The Nature of Guilt


lungsWhen I was just figuring out that I would always be short and, perhaps less important, that I would need to depend on my mind more than my body, I spent the majority of my nights coughing.

This happened due to a mix of things, but mostly because my lungs were horribly weak. Born early and under-developed, my lungs raced to keep up with the unending adventures of an eight year old in the woods and back-yards of Pennsylvania. It wasn’t as though it didn’t give me enough warning of course: the racing of my heart, the heaving of my chest after slowing down at the top of a hill I just raced down on a sled–the clues were there. I just ignored them. The payment for this purposeful ignorance came at night when I found myself in bed. My lungs, now with the chance to catch up, found themselves filled with fluid from their efforts. As the body is wont to do, it tried to force that phlegm and mucus and whatever else out; but my lungs weren’t strong enough.

So there I’d be, late into the night, coughing and coughing while my underdeveloped lungs tried to deliver on a  job the rest of the body was asking for. I’d cough myself raw until slipping into a wheezy, brief sleep.  It’s part of the reason, I suspect, that I find myself wandering around my house well into the early morning now–but that’s a different story, I guess.

When I was young, my mother worked the night shift (11pm-7am) at a hospital as an OBGYN nurse. This left my sister, my father, and I to the house. It also meant my father was left to deal with his coughing son almost every night.

I can understand, as an adult, why it bothered him so much. The horror of having a son who almost didn’t live cough as if Death were trying to claim something he’d misplaced. The noise sounding like bad parenting or inevitability or whatever else. I can recognize now why it bothered him so much; but as a child I couldn’t imagine him as anything other than my father, who was both my protector and best friend. My father was my comforter and late-night-horror-movie partner.

His marriage was falling apart at this point, too. His wife had gotten a job to help support his habits and his unreliability, and that weight bore down on him as hard as anything else. He felt emasculated, I’m sure, by my mother’s family and perhaps even his own. He spent more time with his children than anyone else, and our single-tracked minds were surely causing him frustrations each day. He was a creative person, and there is nothing worse than needing to put your own artistic desire on hold for the sake of someone else. All of this I recognize now–I can put it all together into the larger picture, in a way.

So I couldn’t understand (nor do I completely understand now) how he could stand at my doorway in the dead of night and tell me to be quiet while I was having a coughing fit.

He didn’t tell me to be quiet, actually. He told me to “stop.” My father stood at my doorway, with all the lights off save for the one he turned on when he stood from his bed, and said “stop it.”

I’d try to. I’d try to hold the coughing into myself to satisfy him. I’d feel another attack coming on and I’d push my face into the pillow until I couldn’t breath. I’d wrap my arms around my chest and squeeze my ribs together. I’d do anything to stop from hearing the springs in his bed uncoil and his frustrated, heavy feet march towards his shut door.

Now, nearly twenty years from that point, I still carry that guilt. I feel the tickle in my lungs develop into a scratching at my throat, and my entire body locks. I try to swallow the cough away or make my eyes water with the air I force into my lungs and hold. I excuse myself from classrooms in order to cough where nobody is around, or I walk out of a meeting. I carry the guilt of coughing with me in bed next to my sleeping wife.

That is the nature of guilt, I find. That even if the thing (or person) that caused it is no longer present, the guilt will continue to follow you. It will continue to wrap itself against your chest and say “you mustn’t, you mustn’t, you mustn’t.”

One of the last times I spoke to my father–he isn’t dead, just estranged–I brought up this guilt. Actually, that’s a lie: I brought up the situation, the action, not the guilt. He acted surprised that it happened, and after some time told me that he was telling me to stop to help me. He thought it would help me. He was trying to help.

And the feeling I had then was something more than guilt, it was perhaps anger–maybe pity for myself. I tried to imagine how he’d come to that conclusion. How, at two A.M. about twenty years ago he’d think telling his asthmatic child to stop coughing could help.

Even after that conversation and reflecting on why I feel guilty when I cough (and every time I try to hold a cough in at night, and my wife rubs my back and tells me it’s okay, it’s okay to cough, it’s okay, sweetheart), I can’t push myself past it. Totally aware, I can’t allow my body to do one of the most natural actions it tries to do. But it also makes the action–the feeling and the resistance against it–a reminder of my personal identity and development as a person, which perhaps in itself helps me be more aware of what other small horrors other people are facing. The pressure of the guilt allows me to recognize the guilt in others, and permits me to allow them to let it out.

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