(Marie Giampaolo collection)

“Tim, stop!” I gasped as I chased the car around the block. By the third lap around the First Presbyterian Church, I was wheezing and clinging to the building. Maybe this was the time and place when my suffering would be over.

“Sorry I’m late,” said Tim cheerfully as he unloaded his camera equipment.

I was about to film a number with Humboldt County’s venerable musicians, The Kitchenaires. For years, they had used kazoos and kitchen utensils to play beautiful and haunting music.

Formed by 91-year-old Marie Giampaolo of Eureka, the group had kazooed the classics of our culture, every instrument from the soup ladle to the flour sifter tuned to exacting specifications.

They had chosen me for a cameo role in their performance with a sweet rendition of “Spanish Rose.” Understanding my musical limitations, Marie gave me a rose to hold in my teeth while my arms swayed in time with the music.

I needed rehearsal and preparation. I also needed to be breathing normally — impossible after my desperate foot-chase outside.

Sometimes, the most beautiful things happen when we are short of breath. I could say that about this summer, when I needed oxygen all day and night for two months. In the haze of my own oxygen debt, I saw life so clearly, my experiences with love strung together like the brilliant lights of the holidays.

I learned that I — that we all — play a bigger role in other people’s lives than we can imagine. Our presence, our heartbeat, the gentle rhythm of our breathing all are evidence of love we have to offer.

Last year at this time, I was preparing with my family to go to Jerusalem and to spend Christmas Eve in Bethlehem, Christ’s birthplace.

The Palestinian-controlled city was packed with tourists as I panted my way up to the Church of the Nativity. Midnight was approaching, time for the Christmas Mass.

The church was barricaded, allowing only those with special passes to enter. There was literally no room at the inn.

I stood in a town square outside the barricade as I attempted to catch my breath. I was alone in my thoughts. But then I saw a little girl grasping a stuffed animal. She was from Peru and had come to the Mass as well, only to find herself shut out.

I asked her what she wanted to do with her life and she said she wanted to share her faith with the world.  I told her she had just shared it with me. She smiled sweetly and pressed the animal against her face.

In that timely moment, everything that mattered to me fell into place. My purpose in fighting for every breath was not to see the Mass, but to be with the people who believed in it, to be with the little girl.

In the course of our trip, we visited the Jordan River and Sea of Galilee and we rode a Bedouin camel. But nothing comes close to that felling Christmas Eve when I fought for every breath to climb the hill.

Like our tears, our breathing helps to clarify our vision and give us life. That is the way I feel about Marie Giampaolo and the joy her Kitchenaires have brought to so many people, schoolchildren to seniors.

Now, after 40 years, the group is disbanding, playing one last concert Sunday, Dec. 15, at 2 p.m. at the Morris Graves Museum of Art, 636 F St. in Eureka.

Marie says it is time to rest.

I will miss them and the funny way I first met them, running futilely around a sanctuary and hoping my heart would hold.

So, I see shortness of breath as a sign of mortality but also an invitation to breathe deeply to celebrate the gift of life.

Dave Silverbrand’s columns and other writings are available on his website, www.davespeople.com.


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