Actual Space: How to Breathe in a Tunnel by Anna Doogan

Editor Robert Lashley, Editor's Choice, January 5th, 2017

“I think of parents grieving stolen breaths of their children...”

Anna Doogan essay on racial injustice


“Actual Space” is a regular column for black voices. It is a forum to tell your story, and answer questions on a variety of topics concerning how you cope with being black, what concerns you about race, what you wished you learned, and what gives you hope for the future. Anyone who wants to be honest, give your own particular witness, and go deeper within yourself with something only you can write; there will be space for you. You may also send art and photography concerning blackness, to be considered for a header image. Email Robert at

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At a gas station in Cleveland in July, sweat is running down my back as I pump gas into the car. Summer is the only time I consider chopping off my dreadlocks, when they feel so hot and heavy on my head and neck. On the way inside to pay, I avoid looking at the newspaper with Alton Sterling on the front page. Philando Castile. The images that I can’t get out of my head. I can’t read any more articles. I’ve spent too many days crying over the news, then being angry. Too many hours arguing on Facebook, deleting and blocking friends.

A black man comes out of the store wearing a shirt: I AM A PERSON, TOO. In the parking lot, another black man is wearing a bullet-proof vest as he gets in his car, just in case. We’re not taking chances anymore. All day long I’ve found myself holding my breath.

The clerk gives me a handful of bills and change before I step back out to the east coast humidity.


I wonder about this when I’m sleeping sometimes.

Who saw me take my first breath?

Who will watch me take my last?

In this country, some breathe more freely than others.

In the darkness of a tunnel, you don’t breathe at all.


Growing up in Pennsylvania, road trips were a regular part of the summer.

“Tunnel!” we’d scream out as kids when our car approached one. Then we’d gulp in big exaggerated breaths and puff our cheeks out.

At 6,070 feet, The Allegheny Mountain Tunnel is the longest tunnel on the Pennsylvania Turnpike.

That’s well over a mile to practice holding your breath.

As a kid, holding your breath that long was difficult unless you cheated. If you wanted to cheat, you’d subtly breathe in and out through your nose while pretending to look strained. Then, after the car had sped through the dark and neon lights of the tunnel, pressing against the wind, you’d make a wish, then blow out the air in a loud dramatic exhale and laugh, like maybe you almost fainted. Maybe you almost died.

“You breathed!” we’d accuse each other, pointing.

Holding your breath for the entire 6,070 feet was the ultimate triumph.

In a tunnel, the world closes in around you. Dark, just waiting. Until suddenly, hopefully, you emerge on the other side.

This is how life feels to me sometimes. Just holding your breath and hoping that you make it.


The doctor for my third baby had no bedside manner. I thought about this at every checkup while I stared up at the ceiling, at a poster of butterflies in a green field, placed strategically to keep patients distracted and calm. She silently squirted a blob of gel on my belly to start the ultrasound. “This will be cold,” she said, never making eye contact. I thought she was rude.

On the morning of an appointment a few weeks before my due date, I decided I was going to ask for a different doctor. In the waiting room, I practiced how I would tell her. I’d just be more comfortable seeing someone else.

The appointment was running late, well over time. I saw Dr. Lee rush out of the clinic without speaking to anyone, stone-faced. Finally the receptionist approached me. She had long bangs that fell in her face.

“We have to reschedule you. There was an emergency. Dr. Lee had to go save a baby.”

At the next appointment, she told me the baby had survived. I took it as a sign and didn’t change doctors.


At the gas station, I open the door for a girl in a pink tank top and sandals, chomping on gum. The sun has reddened her pale skin, and her long blonde hair falls over her shoulder. The cold blast of air conditioning hits her skin and she smiles as she comes inside.

“Can’t breathe out there,” she says.

I don’t say anything, but I think about Eric Garner in that moment. His murder, his last breaths captured now in screenshots of videos, in hashtags, in newscasts. His last words. I can’t breathe.

I want to tell her that no one can really breathe here anymore, but I just hold the door.


We used to hold our breath when we drove past cemeteries, too. That was the rule.

“Graveyard!” someone would yell as we drove past one. Then you’d have to inhale and hold it. Past mossy tombstones and crumbling graves and wilted flowers. Holding breath as we sped past until we could exhale loudly and laugh.

The superstition was that you would die if you didn’t hold your breath. I never really believed that. I thought that maybe the ghosts would fly into my mouth somehow, get caught in my throat. That the evil would somehow end up choking you into nothing.


Eric Garner’s murder was caught on film. Who thinks that they will live out their last breaths that way? Caught on camera as you choke out your last words. I watched that clip and it haunted me. Thinking, over and over.

I. Can’t. Breathe.

A woman in the grocery store compliments my daughter’s beauty. “She just takes your breath away.” Suddenly the expression makes me uncomfortable.


While I was pushing from the hospital bed, we knew something was wrong. My water had broken early that morning, a warm gush of liquid suddenly soaking the bed while I was sleeping. But things had stalled. I felt it running through me, heavy on my pelvis.

In the hospital, Dr. Lee told me the cord was wrapped tight around the baby’s neck.

“Every time you push, he’s being choked,” she explained in her blunt manner. The hospital smelled like cleaner and air conditioning.

There was an emergency resuscitation team in the delivery room while I pushed. They stood at the back of the room waiting, three of them, just in case. Stoic, not moving, with their equipment in red plastic boxes that reminded me of toolkits.

In the final push, I saw Dr. Lee’s hands moving swiftly, like small wings, cutting the tightly wrapped cord off my baby’s neck. We waited for him to breathe. Waited more.

He took a sputtering breath and I cried.

Two hours later, my mother in law brought our older two children to visit. My daughter had a handful of lilacs picked from our front yard.

After that, I always checked to make sure my son was breathing, every time he slept. Just staring for a few minutes. A hand on his chest while he rested. Just making sure.


The thing is, my son is still breathing.

When I think of parents grieving stolen breaths of their children, the children grieving stolen breaths of their parents, my chest feels empty. Hollow and brittle. Lives taken away at someone else’s hands.

Today on the news, more names added. More protests. More headlines. More grieving.

You can switch out the names, but we get the same message.

When the air is not equal, your right to breathe is uncertain.

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Header image courtesy of Phillip Simpson. To view an interview with the artist on NAILED, go here.

Anna Doogan, writer, essay on racial injusticeAnna Doogan is a writer, dancer, and mother of three. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Hip Mama, MUTHA Magazine, The Literary Kitchen, Arcadia’s Online Sundries, Threadcount Magazine, and The Boiler Journal. Her short story “Fires” won 1st Place in the Hip Mama/Unchaste Readers Writing Contest in 2015. She lives in Portland, Oregon.






Robert Lashley

Robert Lashley is the author of The Homeboy Songs (Small Doggies Press, 2014). A semi finalist for the PEN/Rosenthal fellowship, Lashley has had poems and essays published in such Journals as Feminete, No Regrets, NAILED, and Your Hands, Your Mouth. His work was also featured in Many Trails To The Summit, an anthology of Northwest form and Lyric poetry. To quote James Baldwin, he wants to be an honest man and a good writer.