Hebrew word for Life is Ha, which is the sound of our breathing. The ancients, in their disavowal of pretense and preferring simplicity over posture, often teach us the essence of things. Life is breath.

And what is life but a breath?

Last week, my family went to Irvine (CA) to see my father-in-law  who is tubed to a breathing machine . He can’t breath on his own because has terminal lung cancer, one lung already collapsed and the other compromised by pneumonia and deteriorating.

The family had to agonize over taking out the tube and let him die peacefully. He was disoriented and violently pulled out the tubes intruding into his mouth and down his throat. The nursed had to constantly sedate him and triple-tape the tube into his mouth. The whole contraption looked cruel except that if it were to be removed, he would die.

Wednesday morning, the day of removal, was tense for the family. During the drive, the family was still arguing whether they were doing what their father desired even if they had agreed with the doctors advise of removal as the humane choice. But when we arrived at the hospital, things had changed. The father-in-law was totally conscious and aware and somewhere in the middle of the night recovered his will to fight. He did not want to stop breathing. He said, through writing, that he wanted to live, to keep the tube in his body and asked doctors to give him all the tools and medicines they can give him to fight the pneumonia and his rebellious cells so he can breath on his own again. The family teared with joy.

How flimsy our life, that it — the years of experiences, the senses of light and touch and color and smell -is all but few breaths. And how sturdy the human spirit, that as long as one still has breath, one can suffer all and overcome all. The immensity of life and life’s challenges sometimes comes down to the simple act of breathing.

My father-in-law was learning to breath, to live, perhaps for the first time.

I committed myself to learn to breath. That I might not get into a fight that will burn the bridges of a relationship but stop and breath for a few seconds before I respond. That perhaps cancer is prevented when I take deep breaths when my body is breaking down in stress. That when what is ahead is dark, I should learn to breath a prayer and so feel another’s breath entering into my lung.

Learn to Breath. Learn to live.