Drowning On Air

I was twenty-nine years old when the doctor gave me three-to-five years to live. I had a rare genetic illness called Alpha-1 Antitrypsin Deficiency that, in it’s worst form, caused early-onset emphysema. I had the worst form. A lung transplant could prolong my life, I was told, but it was a very risky with a mortality rate of around 80%, five years after the operation, and an eventual failure rate of 100%. Not to mention that the lung transplant was far from a cure: with the associated medications, lifestyle changes, a certainty of organ rejection, and still-present disability looming over transplant recipients, it is often described as trading one chronic illness for another.

There was no possible happy ending to my story. One way or another, my illness was going to cut my life short.

It was June, 2002 –over eighteen years ago– that I had to start trying to wrap my head around that fact. My children (now grown college students) were infants. Looking back on my twenty-nine year-old self from the perspective of the forty-seven year-old man I am today, it feels like I was not much more than an infant myself. In the time that has elapsed between then and now, I lived a life and tried to realize some dreams. I had highs and lows, successes and failures, wins and losses that I could not have imagined, sitting there in the doctor’s office, eighteen years ago.

And now it’s all coming to an end.

Journal Memoir Oregon Rockaway Beach terminal illness

The Banshee

“You’ve got this!” was the last thing I texted her before she was rolled into the operating room.

We had been friends decades before, when we had both attended the same small, Southern high school, but had lost touch after I had joined the Army and she had gone on to college. We had reunited through the magic of social media about a dozen years ago, and had re-established something like a virtual friendship in the intervening years. I admired her ribald humor, her caustic wit, her genuine heart, and her devotion to helping others. For her part, she was always supportive of my writing, my music, and encouraging in my darkest times. We saw the world in much the same way and it drew us to one another.

A few weeks prior to my sending that text, she had announced that –after a few months of battling mysterious symptoms– doctors had found a tumor in her brain. A craniotomy was scheduled to remove the racquetball-sized mass and a biopsy would be performed to determine next steps.

She delivered this news with her typical nonchalance and good humor, as if it were nothing more than an inconvenience –like having to take her car into the shop. Over the next few weeks she gave updates on the upcoming surgery without ever losing that good-natured attitude (she even named the tumor). Her attitude was –at least for me– contagious. I was concerned with what the tumor biopsy might find, but untroubled by the actual process of removal.

A few days before her surgery she had sent me an encouraging note about my performance at pulmonary rehab, comparing it favorably to her own recent treadmill testing to get ready for the craniotomy. When I complimented her on her coolness in the face of her surgery she had said that, considering where we had come from, we had both overcome bigger obstacles.

She just didn’t seem worried, so I wasn’t either.

The night before her operation, we had talked about the watering can shower head in her hospital room. I had one like it and recommended it. It was all so mundane.

The next morning I had my own procedure (a dental surgery I needed to qualify for lung transplant) a couple of hours away in Portland, so I sent the aforementioned text, noted that she’d responded with a ‘thumbs up’, got in my truck and began my own long day of driving and doctors.

When I returned that night, I had been in a lot of pain and couldn’t wait to swallow my prescribed Oxy’s and crash on my couch. I spent the next day in much the same fashion –pleasantly spaced-out and napping to avoid the throbbing in my jaw. On the third day, I woke up wanting to know how she was doing; to know what the biopsy had said. I went to her Facebook page and it soon became apparent that something had gone terribly wrong.

She hadn’t ‘had it’.

She’d never woken up.

She was gone.

My friend Misty Ziegler was 46 years old when she died on October 31st, 2020.

I have missed her heart, humanity, and humor every day since.

When I was a child, my mother would take me and my sister to the public library in Poplar Bluff, Missouri, once a week. We would balance-beam-walk the low-slung retaining wall that framed the front of the red brick, Colonial Revival building until we reached the stone lions (that I was, unreasonably, not allowed to ride) that bracketed the wide stairway leading up to the front doors.

Once inside, my mother would turn us loose to roam the basement children’s library while she wandered through the stacks of the main library above.

The trip to the library was the highlight of my week, which is why I find it odd that I have only one really vivid memory of any book that I checked out there as a child. I could draw you the floor plan; can recall exactly where I would sit waiting for my mother to finish making her selections in the main library upstairs; can remember precisely where the librarian’s desk was; can still smell it when I close my eyes.

But I can only recall one book that I checked out there before I was a teenager, and of that, I only vividly recall a single illustration on a single page.

I was eight years old and the book was an assorted collection of folk tales, short stories, and poems for children. The illustration was for a poem called The Banshee, about the harbinger of death in Irish folklore. It was a two-color print, black and green, of a looming, howling figure in a hooded shawl, chasing a terrified child down a path.

I can’t recall the poem, only the picture.

It scared me so badly that I called my mother into my bedroom for comfort. Unbeknownst to me, when my mother had been a girl, a banshee in the film Darby O’Gill and the Little People had terrified her, and she still held a grudge. She had threatened to take the book, but I assured her I’d skip the banshee poem and just read the other stories in the book, so she had relented.

The next night, lying in bed, I couldn’t resist cracking open the book to the page that had scared me so badly the night before. It had only taken minutes before my imagination had me yelling for the comfort of my mom’s presence. She wouldn’t be dissuaded that night, and when she left my room that night, the book left with her.

But that wasn’t the last I’d see of the banshee.

She began to howl in my ear the day I was diagnosed in June of 2002, and ever since, everything has sounded like a lament. She draped her shawl over my eyes, so that everything I saw was refracted through a prism of death. She has been my constant companion –a hellhound on my trail from which I can’t run fast enough. The pall of death colors everything I see.

But the longer this has drawn on, the more it seems like a fraud. I feel like Hyman Roth in The Godfather II, who is described as having been dying from the same heart attack for twenty years.

People I love, and who I expected (and who expected themselves) to attend my funeral, have now not only heard the banshee’s howl, but have felt her cold touch as they are lowered into the grave. And every time it happens, she digs her bony fingers into my collarbone and whispers in my ear:

“It was supposed to be you.”

“I guess you’ll be going to my funeral now,” said my friend Doug Gast.

It was March of 2018 and we were sitting in the Parkade Bar & Grill in Kennewick, Washington –his local pub.

We had met about a dozen years earlier when he was an associate professor at Washington State University and I was a student at a community college submitting work for an art exhibition he was curating. As fate would have it, we moved to the same neighborhood not long after and became fast friends when we began frequenting the same pub at nights. We were about the same age, had similar backgrounds, and similar views on life and we really hit it off. I liked him immensely.

In 2007, I transferred to WSU and became his student, so we instituted what we called the “Cone of Silence” that strictly segregated our on-campus and off-campus lives –a necessity, due to how many of our evenings ended in hazy, alcohol-soaked revelry.

In late January, 2010, I had been in the hospital for months, battling a crippling and torturous manifestation of my disease that saw my body swell and split open like an over-ripe banana. Doctors had been mystified for the first two months, and had transferred me to a hospital in Seattle, four hours from home, where I had spent the holidays, confined to a wheelchair in a cancer ward, watching every one of my roommates die.

Shortly after New Year’s Day, the doctors had made a diagnosis and prescribed an effective treatment, so, by the time my birthday rolled around on January 21st, I was able to hobble in and out of the shower in my room. That’s just where Doug and his wife Casey found me, that last week of January –hobbling out of the shower. Luckily, I had dressed before I exited the bathroom, so I was saved us all some embarrassment, but I could have not been more surprised if I’d have exited the bathroom and found Salma Hayek sitting on my bed.

Not only had they come, but they had come bearing gifts (sketchbooks, charcoal, graphite pencils, fixative, books) for my birthday –which was four days earlier than Casey’s. Not only that, they wanted to bust me out of the hospital and take me to dinner and a rock ‘n’ roll show. It only took a little subterfuge to escape, and in an hour we were all sitting in Linda’s Tavern, just up the hill from Pike Place Market, enjoying the first real meal I’d had in months. We didn’t make it to the show, but we did make some wonderful memories. By the time they snuck me back into the hospital at two in the morning, I’d had one of the best nights of my life.

I never forgot that display of loyalty and love.

Over the next decade we’d be there for one another through all sorts of troubles too private to mention, but suffice to say that Doug and I knew one another as well as two human beings can, I believe. He was always there for me when I needed him.

It was December of 2017 when I heard he was dying of cancer. I was spending another Christmas in the hospital –rehab, this time– and felt desperate to bust out and run to him; to comfort him; to be there for him as he had been for me all those years before.

Life doesn’t work like that, though. It’s not fair, and we often can’t balance the scales. When I was released from rehab, I ran.

I had spent a traumatizing few weeks in the ICU fighting off a flu that had almost killed me, the banshee howling in my ear, so when they let me go, I’d bought this place on the Oregon Coast and never even glanced back at the place that had been my home for the previous twenty years. The people either, if I’m being honest. It was a month before I even went back to visit. Which is when I found Doug, sitting at his table in the bar, a few blocks from his house.

When he told me that he guessed I’d be going to his funeral, it felt like the worst sort of betrayal –like I’d cheated him somehow.

I retreated back to the coast he and I both loved.

He visited it often in his last couple of years and he got to see my little Shangri-La before he passed, but when he came to Rockaway in his last months, we had both been too scared of COVID to see one another. He and Casey sat outside of my house, their car idling, unable to bring themselves to knock.

I never knew they were there.

The banshee came for Doug on August 2nd, 2020. He was 46 years old.

For all the terror she engenders, the banshee is not actually intended to be a menacing figure in Irish folklore –though she has become so. She was originally a helpful figure, bound only to the upper class, as a useful harbinger to remind them to prepare themselves and their houses for their passing.

She has been that for me. If not for her, I would have never struck out on the path that brought me here to my cozy little home by the sea. It was her howling that drove me into a new life all those years ago. It was the weight of her cold shroud that reminded me to push harder, to keep going forward, to not give up. She has brought me to where I am.

I don’t know if my friends heard her, but I hope they did, because I have heard a message in her lament that I hope they were able to profit from.

“Death is coming,” she says. “Live while you can.”


Get Up And Do It Anyway

One of the most frustrating things about my disease is how unpredictably variable it is. I never know, day-to-day, how my breathing is going to be. A few weeks ago things were relatively easy and a positive outlook was easy to maintain. I could even summon some optimism about the future. The last week-and-a-half, things have been viciously hard. Walking just a few steps leaves me gasping for long minutes afterward. Something as insignificant as brushing my teeth is absolutely panic-inducing and leaves me trembling. Showering feels like being water-boarded. Even the smallest tasks leave me exhausted. It’s so easy to give in to despair; to want to quit; to want it all to stop; to want all this excruciatingly hard work to be over.

But then I remember all the other times when it was so hard I wanted to give up: that Christmas in a wheelchair, watching cancer take my hospital roommates, one by one, as my body tore itself open like an over-ripe banana; another Christmas in another hospital, staring at the grain of the tile, an inch from my eye, suffocating and certain it was the last thing I’d ever see; another hospital bed and a doctor telling me that if I didn’t start fighting, I was going on a ventilator that night, and probably never coming off.

Dozens of times more, I’ve wanted to give up, because this disease makes everything so goddamn hard. Hard like it’s been the last week-and-a-half.

But I don’t give up. I breath in and out, as best I can, and tell myself to make it to the next second, then the next minute. Minutes build hours, hours build days, and if you put enough days together, things will get better than they are now.

A lot of us –maybe most of us– are going through hard times of one sort or another. None of us know what each new day will bring. If your today is worse than your yesterday, dig in and fight for tomorrow, and the tomorrow after that, until things get better –and things will get better– so don’t quit. Build those seconds into minutes, into hours, into days. Accept that it’s hard. Accept that it’s excruciating. Accept that it’s terrifying.

Then get up and do it anyway.

News & Updates

Housekeeping: #NaNoWriMo

There likely won’t be many long pieces from now through the end of November, as I’m gearing up to participate in my first National Novel Writing Month –an Internet-based creative writing event which challenges writers to create a novel-length (50,000 words) manuscript in thirty days. I’ll still be posting, but they will be shorter, less substantive pieces than, say, Hair-Trigger Nation, or First One’s Free. Expect more content like The Comforting Roar of Eternity or NFQ –short little observational blurbs that I can hopefully imbue with a little craft and poetry.

Sincere thanks to everyone who has read, shared, and/or commented in the past two months. I really appreciate it.

Here’s hoping that I end November with something publishable!


A Little Something in My Throat

When I finally coughed it up, it was no bigger than the head of a pin. It was a minuscule bit of cheeseburger that I had accidentally aspirated while polishing off dinner over Futurama re-runs. All that panic over something so small; all that terror in such a tiny package.

All day, I’d been telling myself to attempt to walk the four hundred yards to the beach. I’d been going to pulmonary therapy for a couple weeks, so I was trying to push myself physically in ways I wouldn’t have before. I’d decided to try it after I swallowed that last bite, so maybe I was rushing it a bit.

I have to pay unusually close attention when I swallow –even just saliva– because I have to time it carefully with when I breathe –to which I also have pay unusually close attention.

It’s a dance that feels increasingly fraught as my disease gets worse. Nearly every breath feels as if it’s the first one after staying underwater just a bit too long, so I don’t have a lot of time to play around if something goes awry.


First One’s Free

‘…Almost every adult I knew smoked. Cartoon characters smoked. To complain about smoking was almost rude, like being a vegetarian.’

The America I grew up in was dusted in ash and studded with cigarette butts. Everyone smoked everywhere, all the time: hospitals, grocery stores, movie theaters, high schools  –and no one thought a thing about it.

By the end of the 1970’s, when I was a boy, the entire country was like an over-flowing ashtray that had been filling up since Prohibition. The public spaces looked like a morning-after coffee table, and people just didn’t give a damn anymore.

They stubbed out cigarettes on shopping cart handles, on grocery store shelves, on the carpeted floors of department stores, on the tabletops at restaurants and bars. Nearly any flat surface was a socially acceptable option when it came to snuffing out your coffin-nail.

Part of it was just the times. America was grubbier then. There was a sort of gray film that coated everything and the whole nation had the feeling of being worn and lived-in, like a building that had seen too many tenants.

It was completely normal to see someone answer a telephone, pick up a pencil, and start writing on the wall as if it were a notepad. People tossed garbage from car windows without a second thought. People poured used motor oil straight on the ground.

It was like we were all just renting the place.



When I decided to start this blog a couple months ago, it was out of desperation. The sense that I was running out of time was palpable. I had butterflies in my stomach constantly and I was an emotional wreck, being crushed under the weight of impending doom. I had no hope and didn’t expect to get any.

In just a few weeks, my outlook has improved dramatically, even if my situation hasn’t.

Writing has been a big part of that. I had things inside that needed to be outside, even if I didn’t know it, and finally getting them down on ‘paper’ has really improved my mental health.

A bigger part, though, has probably been starting pulmonary therapy two weeks ago.

When I started, it had been years since I’d done any sustained physical activity, and I just didn’t think I had the ability anymore. I envisioned nothing in my future but a rapid, unchecked decline in my lung function that would eventually lead to my death.

But in just four sessions at the gym, I’ve already seen improvement. Slight, it’s true, but improvement nonetheless.

More important than the measurable (if minor) physical improvement, has been the immeasurable boost to my confidence that has come from being able to push myself past my limitations –to exceed what I believed to be possible.

That boost in confidence has given me hope and a renewed desire to keep pushing, to keep fighting, and to Never Fucking Quit.

So, tonight, I’ll watch the sun drop down into the sea, basking in the last rays of the day, and luxuriate in the beauty of my lazy little town.

Then, tomorrow, I’m gonna drive that hour-and-a-half up to Astoria, walk into the therapy gym, and I’m gonna get to work.


Letter from Facebook Jail

I just finished up my first Facebook jail sentence, and I have a couple thoughts.

First, I deserved it. No doubt about it, I earned my sentence. In fact, I’m surprised it took so long for me to get put in the virtual hoosegow.

I feel like the Internet I started on back in the early 90’s was the Wild West –anything went. You could say whatever you wanted.

The first time I logged onto Prodigy (that’s right, Prodigy!), it took approximately 4 seconds for someone to insult me in chat (I was typing in all caps). I don’t remember exactly what was said –something about my parents, rat poison, and a slow death– but I recall being impressed by the wit, vocabulary, and vicious beauty of the well-crafted barb. It stung, but it was also funny.

“Oh!” I thought. “Words are weapons here!”

Being good with words, I loved that idea. Within a few months I was jumping into Internet arguments with both guns blazing -my barrels spitting out cutting, witty, and deliciously profane clauses.

In this world, I was a gunslinger.


The Langoliers

I’ve been serving my first stint in Facebook jail, so that has given me time to do some sprucing up around the blog. I updated the theme to match my house, fixed how posts were displayed, and updated the ‘About‘ page. It was an afterthought of jumbled text, and I wanted to clean it up and make it concise, but still information-rich. Ya know. For my eleven readers.

Part of what I wanted to do was link to my music on the web, but I didn’t want to belabor it, so I was going to choose a single representative site. I did a quick search of my name, trying to find the best site to link.

And it was like I’d never lived. Half-a-dozen scattered links over the first few pages of returns. My music all but erased from the digital Rolodex.

As late as last year, it wasn’t hard to find. If you had Googled ‘Brian Holbrook‘ then, the first few pages would have contained links to my albums and singles on Pandora, Spotify, Amazon, YouTube, etc…

It was kind of a comfort to me. I would tell people, “At least my music will live on after I’m gone.”

But nothing lasts, really –certainly not this library of imaginary ones and zeroes.

It made me think of that old Steven King story, The Langoliers, and I imagined my digital past being ruthlessly munched into oblivion by laughable CGI.

It also got me thinking, though, that the only way to outrun the Langoliers was to stay in the present and not get trapped in the past. So, that’s what I’m going to do. It doesn’t matter what last year’s Google might have shown, it only matters what I do today.

So, I’m shifting gears a little bit here on the blog. I’m still figuring out what I want this thing to be, and what I want to accomplish with it, but expect more informal, short entries about my life, health, observations, poems, and even music. I’m still going to write the more long-form essays, but I also want to focus on a couple other things, not the least of which is more frequent, diverse, and shorter content.

More to eat, but in smaller bites, for future Langoliers.


Hair-Trigger Nation

The End of the Beginning

Like most of America, thirty years ago, I fell in love with the Ken Burns documentary, The Civil War.

I’d been a weird history kid my whole life. In elementary school, my mom bought me a monthly subscription to these collectable index cards called Story of America. They had descriptions of historic events on one side and a depiction of the event (or a photo of something related to it) on the other

They were color-coded into different categories that you would organize in the included flip-top file box. Every month you got ten new cards on some significant event or person in American history. They’re how I learned about The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, and The Sand Creek Massacre, and the Tweed Machine. They were great. I still recall many of the illustrations.

In second grade, I was enthralled by Dick Cavett’s Remember When on HBO, and Vietnam: The 10,000 Day War on PBS. I was probably the only kid in class who was genuinely excited to watch old black-and-white episodes of Biography when they rolled in the projector.

Which is why, thirty years ago, I was happy to be sitting cross-legged in the orange shag carpet of my parents’ living room, watching PBS.


The Comforting Roar of Eternity

Sometimes, usually at night, when the tide comes in, I’ll be sitting here in my living room, windows open, watching TV, wondering,

“What the hell is that roaring noise?”

Then I remember it’s the Pacific, just over the berm, clawing at the beach, just like it has for 200 million years –long before any of my kind were around to hear it. It puts me in my place, this ocean.

So I mute the TV and listen to the closest I’ll ever get to eternity whisper in my ear.

“You don’t matter.” It says. “You are nothing. This is all nothing. None of this means anything. I will be clawing at this beach 200 million years from now, long after your kind are gone.”

There are people I know who would consider this discouraging, or terrifying, or even heresy or blasphemy. But for me? It is a comfort like a mother’s embrace.

“It’s all been OK.” It says. “All you’ve worried about, and fretted over, and tortured yourself because of during long nights of doubt? It’s as insignificant as beach sand. It all gets washed away, eventually.”

And some part of me wishes that it weren’t true –that I’d mattered somehow. But I’ve seen enough of death to know that the ocean isn’t lying.

We fade within two generations, often sooner. We are sparks from a bonfire: beautiful, blazing, unique, and soon forgotten.

But that’s OK. It’s OK to be a spark that is born, rises, touches nothing, and fades away. That is the cycle. That is life.

That’s the truth the Pacific knows.

And sometimes, when I mute my TV, it whispers it in my ear.