzle. I had an empty unsettled feeling from the moment I left him in my husband's arms, and now on the plane I was trying to fill the void with a puzzle. I zipped over clues and filled in boxes as fast as I could - my usual strategy - until I came to these two words: breathing sounds. It was as though the light went on and an answer just flew onto my brainscreen. My life for the last 11 months had been completely, totally, intensely focused on breathing sounds. I guess I had known this in some unspoken way, somewhere in my body, but the crossword puzzle clue became a clue for learning about my own life. The importance of the breath - my breath, and other people's breath , the singular power of the breath, became clear to me from reading the clue for 21 down.
I hate that people stare at Eric. I hate that when we walk into a room, he is received in a way that most people are not. I have been enraged at the mall, or on a ski lift, or in a restaurant because of people's behavior. But remarkably, he is not. He IS an inspiration. He holds his head up and ignores the pimply teenagers at the mall, and he chats up the preppy blond haired blue eyed perfect people on the ski lift, and he smiles at the rubber-neckers in the restaurant until he has disarmed them all, and me, and then I am breathing again. Just take a breath. And then another, and another. So simple, and yet so hard to remember. I never knew that oxygen was the antidote, chemically, for these mysterious reactions in my frontal lobe. But I think Eric has known all along. I do know this: if I keep listening to his breathing sounds, the inspirations will keep on coming.