When we were sitting in those cold metal chairs in that long ago warm spring sun, I felt cold and alone.

I was surrounded that day, age 9, by a chorus line of silent adults dressed in navy blue and black.

They were burying my father that day, once a man of the sea, a naval officer.

Then, 12 sailors fired their guns in the ceremonial salute. It was so unexpected, frightening me, and I started biting my nails. I remember that.

Behind me stood my older sister Eileen, the former swimming champ, not yet in the wheelchair, where she would spend the rest of her life a prisoner of arthritis, saw me jump and touched me on the shoulder, took my fingers from my mouth, and whispered in my ear, “Breathe.”

How I remember that moment. In all the highly stressful moments of my life, I hear her still. That memory is one of a handful that come from a sacred place I rarely visit.


One such crazy moment happened in Japan during my first 6.8-magnitude earthquake, and again when the cargo plane I was aboard, when after climbing from the Yokota air strip, it took a sudden drop over Tokyo Bay, I closed my eyes and took a very deep breath.

It lifted, and I was breathing.

I remember the weeks after I stopped smoking 50 years ago, or taking the sacred deep breath often when I left the backstage darkness somewhere, and stepped on stage to make people laugh.

I remember watching She, who, when blessedly surviving a near death stroke, sat up in recovery and enjoyed a turkey dinner and asked, “What happened?” I smiled and took a long, deep breath.

Today, here in Maine in this frightening time, as I leave a store and other crowded spaces, I pull off my mask and take in the cold sweet wind and smile.

We didn’t have any masks in smoggy Los Angeles in my time, and the beautiful people wouldn’t wear then anyway.


Masks would have been helpful. We just coughed through our days, walked with burning eyes, carried inhalers. People got sick from smog, died of it. But nobody wore a mask.

In my years in Japan, I learned from the monks at the tiny monastery at the end of my street, who told me that for centuries — when the clean air around Fuji was soiled by cooking pots, industry, and wars — masks just became commonplace.

No, no, no, this isn’t one of my many annoying mask “lectures.” It’s just about the joy of not wearing one, and the small moments of just standing in a safe place and taking a breath.

It’s about those moments coming out of the crowded shops and taking a breath.

It’s about standing alone by my car, face up to the sun, taking in the cold air and taking a breath.

It’s about driving on Interstate 95 with the windows all down, yeah, all of them man, summer, autumn or spring, taking the sacrament of a deep breath.


As a survivor of Manhattan and L.A., I have come to cherish Maine’s cold clean winter air tossing my hair around, clouding my eyes, filling and blessing my old lungs.

She, sitting beside me, understands, but she pulls up her collars, tugs her scarves, and whispers, “I know you love it, but couldn’t you just close one or two? Please?”

I touch her hand and with a smile, whisper: “Breathe.”

Thank you, Eileen. Thank you, for my life.

J.P. Devine is a Waterville writer. 

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