When I first entered his hospital room, I was greeted by the aroma of exotic homemade foods. Breathing it in, I scanned the room for clues about the confined little world I had just stepped into. A middle-aged man with fearful eyes lay covered in the bed, and a teenage boy with an easy smile sat nearby opening something wrapped in foil. As I introduced myself, I sensed the patient did not understand me. His son did, though, and he became our conduit for an unforgettable experience. I live in a city that has one of the largest populations of Burmese immigrants in the country. My interest in them had been fueled by newspaper articles, documentaries, and friends who work with them, but my own interaction had been limited to bike rides past their happy gatherings in one of our city parks. Thanks to my work as a literary healing artist, I was having my first personal encounter.
Translating the air My goal was to have this patient find a word within himself that I could turn into what I think of as visual medicine. When his son explained what I wanted to do, the man spoke at length to him about the fact that he couldn’t breathe. So would breathing be a good word, he asked? I responded by asking if AIR would work for his father, explaining that it might be easier to fit on the page. He asked his father, and his father nodded his approval. As a calligraphy lover, the Burmese alphabet is one I have always admired for its circular, flowing shapes and rhythms. It dawned on me that this could be an opportunity to make art using this man’s own written language. I asked the son if he would make the letters for AIR in their language. He seemed reluctant, so his father took the paper from me and shakily began to draw. When he was done, he gave it back to me with a shy smile. As I started to embellish his lines, I told the son about my love for their written language, which he shared with his father. Over the course of the next 20 minutes or so, the patient and I had a wonderful conversation through the interpretive skills of his son, and I could feel a strong thread of trust developing as we spoke. When I finished the word, I handed it to the patient. He actually began to cry, as did I. I knew it wasn’t because what I did was a great piece of art, but because it reflected back to him a fragile truth in his own language.
Helping each other breathe Air knows no boundaries. But when life is oppressive, we lose our ability to breathe. The body absorbs the injustices and the pain, leaving us weakened and gasping for the simple gift of breath. I left the room hoping this man could breathe a little easier for awhile. For an immigrant who had to flee his country to find a safer place to live with his family, that would be no small thing.
Giving the gift of breath is not solely the domain of Pulmonologists. We can do it for each other, simply by providing a peaceful space for others to be the real human being they are. kathycurtisink.com