Holding Breath

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An excerpt from Holding Breath: A Memoir of AIDS’ Wildfire Days
by Nancy Bevilaqua

In his last few weeks, David rarely lay down anymore. At night, he would sit up for hours, staring at the wall, or at the floor, often with that strange little smile on his lips, as if he was being told some wonderful secret. Sometimes I’d try to pull him down, because it worried me that he wasn’t sleeping. Sometimes he’d resist. Other times he would lie down, but his legs wouldn’t straighten out.

He spoke very little, and when he did, the words would come out unexpectedly, quietly, slowly, as if they’d been inside of him for a long time and were just coming to the surface.

He had two homecare attendants, one during the day, and one at night. Sometimes I’d sleep with David with the attendant present; it may have seemed strange but I was well past caring about how anything seemed.

Other nights I’d send the attendant home, and take care of David myself. There’s one night in particular that was like a tunnel of dreams, a kind of final journey. I’d gone out to Delancey to buy some sheets for the hospital bed. When I got back to the apartment I sent the homecare attendant home, and I had a sip of David’s methadone (which the VA had sent home with him but which he hadn’t been drinking) so that I could sleep. That night, for some reason, we slept in the hospital bed, or, I should say, I slept. David sat up for most of the night, looking at the floor.

At some point during the night, David said, “I need.” He stopped there.

“What do you need?” I asked him.

It took him a few moments to form the words. “I need someone to hold my breath for me.”

I think I understood what he meant, but I don’t remember how I answered. Maybe I told him that I would. Maybe that’s what I’m trying to do now, as I write.

This is the poem that I wrote about that night:

Holding Breath

April dusk drained, while I was out,
into your mouth, the black
collapsing cave, your glottis ticking off
last swallows of the day. You watched tides
receding, patterns on the rug
recounting dreams, frail fingers
fingering cold fences
that held you in your bed.

Coming in with sheets
and pillows from Delancey, I smelled your skin
beleaguered, tasting itself, falling
away, the smell of fruit
rotting in a bowl, unnaturally sweet.
The nurse dismissed, I prematurely lit the room
with candles against night.

Then night began, a shadow
lapping in the shallow moments. Rats
and pigeons rustled, pestilent,
trapped in walls; open windows lifted tongues,
sending quiet cadenced prayers
to infiltrate God’s monotone. Your eyes,
slow fish, slid in wide ellipses
while I prepared us for the caterpillar ride
to dawn. By nine I lay
against your back between the rails, your muteness
sharp against murmurs from the street,
against the muffled rush of breeze
through pale fingers of new leaves. Hooded figures
flickered and bowed
in gestures of atonement on the walls.

There was nothing to do
but wait. I lay you down. Sometime that night
your whisper broke
an interval of sleep. I need,
you said. I waited while
you shook it from inside your head.
I need someone
to hold my breath for me.

That night
I never slept again,
imagining you driving on some prairie road,
your arm dancing in the wind outside the window
with the rhythm of a country song.
I warmed your back curved hard
against sleep, passing the hours preparing
for the time that we had left.

Nancy Bevilaqua was born in New York City. After studying English Literature and Creative Writing at Reed College and New York University, she worked for ten years as a caseworker and counselor for people with AIDS, the homeless, and people in drug treatment programs. Her articles, essays, and photography have appeared in National Geographic Traveler, Coastal Living, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, among others. Her book, Holding Breath: A Memoir of AIDS’ Wildfire Days, is available in Kindle and print editions at www.amazon.com.

Read the article in the March 2013 on our site by clicking here or off-site by clicking here.