Strong Exhale

Shea Redmond

Day one, the hottest day in July. The kind of hot that makes the neighbors forgo underwear and plant themselves in front of oscillating fans. Feet planted in small kiddie pools filled with tepid tap water, topped off with bagged ice from the corner market. The breeze from the fan casting across the iced pools does nothing to diminish the warmth from their radiating bodies. Instead it pushes the sweat further across their faces and thighs until they are all shiny with sweat. 

It’s nearly impossible to forget day one. You try, yet day one is the day you’ll scramble for breath. You’ll put on the bravest of faces to give your daughter Thea oxygen as you hold the side of her head to your chest. She will appreciate the firm pressure you apply to her quivering body. The grief inundating from her youthful frame, forcing you back- one, two, three, steps until you both collapse onto the couch. Sweat and tears, they’re all the same.


How can a girl live without her mother? How will I breathe without her modeling what a strong exhale looks like? 


It will be all she can say.


You wonder in your emotional greed, Where does she keep all of the passwords? Thea’s birth certificate? Is she allergic to anything?



Their day one is polar opposite of your day one. The body that carried you through life for the past four decades decided the narrative of living a nice long life is a lie. To find out that you’re going to die is far less painful than hearing that you are dead. The dead don’t hear pain. The dead don’t feel it either. 


It’s terminal, you have weeks at best Raeann. I’m so sorry. 


You are sent home with instructions of getting your affairs in order. Pamphlets titled, “How to tell your loved ones that you are dying,” as if there is a simple bullet point plan to button up all of your affairs before you go. 


Step 1I’m dying. But I left a few lasagnas in the freezer for busy nights. 



Planning a funeral is foreboding. The weatherman says to expect more heat hazes. You don’t know exactly what that is, but you’ve already spent hours on the internet searching for a cure. What’s another few minutes? 


Heat haze: also called heat shimmer, refers to the inferior mirage observed when viewing objects through a mass of heated air.

Relief floods your body, panic eases up. This isn’t the end, it’s all a mirage. It has to be. 



Everything after the first day is now called the in between, and that’s just how you’ve come to accept it. Call your mother more, but not so much that she suspects that there is something to be worried about. Mothers know. 


Revel in the fact that the word hug happens to be the first three letters of your husband’s name, as he is the best hugger you’ve ever met. Hugging him a little bit longer feels like a possible cure for the incurable.


Forget the pamphlets, your family deserves a better send off than that. The blogs online say to leave a video diary for your daughter because she might forget the way the dimples tucked into your cheeks are deep enough to hold a cat’s eye marble in each of them.


Don’t let her forget.


The idea of a camera taping your face not looking like your face is unsettling. It is then you decide on cassettes, they’re the happy medium. Even if cassette tapes are “so out of style,” they might be even more treasured due to the rarity of them.


Nothing screams a mothers legacy like antiquated methods of communication. Might as well break out the typewriter and ribbon of ink. 



In-laws, they’re a mixed bag. Naturally they have known your beloved Raeann for the longest. They created her so there is ownership there.


Let them visit and call and video chat.

It’s all that they will get of her.


You’ll be left with the daughter you share, and the smell of her lilac shampoo on the bed linens you agreed to buy at the big box store. The in-laws won’t get to smell her again, but you will, at least a little longer before the next load goes in the wash.



To make a mixed tape you have to consider two things:

Who you’re making the tape for and the occasion.


Remind yourself that this isn’t a John Hughes movie, and Thea won’t be walking away with the love of her life but rather losing you. Of course there are times when you hear a little melody on the radio and think to yourself, Thea would love this song. Then, add bits of wisdom and sayings to the playlists, for days when she needs advice but you aren’t there to give it.


A mother knows exactly what kind of music will make her daughters eyes sparkle, even if it is followed by a tiny eye roll. It’s some kind of magic to possess this kind of knowing about a teenager even if she is your child.


You wonder if anyone else will ever know your daughter this way.



She told you that there’d be tapes. That you’d have to give them to Thea, maybe one morning as you sip your coffee black and dark roasted the way that you like it. 


It’s important Hugo, it’s all I have left to give her. Well, and you of course. 


Those dimples, you won’t be able to say no to her and so you agree with a gentle head nod and deep hug. 


Through sickness and health was the vow? What about death and grief, what’s the vow look like after that?

More haziness.



Your last day comes twenty-nine days after your first. Cliche, that’s what the last thirty days will be. Like a film reel, memories click and spin for one last viewing in your mind’s eye. Not in black and white, but in vibrant colors of finger painted construction paper and alabaster hydrangeas in wedding centerpieces. 


Wait until Thea nods off in the corner chair of your room, wrapped in the blanket you both sewed together out of your old shirts. Absorb the tiny bit of warmth from Hugo’s hand wrapped around the frail fingers on yours. These hands spent many hours laced together over the years and now his hands will spend hours pressing play for Thea.


It’s time for your strong exhale.



Pull the old cassette player down from the attic, blow off the decades of dust. 


Imagine the look on your daughter’s face when the carefully curated tapes are placed in her young hands with three freckles alongside the edge of her knuckles. The freckles lightly kiss her milky skin, and you breathe out a little in relief knowing that they look ordinary.


She won’t want the tapes. Her eyes might brim with orbs of salted water. A sense of begging will slip past her lips, Please daddy I’m not ready yet


You stare at the dimples she inherited from her mother, pressing your warm thumb into one of them as you hold gently to her chin. Picturing the future, you wonder who will take her wedding dress shopping, and who will take her phone calls if she loses a baby. 


It will be you of course.


Press play.



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