InhaleExhale

Inhale-Exhale

Essay by Elizabeth Berget

It was the drone of circling helicopters that woke me up at 5:15 on a Friday morning in May.
I had slept fitfully, like a first-time mother, my bedroom windows open to my city, which had moaned and groaned like a restless newborn all night as sirens had roared through her streets and flash bombs had thundered to disperse crowds.

Four days prior, George Floyd had been killed eight blocks from my house.

Since then, the air had been filled with a noisy tension, the whirr of news helicopters constantly buzzing like angry bees, the echoes of protesters from 38th and Chicago Avenue—“No Justice, No Peace!”—floating in through my kitchen window all day, the reverberations of tear gas cannons filling the night.

My husband and I had been staying up well past midnight each night since the protests had begun, using Twitter and news live streams and texts from friends to track what buildings were burning, and where the rioters seemed to be headed.

My city had spiraled completely out of control. There had been little sign of police presence trying to stop the angry mobs that marched through my familiar streets—first burning our police precinct, then my grocery store, then my favorite Indian restaurant. A Walgreens two blocks away from us had been looted and burned overnight.

On the fourth morning of this nightmare, I heard the helicopters from my bed, and they sounded close. So I jumped out of bed and ran into the backyard to scan the sky. My senses took in the smoky air, the sun peeking through the hazy sky, and the acrid smell of burnt plastic and rubber.

I walked back into the house as militant butterflies overran my stomach, and I gulped at the air, trying to remember how to breathe normally. I could feel each heartbeat slam through my chest, an irregular staccato, as waves of nausea came, and my fingers went numb. My husband found me in the kitchen with my head resting on the cool kitchen countertop. He gave me a hug as I said, “I can’t have a panic attack right now. It’s Owen’s birthday.”

While the prior few days had felt like stilled time, what had not paused were my children. As my city was being rocked by riots, my kids still needed clean laundry and snacks and help with sunscreen. And it was still my oldest son’s birthday week.

My husband nodded and then guided me into our bedroom and helped me lie down. He reminded me to breathe like the therapist had taught me: in through the nose, out through the mouth. I tried to fight off the panic attack, but I was just so tired. The night before, we’d stayed up late, hanging streamers while we watched a live stream of the gas station a half block up the street from my friend’s house burn down. I’d frosted cake while reading texts from neighbors and friends: We’re leaving. What are you guys going to do? I’d wrapped presents while refreshing Twitter, sitting down with tape stuck to my fingers when I saw footage of smoke rising near where my church stood. I had wondered if celebrating my son’s birthday was even appropriate in a week like this.

My emotions swirled as fast as my thoughts raced. I was devastated for George Floyd and his family and for the message that his murder communicated to the people of color in my community. I was angry with the police for his death and for their lack of presence the prior few nights as chaos marched through Minneapolis. I was fearful—not of the peaceful protesters crying out for justice, but of those hell-bent on destruction, who were rampantly burning down my city. And as small as it was in the grand scheme of things, I felt deeply for my son, his birthday dreams already suspended by a global pandemic and now overshadowed by a city on the brink.

I heard my husband open our bedroom door over the sound of my prolonged exhales and ask me how I was doing. We reran the scenarios again, as we’d been doing for days. If we stayed, we risked mobs moving closer, buildings nearby burning down, another night of little sleep, increasing panic attack symptoms, and potentially putting our kids in harm’s way. If we left, we’d cut our child’s birthday celebration short, and we’d amplify our exposure to coronavirus by staying in a family member’s house. We’d risk leaving our house empty and available to anyone with a rock and good aim, and we’d have to live with the feeling that we were abandoning our community in its time of need. We talked about the dangers of staying. We talked about the dangers of leaving.

____________

Eight years prior, when I was pregnant with Owen, I had taken a natural birthing class. My husband and I spent months learning about pregnancy and birth and strategies and positions to help us remain calm and focused during labor. But when literal push came to shove, I only used one focus strategy during the entirety of my labor.

The instructor had encouraged us to inhale and say to ourselves:
This is hard.
And then to exhale and say:
But I can do this.

In one breath cycle, she had said, you can acknowledge your pain and your capability. You can be both gentle with yourself and resolve to do the next thing required of you.

So for hours during labor, my husband and I had stood in our bedroom as I leaned against him and swayed. With each gripping contraction, I would sharply inhale and say: This is hard. And as each jagged exhale left my body, I would shakily say: But I can do this. When my water broke, and he went to start the car, I leaned against the wall and whispered this mantra over and over to myself. When we finally made it to the hospital and the pushing was long and slow, I squeezed my eyes tightly shut and thought:

This is hard. But I can do this.
____________

These are the words that flashed before me as I heard my kids waking up for the day. I felt light-headed as I shot up from the bed to greet my first baby with a happy birthday hug, hoping he wouldn’t notice my eyes, red from crying. I handed him a marker and pointed him to a giant birthday crossword that I had taped to the wall, and I shuffled into the kitchen to make the French toast that he’d requested.

Crack the eggs: This is hard.
Pour the milk: But I can do this.
Dip the bread: This is hard.
Melt the butter: But I can do this.

With shaky hands, I topped his French toast with whipped cream and candles. I forced myself to ignore the sound of nearly constant sirens outside. I practiced smiling on cheeks stiff with worry. We sang Happy Birthday and poured the syrup and cheered along as he opened his presents at the sticky table.

As he tucked into one of his new Lego sets, my phone chirped with another family member asking why we hadn’t left the city yet. I surreptitiously scrolled the news, counting the damage, waiting for the next mayoral announcement.

This is hard. But I can do this.

My husband and I held covert meetings in the hallway, relisting the pros and cons of staying or going again as I forced my attention away from the news and towards the small, outdoor party with a few neighbor kids that we had planned. I prepped snacks and treats to the soundtrack of tractor beeps, trying to clear nearby streets of damage.

This is hard. But I can do this.

Moments after our neighbor kids left our backyard, I shut my bedroom door and called my mother-in-law. The decision made was like a pressure valve, and tears trickled down my cheeks as I asked her if we could come and stay for a few days. Within a few minutes, I was flinging random clothing and toiletry items into laundry baskets.

This is hard. But I can do this.

We broke the news to the kids at lunch. We tried to play up the surprise factor: We get to see Grandma and Grandpa after months of quarantining! But Owen’s face fell. We’d had plans to swim and to get his favorite pizza and to celebrate with a movie night; plus, he’s just never been that great at surprise transitions, and this was a big one.

We reminded him of George Floyd and how he’d died. And then as gently as we could, we talked about the destruction happening all around us and tried to explain that we felt safer leaving for a few days, all while trying to avoid giving our kids nightmares.

I sat with Owen as he talked through his disappointment, nodding and agreeing with him that this was unfair, and that it was good to name and feel our feelings. We acknowledged together:

This is hard.

But then I told him that when things feel hard, we also need to remind ourselves that we are strong and capable, that we can shift our thinking and attitudes and bodies in the right direction, even as we feel sad or scared or angry. I taught him how saying something out loud can even guide your brain, and so we quietly said together:

We can do this.

An hour or so later, we haphazardly stacked our laundry baskets into the trunk. We threw in a rubbermaid bin of old photo albums and a couple of other irreplaceables just in case. As we piled into the car, I looked at our house, praying that it would still be standing when we returned, and I started breathing:

This is hard.
But we can do this.

As we drove towards the highway, I saw shopkeepers sweeping glass off the sidewalk in front of their stores, parades of gloved volunteers carrying trash bags, and I mourned for the regrowth ahead of my city.

This is hard.
But we can do this.

As we navigated the detour around the intersection where George Floyd died, I thought about the long road before us towards justice.

This is hard.
But we can do this.

And as I looked to the back of the minivan at my children, I considered my role in this work, the eighteen years that I have to raise children who will add to the balance of kindness in the world.

This is hard.
But we can do this.

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