Remembering to breathe

Can we just stop? Can we take a breath? A deep inhale, through our nostrils, taking in as much air as we can, into the back of our throat, pulling it down into our gut, farther down still, all the way down.

Can we clear a space for it just below our navel – in our solar plexus where we first were nourished – can we hold our breath there? Hold all the air we can take in.

Can we hold it in still, until all we have left is to exhale.

Now, again. And again.

When my kids are lost in sobs, I make them breathe with me like this. Loud, gulping, diaphragm-filling breaths that we hold until we can hold it no more.

“Breathe in, all the way in, now hold it,” I tell them, their hands in mine, “Keep holding it…now look at me.”

And then we exhale together and start over.

“Close your eyes,” I say, “And think of the best day you ever had. Where are you? Are you with your friends? Am I there? Is dad there? Is it warm? Are you laughing?” I ask one question after another – leading them to a place where they can relax.

“Try to melt into the memory.” My daughter, my oldest, gets it. My seven year asks how to melt. Sometimes he asks what I see.

Today, I see myself in a large airy room with dark, hardwood floors. The far wall has windows taller than me, filled with light so bright it makes you squint. Below the windows is the St. Charles River. This memory is from two years ago. I am in Boston in August.

My cousin Molly is marrying the love of her life. A woman she met in New Orleans. Her name is MK. They are both sharply dressed in custom-made silk shirts. They have asked me to officiate their wedding. My daughter is with me. We are both wearing navy-colored dresses. My daughter is a social butterfly, floating from one family member to another, striking a pose every time someone raises their phone to take a photo.

My cousin and her soon-to-be-wife are happy, and anxious. It is maybe – probably – the biggest day of their life so far. I am happy, too. And proud. And nervous.

This is the first wedding I have ever officiated. The dress I am wearing doesn’t have pockets and the stack of index cards with everything I want to say is bent nearly into a perfect circle from being held so tightly in the palm of my hand. With an hour still to go before the ceremony’s start, the cards are becoming damp, my palms sweaty from the Boston heat.

I don’t want to use them, but am afraid I will forget all the things I want to say to Molly and MK. How much I love them. How marriage is sacred and how honored I am to be here at the start of theirs.

We are on the second floor of the Weld Boat House, the home of the Harvard women’s rowing team. It is sunny and warm even in air-conditioned rooms. The wedding guests are all in good moods as they make their way up the stairs. This place, the boat house with the women’s rowing equipment and the wooden staircase. Boston. The St. Charles River. Harvard – it all feels historic, the perfect pitch for this wedding – our family’s first same-sex marriage.

“Smile!”  says my aunt taking a picture of me and my uncle with an actual camera.

As the space fills with more people, the room echoes with laughter – people are hugging, taking selfies. When the ceremony starts there is standing-room only in back. I am beside the brides, my index cards in my hand. The cards are so bent, I can barely read what I scribbled on them the night before.

I turn to Molly and MK, “Are you ready?”

I look at the audience and see the front rows filled with family. I see Molly’s mom, her brothers. I see her dad, smiling.  Molly and MK’s friends take up the seats behind our family.

I see so much love in the room. My heart begins pounding against the inside of my chest, as if it’s clapping, cheering. I take a breath and remember that I want to hold this feeling, not just for me, but for them, for our entire family.

This is what love feels like I think to myself. I smile big at my daughter who is sitting front and center, and then turn back to Molly and MK. I thank them for letting me be part of this day, and I thank them for their courage.

Massachusetts was the first state to legalize same sex marriage in 2003. Few of us can imagine it at Molly and MK’s wedding, but less than a year later the United States Supreme Court will make it legal in every state.

I think about the struggle, the hate, the violence so many faced to have the right to marry their loved one. And then, like someone flipping the on-switch in our Nation’s capital, it was so.

I Google voting rights act and find out it wasn’t passed until 1965. Less than 50 years later we would elect our first African American President. Twice. As a nation, we voted a black man into the highest elected office we have, two terms in a row – a man born before Martin Luther King, Jr. marched to Selma.

I think about these milestones and remember our country is so very young with an astounding capacity for growth. And we do – we keep growing by leaps and bounds, long strides across short decades.  Dorothy Howell Rodham was born on the very day women won the right to vote. And now, we are months away from her daughter being named our first female president.

Tragic, horrific, hate-filled events happen, and I don’t know what to do. So this where I go. I breathe. I write. I remember what we have accomplished as a nation.

I reach back to my most love-filled days and try to melt into them, wrapping them around my grief and my heartbreak.

And I breathe  again.

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