This is the official blog of Northern Arizona slam poet Christopher Fox Graham. Begun in 2002, and transferred to blogspot in 2006, FoxTheBlog has recorded more than 670,000 hits since 2009. This blog cover's Graham's poetry, the Arizona poetry slam community and offers tips for slam poets from sources around the Internet. Read CFG's full biography here. Looking for just that one poem? You know the one ... click here to find it.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

“Counting Breaths” for Amanda Rae Coughlin

“Counting Breaths”
By Christopher Fox Graham
For Amanda Rae Coughlin
You count your days up, never down
as though your days stretch from birth to infinity
but you know better
You count your days up, never down
because it’s easier to believe
if the numbers get bigger, never smaller
that you might make it to infinity somehow
but it’s lonely at the end of universe
out there, the rules governing matter break down
and the atoms on the edge lose touch with each other
because there isn’t enough gravity
to make holding on worth the weight
so all the living has to happen here

closer to the universe’s center, closer to zero
the weight of matter pulls us back down to earth,
never up
but down to the embrace of each other
we give up infinity to be close to one another
but sometimes it means we have to let go
to people who’ve been so close
it feels like atoms being ripped from our orbits

Amanda Rae Coughlin died March 16, 2012
Here, you count your days up, never down
because these bodies, born into fragile skeleton, come with an expiration date
governed by fate playing Russian roulette with magic bullet car crashes
or hearts bursting under the strain of beating us from footstep to footstep
or the body rebellion of cancer
But you still count your days up, never down
ever since your first day
when first breaths erupted into a cry announcing your arrival
into the arms of your mother

you count your breaths, too
but only the first ones and the last ones
because you don’t think about the miracle of breath
until every breath itself becomes a miracle
like when you're drowning
underwater, you count how long it’s been since you last breathed
but above the surface you don’t count how long you have left
because no one counts breaths
and no one ever tells you the number you have left
until you’re counting the last ones
always down, never up
by the time I finish this poem you will have inhaled and exhaled 45 times
since this time last year, you have swallowed 7.8 million lungfuls of the world
you hold each piece deep inside yourself to swim around the bloodstream
before pushing a piece of yourself back out

but one ever says,
“You have 500 million more breaths left”
“You only have 500”
where would you exhale
if you only had 10,000 liters of yourself
to pour back into the world?
on your first day,
you let loose a cry so the world knew you were here
but most of us will end within a whisper
but if you knew the method and the moment
when your breaths start their final countdown
would you live your life differently?
how would you spend your air?
would you sing more?
would you read stories to children?
would you curse the gods for starting the countdown in the first place?
would you just hold your breath?
would you stand on a mountaintop and scream one long unyielding note
for the beauty of it all?

we don’t think about the miracle of breath
until every breath itself becomes a miracle
like when we’re dying
cancer has a funny way of teaching us that
no one told Amanda she would only get 167 million breaths
Spent over 21 years 1 month 22 days
if she knew
how long would she have had held them
where else would she have spent them?
instead of just silent breathing
would she have squeezed more of them into vowels and consonants?
so we could hold on those pieces of her
people are like that too
some of us are held for just moments
some of us are held so deeply it’s impossible to distinguish them from us
her lungs ceased their accordion compressions
when her last breath slipped out the open window
but 66 million liters of her
still swirl in the atmosphere of Northern Arizona
how many of her escaped breaths are swimming in this room
waiting for you to swallow them
and remember how she touched you?

the next time a breeze brushes your face
inhale deep
take her into your lungs like you used to take her into your arms
hold her deep for a moment
and when you exhale
do it for her
and now, always count her breaths up, never down
so she can make it to infinity

Amanda Rae Coughlin, a 21-year-old Northern Arizona University elementary education major and Sedona Red Rock High School alumna was diagnosed with cholangiocarcinoma on March 29, 2011. She died March 16, 2012.
Donations can be made to the Coughlin Family Benefit, Chase Bank No. 424055932 or to Love 4 Amanda


magic6jewls said...

Simply beautiful. I always love reading your poems. One mistake, first line, 5th stanza. I think you mean "never" not "ever". I especially love how you emphasised the counting up, not down idea. It's a rather sweet, naive, yet profound concept and contributed to this poem in a way that I can't explain. Looking forward to more poems!

Life is a roller-coaster,
and I've finally learnt to enjoy it.
But can you?

oviedomedina said...

Is it ironic to say this poem left me breathless?
Truly excellent and beautiful.
Thank you.