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Tuesday, July 9, 2013

"I Breathe; Therefore, I live." A Life Lesson From My Grandmother

By Kevin Paskawych

I know we all have heroes. We look up to athletes, celebrities, politicians; the list goes on. Patients are no different, though our heroes include spouses, children, parents, doctors, and even other patients often make the list. I have to say that my biggest “PH Hero” is someone who taught me how to deal with a “new normal” and life in general, years before I ever knew I would need the lessons. Charlotte Mayhood lived her life completely, raising five children, and centering herself in the lives of her grandchildren. She was a published poet, a cornerstone of her community, and above all taught her grandchildren to use our imaginations. My Grandmother taught me so much, but perhaps her biggest gift to me I didn’t realize until just this last year. Sadly, it was 6 years too late to thank her for the lesson, so I figure the best way I can thank her is to pass on these teachings... are you ready for it? “I’m still breathing, so I guess I can’t complain.”

It seems like an odd lesson, if you can call it one at all, and it has been my standard response to greetings for years. I picked it up from my Grandmother Charlotte, who used it as her standard response, although that is precisely why I find it special. My grandmother was diagnosed with severe Rheumatoid arthritis at an early age, doctors predicted she would be crippled by 40... and they were, more or less, right. When her first grandchildren started arriving she was beginning to stiffen, and by the time her last grandchildren were born the bones and joints in her hands and feet were fused, as she had had several surgeries to replace her ailing joints. Despite her limitations she would still play as well as she could with all 12 of her grandchildren, write her poetry (with a pen for the longest time until finally she began using a typewriter.. using her middle finger on each hand to type) and try to make herself as involved in our lives as she could. Through all of it, and the 24 years that I knew her, she never complained. If you ever asked her if she needed something, or if you simply wanted to ask her how her day was, the response was almost always “I can’t complain, I’m still breathing.” 

My Grandmother wasn’t that stubborn, don’t get me wrong. If she really needed help with something, she would ask... it just wasn’t incredibly often. After my Grandfather passed away, our family openly worried about how to take care of her, and she answered our concerns with remodeling her house with chair lifts and special furniture that made her life easier. She spent the next twelve years living mostly on her own, still insisting that most family Thanksgivings be held at her big blue house, even though it meant more work for her overall. Ok... she was a little stubborn... but her light heart made up for it. Even though she could barely walk, she loved being outside. Despite not being able to use her hands, she loved to write; and although she was in nearly constant pain for much of her life, she loved living. It’s why I admire her so much even to this day, and when a friend asked me several months ago how I was dealing with PH and my “new life” so well, I knew how to answer him. My Grandmother taught me how.

The Author with his Grandmother Charlotte, circa 1986.
 I realized that as long as I was still breathing, things could be worse, and that I needed to stop fretting over what was wrong with me, and start enjoying the world around me. It’s not easy, as I am sure all of you know, and I still have my bad days, but every time I hear myself say “I’m still breathing” I have to smile a little, and realize that in fact, I am still breathing, which means I am still here. My Grandmother was the first person who taught me to use my mind, and it lead me to study the philosophical concepts of Descarte and his “I think, therefore I am” idea. I guess now I should say “I breathe, therefore I live.” It is something I think that everyone, no matter who you are or what you do, needs to contemplate; but for us, for patients, this is something that can really help us on our down days, and make the good days even more enjoyable. We all have things we can complain about, and we do. But they are trivial when you look at the big picture. I like looking at that big picture, and even though I can’t make a friend’s wedding because of a doctor’s appointment, or my Adcirca gave me a wicked headache today; I was still here to have the headache, to see the doctor and find out how I’m doing. I am still here, I am still breathing. I can’t complain about that.

I know it’s not an easy lesson, and some patients may think that it is just hot air, but I am telling you, it works. Take a few minutes every day, and just breathe. It doesn’t matter if you are having an up day or a down day. Just breathe. Contemplate your day, think about the world around you, and when someone asks you how you are doing, I dare you to try it. Answer them with “I can’t complain. I’m still breathing.”, and see how you feel. Try it once.... I triple-dog dare you.... and remember that “I breath, therefore I live.”.... and when you crack that little smile, and the next breath you take smells a little sweeter... say a Thank You to Charlotte Mayhood somewhere in your mind, I always do.


  1. Thank you i enjoyed your read. It was very inspirational and simple, How are you, I'm alive. :) I'm glad your cherishing your grandma in this way, sounds awesome.

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  3. I am crying as I answer this because it was just what my Great-Grandmother said. She grew up a farmer's daughter and then was a farmer's wife. She threw up a sheet over the roof when it was time for her husband and workers to eat dinner. She lived to be in her late 90's and said the exact same thing. Her vision might be fading, her hands turning in from arthritis, simple tasks taking too many spoons, but she did them. What did I do for her, all I could do. When I graduated from High school, she got a poster size picture...which she could see, and brag about because hers was the biggest...she liked to be special, and she was. I don't like to have my photo taken, much less enlarged! I needed to hear this today. My spoons are gone and my cousin's wife won't let him talk to him. My Nanny says it's because she has always been jealous of me. I'm dealing with PH, and he and I were close growing up. I wan't to talk with him so bad. "But I can't complain, I'm still breathing." Love to Rosa Mae Sanderson Cotton.