The breath of death

“An achievement in art or in letters grows more interesting when we perceive its connections.” Henry James.

In honor of the (by now irreversible, one hopes) publication of “Thank You For Your Sperm” (TYFYS), I will post a handful of its 80 stories together with background, notes on the story’s genesis and so on. This post also includes a reading of “Asthmatic”, which was first published in A-minor magazine in 2010.

My flash “Asthmatic” lives close to the bone, close to my blood flow. The background is very personal, more personal than any other story I’ve published except one titled “The Serious Writer And His Mother” which also deals with death. The earliest version of “Asthmatic” was written on the train, the same train that had brought me, a few years earlier, to Hamburg on the day my father had died and lay in state in his apartment so that we could say our good-byes to him. After his death I developed a serious case of (temporary) asthma. I say ‘in response’ because he’d suffered from pulmonary problems for years before his death, and though I don’t know the exact pathways that my unconscious traveled in order to come up with the idea, I remain convinced to this day, that my asthma was part of my grieving process. — I’m equally convinced, as the narrator say, that asthma is a refusal to take life in the form of breath. It is of course, possible to live a very long time that way. It is even possible to write, and write well—an excellent writer like William Gass strikes me that way, and there are others who seem miraculously (given their mastery of the craft) restricted, or self-restricting. It may be as simple as fear of one’s death. Respect of death, and love for life is a sure sign of (writerly) health. For me, the death of loved ones forms the core of my sincerity. Thinking of them and of the experience of loss surrounding their deaths helps me refocus on existential issues, on the issue of being a man, of being true. After death, there’s only forgiving: them, ourselves; and listening to the bees singing on the barren heath:

Once meek, and in a perilous path,
The just man kept his course along
The vale of death.
Roses are planted where thorns grow,
And on the barren heath
Sing the honey bees.

[From: William Blake, The Marriage Of Heaven And Hell. The photo above shows Blake’s death mask.]

“Asthmatic” was first published by Shel Compton in A-Minor magazine, presently relaunched with Nicolette Wong at the helm. It is included in my debut collection, “Thank You For Your Sperm” forthcoming from MadHat Press. You can like TYFYS on Facebook or Google+ (or both), and very soon you should be able to place an order for yourself, for you friends, or for your friendly birth partner…

[Click to listen to this story.]


On August 12, I realised that my asthma was an unwillingness to take life in. That I was alive nevertheless, and remained so, was, for me, one of the many paradoxes of existence, strewn across our path as unsolvable riddles, tough mind candy to chew on. I did not care for His jokes.On August 13, I had decided to end my life. I instantly knew how I’d do it: I would jump of Jefferson bridge and enjoy the short flight. I calculated that I would fly for 6.34 seconds. In this time span, I wanted to see and experience everything as if for the first time. I was looking forward to the intensity of a prolonged moment of birthlike magic.

On August 14, at 14:45, after an incredibly good Pizza from Joe’s, an otherwise little noteworthy Italian hole in the wall on Grammer St, I let go off the railing and flew towards my death. Earlier, I had sat on these railings for about a minute. Not too long to develop deep fear and not too short, because I did not want to do anything in haste. This was too important.

All the while, though, if I’m honest, I hoped that something or someone would save me.

In fact, I did have my flight, and it was unbelievable. I could not possibly put it into words. You’ll have to go there yourself. The flight was 0.07 seconds longer than I had anticipated due to strong winds that created an updraft, which slowed me down. Those are details.

The interesting thing is that I never hit the surface but found myself instead eyes closed in a fetal position on my bed at home. I don’t know what happened and I don’t care. I will not, I repeat, I will not do it again. I stopped having asthma attacks, too, and I’m going to get married tomorrow, thank you very much for your good wishes.

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