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Let the Sighs Begin

Terry Ratner, RN, MFA | Sep 10, 2012, 6 a.m.

You might feel a gradual welling up of pleasure, or boredom, or misery. Whatever the emotion, it’s more abundant than you ever dreamed. You can no more contain it than your hands can cup a river. And so you surrender and suck the air. Your esophagus opens, diaphragm expands. Poised at the crest of an exhalation, your body is about to be unburdened, second by second, cell by cell. A balloon deflates. A kettle hisses. Your shoulders fall while muscles slack — at last.

My grandmother stared out her kitchen window, ashes from her cigarette scattering into the sink. She’d turn her back on the rest of the apartment, a sentry guarding her own solitude. I’d tiptoe across the linoleum and make my snack without making a sound. Sometimes I’d notice her back expand and then hear her let out one plummeting note, a sigh so long and weary it might have been her last. Beyond her condominium, above telephone poles and nearby apartment buildings, rose the brown horizon of the city; across it glided an occasional bird, or the blimp that advertised a brand of tires. She may have been drifting into the distance, lamenting her separation from it. She might have been wishing she was somewhere else, or wishing she could be happy where she was — an aging woman dreaming at her sink.

My father’s sighs were different — more melodic. What began as a somber sigh could abruptly change pitch, turn gusty and loose, and suggest by its very transformation that what begins as sorrow might end in relief. He could let it ricochet like an echo, as if he were shouting in a tunnel or a cave. Where my grandmother sighed from overwhelming sadness, my father sighed at simple things: the softness of a pillow, the taste of the coldness of his drink, or an itch that my mother, following the frantic map of his words, found on his back and scratched.

A friend of mine once commented on my long and ponderous sighs. Once I became aware of this habit, I heard my father’s sighs in my own and knew for a moment his small satisfactions. At other times, I felt my grandmother’s restlessness and wished I could leave my body with my breath, or be happy in the body my breath left behind.

At any given moment, there are thousands of people sighing. Every day, meaningful sighs are expelled from schoolchildren, driving instructors, undercover police, physicians and surgeons, certified public accountants, NASA personnel, astronomers, Olympic coaches and participants — just to name a few.

The sighs of widows and widowers alone must account for a significant portion of the carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere. Their sighs are heavy and it’s almost as if each sigh reinforces their loss, letting them know that yes, indeed, a death did occur. And with each sigh, they are given a glimmer of hope for happiness in the months ahead.

So listen closely when your foot is first submerged in a tub of warm water, or each time you take off a tight-fitting garment, or you bite into a juicy steak after a strenuous day, or when you reach a restroom on a desolate road.

Before I learned about couples in gondolas kissing under a particular bridge, I imagined that the Bridge of Sighs was a feat of invisible engineering, a structure vaulting above the earth, the girders and trusses, the stay ropes and cables, the counterweights and safety rails connecting one human breath to the next — overwhelmed by their thoughts and pleasures.

Terry J. Ratner, RN, MFA is a health educator at Banner Good Samaritan Medical Center. Visit her website at www.terryratner.com. Send comments to info@terryratner.com.

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