Fifteen Breaths Per Minute

One part of my heart was slowly dying as I sat there looking at her. The room felt unusually sterile. Perhaps it was the silence or maybe because the room was too brightly lit for a balmy July evening. The course of prednisolone had left her face puffed-up. Her eyes were closed. Her chest rose and fell rhythmically. Fifteen breaths per minute, I counted. There were instances when I woke up in the middle of the night, fearing for the worst, only to be consoled by the sight of her rising and falling chest.

Moving closer, I could see how emaciated she looked. Her white hair sparsely covered her scalp. She was always particular about her hair. You would never catch her with her hair improperly set. She had lost much of it during those few short months when she became acutely ill. Still, I would comb them to make sure that she looked neat. She stirred a little and opened her eyes. It was still that glassy distant look. She must have lost her sight around the time when she was in the ambulance coming back from the hospital just now. How rapidly her condition had deteriorated within such a short space of time.

I reached out and held her hand. That was the hand that had performed a million miracles for me. I clasped it, wishing I never have to let it go again and wishing that she could use it to perform some miracles on herself now. As I held her hand close to my chest, it was like I was embracing the entire history of my life. That was the hand that had tended to me from the moment of my birth up to a few months ago. The pads of her palm were soft. I have never realised that. Its smoothness belied the hard work that she had had to endure all her life.

I leaned over and laid her hand to my head. I wanted to be like a child again, to be caressed by those loving hands, to be reprimanded and to be held again like she always had when I needed to be soothed. For a while, when I felt the softness of her hand touching my head, I was a little kid once more, tagging along and walking down the narrow path with her on our way to the market. Her hand slipped and dropped back onto the bed as I released my grip. She was too weak to hold them up anymore. I heaved a heavy sigh of sadness.

I leaned closer and asked her, “How do you feel? Are you all right?”

“Yes,” came her feeble and soft reply.

She was never one to complain, even in the severest of circumstances. This time was different. She knew it and I knew it. We were reluctant to accept the apparent. She still had dreams for me, yet to be realised. I knew how she had wanted to see me begin a family of my own. I knew how she had wanted to have a grandchild she could mollycoddle. That, I knew, she would have wished for me over anything else, together with me being able to walk again.

“Do you have anything to tell me?”


“Do you have anything that you want me to do for you?”

I looked into her eyes but she did not look back. They were unblinking. I wondered what she saw with those eyes that had ceased to focus. Had it become a world of darkness for her now or could she already see the beginning of her journey?


‘Do you know who I am?”


“Tell me who I am.”

“Ah Choon…”

Her voice tapered off. It was laborious for her just to force those words out. She closed her eyes again. I could sense that life was slipping away from her bit by bit. Tears rolled down my cheeks. My nose began to run. My chest felt tight. It hurt me to see her losing her grip but I knew that it hurt her even more to know that she had to leave soon. Death she was not afraid of. What she worried most was leaving me behind with no one to look after me. She was holding on, fighting the inevitable while pleading for a little more time to bid her final farewell to one last person. I hoped she could wait that long. Friday was just a few days away. Her chest rose and fell rhythmically. With eyes blurred by tears, I counted, fifteen breaths per minute, like it always had been.

Author: Peter Tan

Peter Gabriel Tan. Penangite residing in the Klang Valley. Blissfully married to Wuan. A LaSallian through and through. Slave to three cats. Wheelchair user since 1984. End-stage renal disease since 2017. Principal Facilitator at Peter Tan Training specialising in Disability Equality Training. Former columnist of Breaking Barriers with The Borneo Post. This blog chronicles my life, thoughts and opinions. Connect with me on Twitter and Facebook.

9 thoughts on “Fifteen Breaths Per Minute”

  1. Dear Peter,
    I can never yet fully understand how you feel losing someone so close to your heart. However, I do know how it sad and lost it feels like to lose a loved one. My grandfather passed away more than 2 years ago and I was there to witness his passing. Just before he passed on, I too counted the number of breathes he took in a minute. I forgot the numbers but it was very minimal. It really hurt me so much to see my beloved grandfather move on to be with the Lord but I know that God loved him more and thats why He took him away from all of us.
    God loved your mum more and thats why he took her away from you.
    What you can do now is to live life to the fullest and not let your mother down. She performed many miracles with her hands on you…its now time for you to perform miracles on others and yourself. I am sure she was and is still very proud of what you are today. I for one am very very proud to have an online friend like you who is able to be independent in so many ways “normal” people aren’t. You have brought so much hope in my life whenever I compare myself to you. You may be inadequate in the physical way but you are by no means lesser in other ways.
    Peter, I know that there are times when you just wished to have your mother a while longer but God chose to take her away from you. Don’t despair because your mother will be up there watching over you 🙂

  2. Reading about your mum reminded me so much of my own mother’s last days. I try not to dwell on those moments too much because when I do, I will find myself crying and wishing she didn’t have to suffer the way she did just before she died. I am sure that your mum is watching over you from up above, knowing that God has better plans for you and that He is always with you. God’s ways are higher and his purposes better that what we can think or imagine. Trust in Him as you continue your journey on earth and believe that He who has formed you will never leave you nor forsake you.

  3. Happy Birthday to mom, Peter. May you be embraced with the love and strength from the Lord as you remember her birthday. In the midst of our tears, we have the joys of the time spent together. Hope you are planning something special for her on 9th October. Hugs to you.

  4. Cherry,
    I liked it when you suggested that I perform miracles on others like how Mum had performed hers on me. I wish I could. If I could, it surely is from God. That is a nice thought. Thank you.

    I try not to brood too much but I get flashbacks evey now and then. After more than one year, I am still struggling to come to terms with my loss. I am healing but I can forsee that the process is going to be long and slow.

    I have nothing special planned for this Saturday. Maybe I will bake a cake – Mum’s favourite butter cake.

  5. when i think about it, i’m not sure how my life would be without my mum. i’m sorry for your loss, peter.

  6. Your mom looks down from heaven, and she is proud of you, for what the growth she sees in you, for the love she feels from you, for being a good son. How do I know that? I just do.

    I wish I knew her before she went home.

  7. Peter,

    Be comforted to know you will see her again in our Father’s Heavenly Kingdom. Be comforted to know that she won’t be alone. Be comforted to know she is free from all pain and suffering. God bless.

  8. Mdmafia,
    I was most comforted by what I saw just before Mum passed away. That was the turning point in my life where my spiritual conviction is concerned.

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