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Saturday, January 1, 2011

Counted Breath

Allen died. About a year ago.

I didn't know him that well. He worked on the other side of campus. Occasionally, I'd stop by his office. Sometimes we'd talk publishing. Life. Mostly, it was football. He was a Bills fan. I'm a Vikings fan. Together, our teams are 0-8 in Superbowl history. We shared sportsfan misery.

One thing was always clear. Allen was a good man.

He had a tumor in his brain. Just one day -- boom -- a golf ball in the nugget. Cancer, the doctors  told him. Not even 60. And the odds not in his favor. The countdown started. His days now had numbers.

Every day, I wake up and take for granted the number of days I have. Maybe I've got 40 years x 365 days, whatever that is. Or maybe today I get hit by a bus. Point is, I don't think about. I get up, drink coffee, do my day, go to sleep. The next morning, rise and repeat.

Towards the end of Allen's sorted treatments, I stopped by his office. He'd been shaving his head because the radiated  half stopped growing hair. We sat and talked. Not about sports, this time. Quite frankly, he lost interest in that sort of thing. I don't know what we talked about, really. But we sat there for half an hour and talked about something other than the obvious. When I got up to leave, he shook my hand, cupped it with his free hand. So gracious that I stopped by.

Like I said, good man.

It was weeks later I saw him next. He was standing outside the building. I watched him and he didn't know it. I watched him looking around, at nothing in particular. He was just breathing. But not just breathing, he was taking each breath. Appreciating each one. Savoring. Or maybe I imagined it.

Some meditation practices count breaths to experience the present moment. To be aware. Just counting. Just here.  But what's it like when all your breaths have been counted? What it's like when they're numbered? I have 200 left. Now 199. Does the air taste different? Watching Allen, it seemed that way. But maybe I imagined that, too.

It was the last time I saw him. Standing there, just breathing.

It's been a year. Still haven't forgotten.

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