Life begins with our first breath; it ends with our last. But what happens in the breaths we take in between is the story of our lives. This is my story, in remembrance of my father on Father’s Day.
I lost my breath on May 12, 1983. It was knocked out of me as I watched my father fall to the ground, blood everywhere, coming from behind him. All I heard were the screams of my mother calling out my father’s name, and my brother crying uncontrollably. I froze, terrified and panicked, watching this scene unfold, unable to move, unable to breath.
It began as a beautiful and warm Southern California May Day, a day when the outside beckons, making the invitation impossible to refuse. My parents, my brother and I drove to a park near the beach where we spent hours sprawling on the grass, playing soccer and watching sailboats disappear into the horizon. It truly was an idyllic day.
My parents were finally able to relax, especially my father, who had just taken his dental licensure exams after months of stressful preparation. Our long and difficult journey began eight years before when my parents and I immigrated to the United States from the former Soviet Union in search of the “American Dream.” Like many immigrants, we left everything behind—our possessions, our loved ones and our sense of the familiar—to start a new life that promised opportunity, freedom and success through hard work. My father had been a successful practicing dentist in Moscow and was thrilled about the opportunity to build a successful dental practice in the US. He wanted nothing more than to provide for his family and live the life he’d always envisioned for us.
As the day drew into night, and a cooler breeze set in, we made our way home with just one quick stop to make at a nearby grocery store. We had no idea that at the exact same moment we were loading groceries into our car, a half a mile from where we were, a couple of guys brawling with guns were shooting bullets into the sky. What are the chances that one of their bullets traveling 880 yards—farther than the length of eight football fields—would strike my father in the back of his head, lodging itself into his brain? One in a million?
I sat with him in the hospital. His face covered by tubes. I held his hand and pleaded with God to let him live. I begged. I promised anything and everything a girl at 13 could offer in exchange for her father’s life.
He died three days later.
Our entire world was wrapped up in my father, and now every hope we clung to, everything my parents sacrificed, all the struggles, hardships, pains—all lost. Was it not enough to lose a father and husband? Did we need to lose our entire world along with him?
I grew withdrawn, numb, disconnected. For years, I couldn’t process these intense, overwhelming and overpowering feelings. Throughout my teenage years into adulthood, I kept these emotions concealed inside of me. On the outside I was undetectably “normal,” always presenting myself as a self-sufficient, capable, “got it all under control” kind of woman. But on the inside, the grief, the fear, the anxiety, was profound.
Sometime around my 35th birthday, I found myself in a meditation class hoping to still, calm and quell the on-going pain of grief within. The teacher asked us to connect with our breath. “What breath?” I thought to myself and then realized, “I haven’t actually taken a full conscious breath in years.”
As I learned what it meant to connect to my breath, I also began to learn to connect to the parts of me I’d been so disconnected from for so long—the pain, the fear and the grief that I’d so carefully tucked away. With gentle patience and time, I allowed myself to feel the weight of my experience, my emotions and my breath in a deeper and more expansive way. There were moments when I chocked on my breath, hyperventilated and couldn’t catch it. There were also moments when it soothed me, helped me to release my feelings and breathed light into the darkest places.
Through time, I developed a relationship with my breath, and today, it is one of my most important lifelines—allowing for continued release, reconnection, restoration and healing to occur.
From a time of such great pain, sorrow and heartache, to what now is a reflection of light and peace, my breath is what has helped me through; it has always been there waiting for me to connect to it.
It is here for me today as well, 32 years after my father’s death, on this beautiful, idyllic, June day when we celebrate our fathers and their memories. I am grateful to be able to feel both the sweet and painful moments of the time I shared with, loved and lost this beautiful man. I do so one conscious breath at a time.
Author: Irina Vaisman
Editor: Evan Yerburgh