Monday, April 11, 2016

The Wind at One's Back

My cat Maxi doesn’t actually try to kill me, so far as I know. At 17 (the median lifespan of a domestic cat with a home is 16), he most often doesn’t try much of anything beyond what he is doing in the photo. That’s not to say he hasn’t come close to succeeding a few times regardless. Usually this happens when he is underfoot at inconvenient moments such as when I am at mid-step while carrying a heavy box with both hands up or down the stairs; at such moments I have to decide between stepping on him or placing my foot down in a dangerously unbalanced way.

Yesterday Maxi did not bring down my final curtain, but he did lower it for intermission. My back porch for most of its length is about one foot (30cm) higher than a concrete rain pad, which is level with the grass. While moving a chair with my back to the edge, I took a step rearwards and felt Maxi underneath my descending right foot. I stepped further back to avoid him, missed the edge of the porch, and flailed as I sailed backward and slammed my back against the grass.

I remember the very first time I knocked the wind out of myself. I was five years old. As I did almost every day, I had been clambering on the Climbing Tree, an oak in the front yard with branches perfectly spaced for the monkeyshines of children. In a moment of overconfidence I missed a handhold. Due to some trick of memory, I recall the scene not from my own eyes but from some disembodied perspective from which I watch myself fall to the ground. My perspective returns to myself immediately after impact. For the first time I experienced that strange sensation of being unable to breathe. The moment passed, as it will, and I sat up. I didn’t mention it to anyone out of fear that my mother would forbid me to climb the tree again.

The last time (before yesterday) was about 20 years ago when with overconfidence (there’s that word again) I jumped over a three rail fence – or rather failed to jump it. My toe caught on the top rail and I unintentionally somersaulted. I landed on my back obscured by tall hay. My breath didn’t return rapidly this time, and I remember thinking, “It will be days before anyone finds my body here.” But, return it did and my fence crossings since then have been less frolicsome. After that event, I also looked up the phenomenon of being winded on that newfangled thing called the internet.

A person is most commonly winded either from a hard fall on the back or from a hard blow to the solar plexus. The impact knocks the air out of the lungs and causes the diaphragm to spasm. Until your diaphragm relaxes there is not much you can do but gasp uselessly and expect to die. You won’t die, of course – not from that anyway. Your diaphragm will relax in a minute or so and you will breathe again. You can speed the process by assuming a crouch, though often any movement feels all but impossible.

After a score of years I hadn’t expected to revisit the experience. My response was not homey nostalgia. Oh, I’ve had plenty of other accidents, such as the time that I opened the gate to a paddock and didn’t notice in the twilight that the electrified line that topped the fence was still connected across the gate span at forehead level. I walked into 5000 volts: dropped me to my knees. But I had thought the old breath-knock was a thing of the past. It probably now is – unless Maxi has other ideas.

Jerry Lee Lewis (1958) Breathless


  1. I don't know if I've had the breathe knocked out of me at least not that I remember, though I've slipped numerous times. I've even slipped in the shower, which seems to be the cliched place to drop.

    I remember as a child watching as other kids on the swing sets would do backward flips off one of the higher swings. It was basically a bar attached to two chains holding it, and they'd wrap their legs underneath it and flip off backwards. I tried it once when I was alone on the schoolyard playing and landed somewhat on my head. I don't know if I lost my breathe, but it sure rung my bell.

    1. There is no mistaking the experience and it’s a memorable one. So if you don’t remember, it hasn’t happened – and good for you.

      Ah yes, the days when playgrounds had monkey bars set in concrete, swings with finger-pinching chains, and functional see-saws off of which you could jump so the other kid banged on the ground. None of the soft plastic in sand that takes so much of the pain and fun out of it today.