“Just breathe,” I say to Darcy, my six-year-old daughter. “Look in my eyes and just breathe.”
She’s taken a fall on the sidewalk, running in the ill-advised flip flops I told her to trade in for more sensible shoes. “I told you so,” however, holds little satisfaction from a parent with a six-year-old. In young minds there is only action and reaction, cause and some slight misunderstanding of causality.
Once Darcy sees blood, her eyes widen and fear sets in and I understand. I’m intimately acquainted with fear. Fear of the unknown. Fear from seeing a wound seeping blood. Fear. I understand.
“Just breathe,” I tell her again and, trusting blindly, she tries. Her breath slows in increments but still comes in a quick and thready rhythm. Tears begin to well and threaten to spill over in her large and deep brown eyes.
“Just breathe and look at me,” I tell her and realize the duplicity of my words. I’ve heard them many times from well-meaning parents and therapists and friends. “Just breathe, Richard. Just focus on your breath.” Such a simple thing. If only it were that easy.
“What’s that sound?” Darcy asks after I’ve tended to her wounds, both real and imaginary. We’re in bed and I’ve tried to fluff the pillows “the way mama does,” but I can never get it right. Darcy always huffs and ends up doing it herself. I ask her what she hears. She says that it sound like laughing. He He He. He He He, and I chuckle because I’ve become accustomed to the din of the cicadas in summer.
Darcy asks if they’re bugs and I reply that I suppose they are but that they don’t bite or sting. The answer seems to satisfy her and my daughter closes her eyes and pops her thumb in her mouth and begins to fall to sleep. The cicadas chirp and din and I think about how they spend years underground before surfacing, briefly, to mate and then bury themselves in the earth for five years, or seven years, or thirteen years. I’m not sure. I make a note to find out, knowing that I won’t. It seems like such a meager existence, living in the dirt for the bulk of a life.
“I don’t like it,” Darcy mutters, although whether it’s the cicadas or her wound or something else I can’t ascertain. I used to find the ebb and flow of their scree terrifying as a boy. I worried that the white noise would never wane and ratchet upwards in amplitude and volume until I was overtaken by the sound. Now, for some reason, I find it soothing. I suppose that it’s a measure of how damaged I’ve become or how accustomed I’ve become with my damage.
“Just breathe and it will pass,” I tell Darcy, a small lie because I know that whatever it may be will pass, although perhaps, not as soon as she’d like.
“Breathe.” I whisper and think about the act of it once Darcy finally finds sleep. It’s such a simple thing. Something performed without thought every few seconds for minutes and hours and days and weeks and years for a life until it isn’t.
Breathe. I repeat the word to myself. I repeat it over and over until it has no meaning as I attempt to slow my breath. My hands clench and sweat, I crack my knuckles and try to settle shoulders that have hunched up around my ears. The cicadas cycle faster.
I roll my shoulders and listen to the sockets pop. I tell myself to breathe but the synapses have already fired. My heart races and pounds and then cycles faster. The part of me that is me, the part that matters, is slightly offset from the rest of who I am by six inches, maybe more. My vision collapses into pinpoints. The word “psychosomatic” clangs around a hollowed out skull that understands little more than knowing and belief are two different things.
I know this will pass, but I do not believe it. No matter how often it happens, I believe that by the time it will be over, if it will ever be over, I will be nothing but a husk.
Adrenaline red lines. I begin to pace and count my steps around the room. One. Two. Three. Four. I lose count and forget where I am, my brain flooded in chemicals I can’t pronounce or even begin to understand. I turn around again and begin counting. I can control this. I can. I breathe. I can. I lie and try to believe the lie.
Whatever is left of me wants to shriek against the onslaught of fight or flight but it doesn’t or can’t or won’t. Even in panic there are proprieties, there is pride to consider. An internal wave of something cold and solid rushes over me and leaves nothing much of worth in its wake.
I hear myself counting from somewhere very far away. One. Two. Three. Four.
My pulse settles. I lay down in bed and wait for the specter of depression to rise like a slow and subtle tide. It passes over me and dulls my arms and legs before rendering my stupid. I give the end of me a thought in the same way I consider parachuting or hang-gliding or learning to speak Aramaic. It is a thought, an option, an indicator. Nothing more or less.
When I was fourteen, I spent two hours in a bathtub with a razor blade. My siblings and father and stepmother were asleep. I let the warm water and my thoughts about my end wash over me until both became tepid. Death, I decided, was not in me, and as I crawled back out of the tub and dried myself off I knew that the only possibility more terrifying than living was my own end.
I’ve learned since that I was, most likely, predisposed to depression and anxiety and that there were environmental triggers to exacerbate my condition. Weed and booze, a penchant for narcotics. I think it was a dose of acid that finally fucked me up.
I spent hours on the threshold, battling for what was left of me as events unfolded underwater and in stop gap motion. Blink. Where am I? Tripping man, keep calm. Blink. Stay away from mirrors. Don’t move. Get outside. Blink. Where am I? Tripping man, just breathe. Stay calm. Stay. Calm. STAY. CALM. JUST STAY FUCKING CALM YOU PUSSY AND DON’T FORGET TO BREATHE. Blink. Repeat. Blink. Repeat. Then there was nothing. My mind became unmoored and finally returned like a fleet of ships regrouping after being scattered from the storm.
“Dada?” Darcy asks and comes to a groggy wakefulness. “My arm still hurts,” she says around the thumb she’s planted firmly in her mouth.
“Just breathe,” I tell her. “Just breathe and close your eyes and go back to sleep. Daddy is here. Daddy will always be here,” I tell my daughter another lie.
Fathers are supposed to be infallible even though we’re not. I can’t know for certain that her arm will feel better, but I suspect that it might. I know that I will not always be there for Darcy, but that’s a hard truth to realize whether one is six years old or forty-one and I want, I need, Darcy to have her time of innocence.
The thrum of the cicadas wanes but a few latecomers keep up the call. I let the sound take me back to a time when I was a boy just a few years older than Darcy and my home in a place that wasn’t quite the city or the country. Unbidden I recall a cicada husk, translucent and cracked down the middle, hugging the side of a small apple tree. I prodded it gently, causing it fall back to the earth, and stared at it for a few moments before moving on.
“Just breathe,” I whisper as Darcy starts in her sleep and threatens to fidget back to consciousness.
“Just breathe,” I whisper. I’m not sure to whom.