For my momma, for Stacy.
Inside the human body, is a gigantic butterfly. There, in every chest cavity is a breathing butterfly. A collapsible one. A fluttering butterfly.
When I was 6 or 7 years old, I found a butterfly that was approximately the size of my face. I was with my momma, in the lush gardens that covered half of the campus where she was teaching. The butterfly was larger than my much too much tiny palms. Already dead, I carried it home and placed it in a large and empty jar hoping it would breathe again. Hoping it's wings would flutter. I still remember the black fabric-like-to-the-touch-torso of the butterfly. I remember its belly, still and moquette-like. It did not awaken. It, sort of, crumbled and collapsed in the jar. Somehow, there is in my mind some memory of blackness on my fingers. From the butterfly torso? I don’t know, but I know the jar, the patterned wings, my imagination of how it would awaken – resurrected – and breathe again to fly out of my smaller much too small palms.
Inside the glass jar is a butterfly, a non-breathing butterfly. With a black fabricky belly. A butterfly that would not have awakened to breathe. Because. A butterfly has no lungs.
In the middle of the night, I hear my mamma's breathing. I follow it. I trace it almost. When I fall into sleep, my mind no longer monitors the sound of her breathing, and I wake up in a crazy panic to hear it again, to realize that my mind shutting down to rest my body has missed it. I struggle in agony to stay awake. The steady slow sound of her breathing does not calm me down.
I try to remember her breathing from before. Before and after broken and sutured skin.
I try to imagine how lungs move. Butterflies fluttering in a ribcage. Whales moving slowly, whales opening wide mouths to show a tongue the color of a pink lung.
How large is a whale's lung I wonder?
Now, after all these years of seeking whales out, of knowing all that I know about these mammals, about other mammals, about us, I am suddenly brought into the presence of this organ.
I hear my mother's breathing. I hear the whale songs. I think of the physical mechanism in which a lung moves.
I am perplexed by astonishing facts that have been suddenly brought before me.
Lungs are regenerative organs.
Lungs move with each breath like hearts pump with each heartbeat.
A part of my mother's right lung needs to be removed.
If a heart pumps, what does a lung do? I cannot figure out the movement.
How does language work? What does the verb pump mean, what does it do, if it weren't for our hearts pumping?
I do not know when exactly they start. A series of psychological reactions. My body retorts back. It is angry. My body protests feebly. As I grow older, the shallow breathless struggle becomes a mere precedent of other psychosomatic reactions. Sometime as a child, my body started a strike and would not allow me to breathe - too upset at something, unable to react as a child, my breathing would become very shallow, I would struggle for breath, my chest would heave, and I would try to drag air in.
My body would react in this same way years later, in fights with my father, in arguments with my mother, in break-up conversations with my ex-boyfriend. I realize now that the way I had come to deal with these episodes was something I had seen on TV.
Lean forward. Put your head down between your knees. Breathe in a paper bag.
In the third world, we thrive on plastic. I don’t have the luxury of a paper bag. I lean forward and try to breathe anyway.
In the black plastic bag which my older sister holds upright, is a jar. Inside that jar, is a lobe from our mother's right lung. Inside that lobe, sitting comfortably between bronchial cobwebs, is a tumor.
I look at it in the darkness of the almost empty city and I keep thinking of the time when I had this same organ before for food. Prior to placing it in the jar, they had put our mother's right-lung-upper-lobe in a not-so-secure-container. Then it was in a blue-transparentish plastic bag so when it started leaking, the bag filled up with a pink liquid, formalin, like pink lemonade. My sister goes calmly to replace the vessel so that she can transport the lobe.
When I first see her holding it, I ask her if she had taken a look, if she had seen what it looks like. This lobe. But I am told firmly by several voices to stop it, to stop talking like that.
My sister and her husband get out of the car and I don’t hug her when she exits. There is a jar between us. I think of her. Upright. Correct. Yes, that's what she would do even if it would kill her. Dutiful daughters carry lobes in formalin jars in late evening Cairo Uber cars and they don't hug so we don't have a second take of the leaking problem.
Lobe. Every time I come to type the word lobe on my phone, it auto-corrects it into love. Love. It just becomes love. I write it again and again and stubbornly it becomes love. They're removing the tumor in the top love. They didn’t just remove the tumor, they removed the whole love. A whole lotta love. There are three loves in every lung. No wait, two loves in one lung, and three loves in another. Five loves all in all. Five for us, five for family. Five loves, although I don't know what loving my father would mean, I assume he gets a love still.
Anyway, to go back to auto-corrected biology, each lung has several loves. They cut open and take one of her loves out. It sounds so convenient. To cut open, and just take a love out. Isn't that easier than falling in love, than the possibility of love? Than the hazard of fluttering feelings only to realize it was a waste of breath?
If my mamma breathes well, if she walks and does her breathing exercises, her lung will fill up again.
Lobes grow back. Loves regenerate.
I think of the empty space in her chest, on the top right part of her ribcage. Does she feel it? Can she feel an emptiness? Do you mourn a lobe the way you mourn a love?
I don’t sleep the first night I share the hospital room with her. Neither does she. She is in pain. Restless. Every forty-five minutes or an hour she wants to go pee, because she had too much anise to drink. I think of liquids. I think of piss, of anise tea, of the post-surgery drainage pipes which my mother baptizes humorously. Liquids that could lie in chest cavities and turn stagnant. Liquids drowning butterflies. Liquids soaking the lungs wet. Liquids keeping lobeloves moist. A lunglovelobe swimming in preservation.
Can you preserve yourself by just not breathing?
I draw breath in. Now, I regret breathing. To keep him at bay after having allowed myself to inhale, I hold my breath. It is a challenge. Challenge yourself. Challenge your breath. I have allowed myself to inhale, allowed myself to feel, and I think I have been poisoned by the oxygen. Maybe nitrogen in the blood? I realize that I have misunderstood. I feel I am being informed of something denoting my place and his and I feel the need to act accordingly. He has lost a love. He tells me, and I listen. I think of the gaping hole in his chest cavity. Why am I being told? Why am I the one to confess to? I try not to breathe. But I lose, I suck breath in. In wonder, I let myself breathe and when I do, my lunglovelobes – shrunk from preservation – collapse. Although I have breathed since his confession, I still try not to draw him in.
In the early hours of the morning, occupying the squeaky hospital bed, I think of torn butterfly wings. My mamma's upper-right third of the butterfly wing that needed to go. Collateral damage. My panic grows despite the fact that I can hear my mother breathing. I tell myself it is always the loneliness of the evenings which reminds him of the gaping hole inside, and so he writes to me. Evenings are lonely. It is the time of the day our bodies heal. The time of the day our bodies refuse to lie still. I panic and tell myself I do not want to be crammed instead of his lost lobe, and I keep reminding myself lungs are regenerative. We are adults. I can no more fill my mamma's lobe up than I can fill his. Breathe.
To distract myself from my feelings of misassumption and misinterpretation. I count possibilities. Perhaps he can function as an example of regenerative lobes. An exposure to fleeting feelings. An expansion of breath.
Then I remember.
He is a living proof that one survives it-that-must-not-be-named. Breathing proof against my fears that don't drown in similes. Against family history. Against the pain of loss. Against our experience. Our memories of bodies crumbling. Of my cousins losing mammas. Of my grandma losing daughters. Of my lungs losing loves.
Perhaps he can be a story I tell my mother – devoid of my breathing, devoid of my feelings – and show her that survival is not only a possibility but a reality.
Inside my psyche is a little girl. A little girl who can't breathe. A young woman who can't sleep. A woman who hates butterfly jewelry and feels that she has missed out on a whole lotta love.
The floating-pink-alveoli-squishiness in the jar brings me to close proximity to my father. I am not prepared for that. It adds to my worry as I lay in the echoing hospital room anxious about the incredibly straight incision I have seen across my mother's skin breaking her soft fleshy back in stitches. I declare to myself that I will sleep. I declare to myself that fathers don't deserve lobes or loves. Then I tell myself not to generalize only to announce to the empty void that fathers who don’t love their daughters don't deserve loves or lobes.
I ironically think of my butterfly fluttering, breathing, for a man who has a daughter. Only months ago, I slowly let myself breath him in, turning fields of broccoli-alveoli-bronchi-stalks vapor green. This man who appeared suddenly. This boy who happens to be a father.
If I comment on the literary technique, I would say that the irony is untimely.
When we awaken, my mamma and I sit in our respective beds. I ask my mother if she loves my father.
I think any answer other than 'no' is ridiculous, but I have been training myself patiently to become a better listener. I listen to her breathing and I listen to this bullshit. Unfortunately, the bullshit makes sense, at least to her. I don't care anymore. As long as I can hear her breathing: an auditory image.
What is the significance of this auditory image?
How many ways are there to describe my mother's breathing? How many ways are there to write the word 'mother' down?
Mamma's breathing is like a lid of pan lifting in vapor rhythm.
Mommie's breathing is like a window shutter, barely moving on its hinges.
Mammie's breathing is like the flute of wind coming through my old apartment windows.
Momma's breathing is like the slow letting out of an accordion breath at the end of a soft tune.
Mamzie's breathing is like the sound of a butterfly breathing, of a butterfly flapping its wings.
I want to drown my fear in similes.
As a child, my two largest fears were my mother not loving me, and my mother no longer being alive. I dealt with the former concern by repeatedly asking her if she does just to make sure I hear her saying 'yes' in various ways. The latter was a complicated mannerism of passing a finger out of ten and checking underneath her nose for traces of hot short air. I would crouch and lie low and hear for signs of winter wheezing. When darklight allowed it, I taught myself to read the filling-up-with-breath-movement of her chest for signs of life. Signs of comfort.
I teach my students how to read between the lines of the fiction we read for figures of speech, and for fear. Such a perfect emotion. It shows up always when you have no idea what to do with all that you feel.
Inside the ice-box are lidless jars. Jars with cold water. Jars with vegetable soup. Jars with freshly pressed tomato juice. Jars my grandmother fills up with things to eat and drink.
My grandmother keeps her jars open. She is alive. According to the ancient civilization of this land she has come to occupy, at death, the vital organs are preserved in canopy jars. Four of them. The heart is left in the body. I see her face as my mother breaks the news of surgery to her. Falling into blankness. She has not offered her jars for Osiris, and yet she has had to give up two of her vital organs, vital lobelovedaughters. I see her wounds breaking open. I see her fear. It mimics mine. Her wounds are red, sore, and open like a broken stem of a plant that seems to be still breathing after a horrific accident. The fact that she has wrapped herself whole like a mummy does not matter. The blood from her losing-daughters-wounds seeps through.
Her heart pumps denial.
Mine pumps in fearful hope.
When my body rests, my brain is not crowded with horror. I see how my body misfunctions in anxiousness, I feel how it calms when I breathe to slow the anxiousness down.
Exactly the same way the word 'anxiety' has become part of my vocabulary, the intricate delicacy of a human lung has come to occupy my mind. I roll the word out of my mouth and feel the deepness of the vowel. A word I hardly ever used. I think of the way human butterfly lungs move, and I am obsessed with finding the verb that matches the movement. When I pass the Betadine drenched sterilized gauze over my mother's invisible stitches, I feel I can poke my finger through to understand the expansion, to verbalize it. If I put my ears to my mamma's ribcage, I can hear the sound and put it to words.
Inside my head, are a million alveoli of thoughts. Beneath the surface of my skin, a million cells of feelings. They collapse and collide, and I am taken short of breath.
My body crumbles. It breaks into a fever. I want my family around me. I imagine my sick body hosting a bed somewhere and I wonder if they would come to love me and nurse me in my home. I want to gather my cousins around me. Scattered across continents. Scattered across far ends of a grieving metropolis. I gather myself into my mamma's hug as we both speak on almost identical phones. We have the same body. The same teeth. The same nose. Almost same sense of humor. The same social pleasantness. The same height. I am calm in her arms as she plays with my curls, scrunching. I know I will sleep well tonight. I don't mind the pink-line-of-divided-flesh of her sutures.
How can you not notice a lung before? How can you not notice me?
It is so gentle, not the noisy flapping of avian wings that beckons my cats to windows, but a subtle rhythmic nonpenetrative intrusion of being. How can I not notice lungs before when I have come to be where I am now by following my breathing? Placing body and feet according to an inhalation, an exhalation. I breathe. I slow down. I fill my chest cavity up and I don't hold my breath. I try and I try and I try. I learn breathing tricks. I become a lepidopterist without realizing. I study the bodies of butterflies. I study the lives of lungs. I allow the air to fill me, to release my muscles, to oxygenate my tissues. I come and I breathe and I breathe and I breathe. An insistence. A denial of pain. I breathe to annihilate pain and I don't know how I fail to notice the terrifying presence of this enormous butterfly in my chest. The hairy insect legs, the uncomfortable eyes, the slushy wings, the spider-to-the-touch body. A flutter of the wings. A breath. A heaving. I come and I breathe and I come and I breathe. Veins hold the butterfly wings together, flushing them with blood. A breathing, living thing.
Now, when I count the things I can get anxious about, I have one more winged-concern that keeps me breathing. That keeps her breathing. Signs of life. Signs of comfort.
"Lungs" by La Scarlatte, artwork for the 'Expériences' exhibition at the Curie Museum in Paris, France: "My piece focussed on respiration; the good and the bad, what gives us life and what makes us weak."