The Air That I Breathe

Jocelyn Pihlaja essays

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In the last weeks of his life, I would talk to my dad on the phone every day.

He was in Montana. I was in Minnesota. It was January, and at the same time his heart and lungs were deteriorating, my body was helping those organs grow inside the baby I’d been carrying for more than 40 weeks. Utterly, I was in The Middle Place, sandwiched between start and end of life’s cycle.

Because I was so heavily pregnant during his final decline, my dad and I didn’t have a face-to-face goodbye. I would talk to him on the phone, with him in the hospital and me laboring to breathe as I sat on the couch in our tiny house.

He was decency incarnate, my dad, and I looked forward to our conversations on the phone. Although a quiet Finn by nature, he was an astute observer, listener, and question asker–skills that found particular life over the telephone. We discussed his health, but also my teaching, his grandkids, life’s vagaries. Eventually, after the traumatic delivery of my son, when Dad realized we were struggling to cope at home, he asked a charming question that revealed his rancher roots: “Can I send you a check so you can hire a girl to come in?”

He was a love, yet his body was done. For decades, he’d lived with chronic bronchitis, asthma, diabetes, allergies, a heart attack. By the age of 67, his lungs and heart were exhausted.

We would talk on the phone each day, and he would tell me—his breathing more labored than mine—how much he loved seeing photos of his new, his ONLY, grandson; how much he loved seeing pictures of my daughter cradling the new baby; how much he couldn’t wait to hug them both. When he spoke, it was as though my opera singer father was engaging in a kind of overtone throat singing. There was his voice, but there was also a simultaneous rasp of air, a thick hitch in his breathing, with every word. The sound was distinctive and ran, literally, as the underlying accompaniment to our conversations.

Then one day, after a few close calls, one involving emergency intubation, he rolled over, exhaled, and died.

At that moment, with the c-section incision still raw, I lay in our tiny house, nursing. My sister, who had used up most of her vacation days caring for Dad, was asleep in her home 10 hours away from him. In the military, my brother was in transit from his post in Japan, about to land in Detroit before getting on the plane that would take him to Montana to see his father one last time.

The finest of men, the best of fathers, my dad had been loved.

Yet when he rolled over, exhaled, and died, he was alone.

He died alone.

There is a saddest story in my life, and it is that my dad died alone.


There is a happiest story in my life, too, and it is that my dad and I shared a birthday. Every year, come March 25th, we had Our Day. We would blow out our candles together, making jokes about how my mom hadn’t known what to give him the year he turned 32, so she gave him me. Now, even in his absence, March 25th remains Our Day.

A few years ago, for the first time in my recollection, I was sick on my birthday, bed-bound with a virus. There was a fever, then painful lungs, a rattling cough, a vise-like headache, a draining nose, but most of all, a complete lack of energy.

I spent Friday, March 22nd, in bed.

I spent Saturday, March 23rd, in bed.

I spent Sunday, March 24th, in bed.

On Monday, March 25th, my eyes flew open at dawn. Although I had been sleeping sitting up, propped by pillows, breathing was still work. In fact, it was the sound of my wretched breathing that had awakened me.

The sound that pulled me to consciousness was like an overtone throat-singing noise–a rasp, a hitch. I woke up with one thought: “DAD. That sounded like Dad. That was Dad.”

Thusly, we started Our Day together.

Inside me, forever with me, the very breath I exhale, there is my dad.


About the Author

Jocelyn Pihlaja

Jocelyn has been teaching writing at the college level since 1991. She has a husband who cooks dinner every night, kids who hold up hands requesting "silence" when their reading is interrupted, and a blog, .

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