The Next Breath

Once, in the sixth or seventh grade, my father took me to a high school football game. We stood in the end zone watching the last gasp of another gridiron tragedy for the Myrtle Beach Seahawks, chronic underdogs in those days. I remember Angus Witchen running for the end zone corner. He came straight at us, my father pulling me backward to avoid interfering. Angus turned to catch a pass that never arrived. But the size of him in shoulder pads, the height of his helmet glinting under the stadium lights as he came to a halt.

He planted his right foot in the soft earth there, leaving a deep depression in the sand, with deeper indentions of the heavy cleats in the bottom of a hightop football boot. I had never seen a footprint that big before, like the gash of a bulldozer blade.

Fifty years later, he rested on a barstool at Cagney’s. An oxygen tank stood at his feet, a clear plastic tube led from the tank to his nostrils. Each breath was a gift from beyond. He had been 82 days in a medically induced coma. He had been to the edge of the great mystery and come back. His mind seemed clear, the grip of his hand steady. I imagined him listening to the sound of his own heart, practiced in the experience of that listening, when the one sound that has any significance in this world, nobody else can hear.

At Cagney’s, it had been thirty-six years since the doors opened. Now we were here to close the joint. Around Angus and me, the crowd was beginning to thin. The music wafting over the dance floor was a lot the same as that we grew up with, rhythm and blues, transporting memories like falling leaves in a garden; roses of yesteryear blooming on Friday night in a beach town. The girls, pressed between the pages of grandmotherhood, danced with beach boys aged in the game, enough sand in our shoes to fill a big box scattered with living dolls and lifeguard whistles.

“You’re looking good, Angus,” I said.

The last time I had seen him, at a reunion lunch a month ago, I had avoided speaking to him, not wanting to come so close as I was now to the mystery, the proximity of death too, but also and more, the sweetness of each breath of life. It seems to take about as much courage to taste one as it does to face the other.

“The last time I saw you, you looked like shit,” I said.

He took another sip of oxygen and grinned. His eyes looked through me, as though I were air. He seemed not to hear even the sound of his own voice telling me how it happened— how he had come to that place of interior silence, where listening began. In the telling, his eyes shown like candles in a sudden cessation of wind, not bright, but glowing and steadfast, in the eye of a personal hurricane.

He had been playing golf, when the wind picked up. A game began for all the marbles. He felt short of breath. He didn’t think anything of it. The next thing he knew, he was running into the teeth of a cyclone. The next breath he would take, and the one after that, were miracles he might experience or might not.

He had come to that circumstance we are all headed for and always think it is farther ahead than it turns out to be. Caught in a breeze that blows to infinity. Most of us don’t face the wind ‘till it threatens to snatch the rig right off the boat. Angus was no longer troubled by the fear and anticipation of heavy weather before it starts. In the eye of the storm, there was a feeling of calm just to stand next to him.

I thought to tell him about the footprint he had left in my childhood. I have carried it with me—that impression of manhood I desired to rise to under stadium lights.

When all there is to being a champion is to surrender to breathing—one breath at a time—listen to the sound of your own heart beating, and know that that will be silent too. Forever. Face the wind, and freedom arrives. No more trivial conversation.