Breathing Lessons

Raphaëlla Vaillancourt wrote “Breathing Lessons” with support from Monique Polak through the mentorship program of the Quebec Writers’ Federation. You can read the story behind the story here. 

Owen stared out the car window, his head resting against the glass. He spread his hands out on his thighs, rubbing them dry.

His mother looked over as she drove. “You sure you’re okay?”

He nodded. “Just a bit tired is all.”

She didn’t say anything else; at times, trying to get him to talk only made Owen more quiet. From the backseat, Parker squirmed and tried to stretch out his legs. He quieted, and for a while they drove on silently.

They turned a corner, and the hospital came into view. Memories of his father’s illness came rushing back. His mother parked the car and Owen stepped out, legs numb. Parker readjusted his grip on his guitar case and nudged him. Owen turned, and shot his friend a reassuring smile, but it didn’t quite reach him.

by Alexander Lam

by Alexander Lam

They walked through the sliding doors. The smell hit Owen first; the too-clean, chemical smell of medicine and sad halls. The beeps, the hushed conversations, and the ding of the elevator doors struck him next. His mother stepped toward the woman behind the counter, greeting her warmly.

“I brought some volunteers,” his mother said, gesturing toward the boys.

The woman smiled. “It’s great to see you, Owen.”

“And this is Jonathan Parker,” Owen’s mother added, pointing to his name on the list of volunteers.

Parker nodded, and Owen’s mother said, “Well, we’d better go help the others set up.”

They made their way to the main family room, where tables had been pushed against the walls to make space for the day’s activities. A few families were already gathered around a small stage, and a pair of clowns was entertaining some of the younger children.

Owen steadied his breathing, willing himself to calm down. He hadn’t been back to the hospital since his father’s death. The noise around him seemed too loud, the white walls and floors too bright.

As Parker began setting up on stage, Owen was reminded of his last shift at the bar. His boss had given him an ultimatum: he could either take leave and grieve properly, or he could forget his bartending job. As much as he’d been angry when it had happened, a part of him knew Henry had done it because he cared.

Owen looked around, hands in his pockets. So many things reminded him of his father’s time in the hospital.

“Let me help you,” he said, rushing to his father’s side as he tried to sit up in bed.

Owen held the older man by the shoulders and helped him push himself up. He could feel his father’s bones protruding through the coarse hospital gown he always wore now. Owen adjusted the pillow behind his father’s back, ignoring the smell of sweat that wafted to his nose. His father lay back and thanked him, scratching at the stubble on his usually clean-shaven cheeks.

One of the children running around the room bumped into him, snapping him back to reality. Owen felt goosebumps prickle along his arms and down his spine.

A girl who looked to be about twelve was being helped into the room by her father; brothers and sisters chatting excitedly around her. She looked up at them and laughed at something her father said, her hand gripping the walker in front of her tightly. Owen looked away, stomach knotting at the sight, reminded of the wheelchair his father had been confined to during his last few weeks.

No matter where he turned, tubes and wheelchairs and the blue hospital gowns he despised so much were everywhere. He rubbed his eyes, trying to make the flashes of his father’s final days go away.

“Owen, are you okay?”

Parker was at his side, looking anxious.

“I’m fine, just a little bit dizzy. I think I’ll sit down for a minute.”

Parker handed him his bottle of water. “Here, take it. Let me know if you need anything.”

Owen nodded and fell into one of the couches heavily, pushing back the curls falling into his eyes. He sighed and rested his elbows on his knees, hands clasped to keep them from shaking. When he lifted his head, his eyes fixed upon a girl at the opposite side of the room.

It was the girl who had asked him directions on his last night at the bar. She ran a hand through her wild hair absentmindedly, blue eyes darting around the room. She smiled and said something to a man handing her a cup of coffee, but all traces of cheerfulness vanished when she turned away. She looked in, brow knit with concern.

“Parker told me you didn’t look so good. Are you sure you’re up to this?” his mother asked, crouching in front of him and obscuring his view of the girl.

He shook his head as if to snap himself out of his reverie, and took a gulp of water. “It’s just a lot to take in.”

“If you need anything at all, let me know, okay?” She looked over at the stage. “Parker’s almost ready. Come help me finish setting up the food.”

He followed his mother to a set of tables topped with food and drinks for the gathering crowd. His mother handed him boxes of cookies and bags of fruit, and he unloaded them onto the trays. His mother hovered nearby, inspecting his work.

“Place them more neatly. Like this, see?” she said, rearranging the cookies in neat stacks.

Owen tried to focus on the task, but kept glancing up to get a glimpse of the girl. As she lifted a hand to toss her dirty-blond hair back, the sleeve of her shirt slid down her arm. He noticed she had a tattoo on her wrist, but from where he was standing, he couldn’t make out the design. A few of the other volunteers were breaking up boxes and clearing away the clutter they’d made unpacking the food. Parker was almost ready, and most people had taken a seat somewhere near the stage to hear him play.

“Well, we’re all done here, and just in time, look.” His mother pointed her chin toward a pair of doctors making their way through the crowd.

The crowd hushed, and all eyes veered toward the two men climbing onto the platform. They greeted everyone, and Owen recognized one of his parents’ close friends, a man who had studied with his father.

“Thank you all for coming.” The man cleared his throat, and continued, “It’s an honour, as always, to be in the presence of people as brave as our patients and staff. And as tradition goes here at the General, every year we want to celebrate the lives that are saved here, as well as those near and dear to us who have passed on. Both our staff and our patients inspire us each day with their perseverance and courage.”

His colleague, a tall dark-haired woman, took over. “This year, especially, we would like to take a moment to remember one of our own, whom most of you knew very well: Doctor Anthony Matthews.”

Owen turned to his mother. Her eyes were shiny with tears. Another nurse came up and squeezed her shoulder, whispering something in her ear that made her smile.

His mother looked over at him, and wove her arm into the crook of his elbow. They turned their attention back to the stage.

“Before we begin, let’s put our hands together for our dear head nurse Lisa Matthews, married to Anthony for more than twenty years, who has been back to work with us for a few weeks now. She is yet another example of courage.” Everyone clapped, and there was even a whistle from an enthusiastic patient. “Let’s also not forget our volunteers, who help make this day possible every year, as well as our special guests Owen Matthews—Lisa Mathews’ son—and Jonathan Parker, who kindly offered their musical talents to us all for the day!” The cheering continued.

The pair stepped off the stage, and people resumed their conversations. Parker finished getting ready. A few staff members came over to Owen to thank him for being there, or to express their condolences.

“Did you bake all these yourselves?” a lilting voice asked from the other side of the table.

Owen turned, and the girl from the bus stop smiled up at him, as she had the first time he’d seen her. “My mom and some of the other nurses did. I’m just here to help with the heavy lifting.”

She placed one of the pastries onto a plate and held it up. “Oh, very heavy. I can see why they’d need an extra pair of hands.”

He chuckled. The man he’d seen her with earlier came up behind her and said, “I’m going to go make a quick phone call; the others are waiting by the room.” As he moved away, he turned back and added, “Bring me a few of those cookies, okay?”

She nodded, adding a few more cookies to her plate.

Owen asked, “Your dad?”

“Step-dad.” She adjusted the large off-white scarf she’d wound around her neck. “But I’ve known him since I was two.”

“Oh, is your mom here too?”

“My mom left soon after my half-sister Quinn was born. It’s just us three.” She said it like it was the most normal thing in the world. “Violet Taylor,” she added, picking up her plate.

“Owen Matthews.” He tried to ignore the blood rushing to his head since the mention of his father. “Nice to meet you. Officially, anyway.”

Her eyebrows rose and her full lips made a small o. “You’re Doctor Matthews’s son?”

He nodded as the ache in his chest panged to life again.

“He was Quinn’s cardiologist from the time she was born. He was her favourite doctor, and he seemed like a great guy.” She smiled. “He must have been an amazing dad.”

Owen only offered a tight-lipped smile as answer. His father had always been too invested in his work to be around much. Only when the cancer struck did he try to make up for lost time.

Behind her, Parker sat down on a stool and began plucking the strings of his acoustic guitar. Violet looked his way, then back at Owen.

“I guess that’s my cue to go find the others.” She blew a strand of blond hair away from her eyes. “’Bye, then.”

He smiled and watched her walk off. She joined the rest of her family, who had placed their chairs near the entrance to one of the rooms. When she sat down, her step-father said something that made her smile. Then their faces turned grim again. Owen turned to watch Parker play. Spots began to dance in front of his eyes.

Stay strong, and I’ll be strong with you, Parker sang in his clear, booming voice. The room grew silent save for the sounds of his music.

Owen leaned against the wall behind him, clammy back resting against the cool plaster. He tugged at the collar of his shirt. The room suddenly felt stuffy and over-heated.

It’s nothing to cry about, we’ll hold each other soon.

He couldn’t feel his legs, and the stench of rubbing alcohol burned his nostrils. He stood up, away from the wall, but too quickly, and felt his view shift. He tried to steady himself against a chair, but was farther away than he thought, and stumbled into one the tables. He held back a curse as pain bloomed in his knee.

Parker shot a worried look his way, but kept playing. Owen’s mother sped over to her son’s side.

“I need air,” he croaked.

Before she could reach out to help him, Owen was rushing out of the room, through corridors, down stairs, and past astonished faces. When he finally made it outside, he stumbled in the grass, chest heaving. It felt like he was standing on his head. The cold wind whipped at his reddened cheeks and he felt like his heart was about to beat out of his chest.

He retched onto the wet dirt as rain spattered around him. His mother and an orderly helped him back onto his feet and wrapped his arms around theirs shoulders. His head swam, and he felt like he was about to be sick again. A second orderly took his mother’s place holding him up, as she sped inside to get a wheelchair.


Owen’s head pounded when he woke, and his eyelids felt leaden. He turned his head and blinked several times before he could make out where he was. He heard people speaking around him, but the sound didn’t quite reach his ears.

“I just never thought…” His mother’s voice sounded like an echo coming from the other end of the room.

Parker was standing with his back to Owen, reassuring her quietly. “I didn’t think he would react this way either.”

His mother took a deep breath. “It’s been nearly a year… And he always says he’s fine. I really believed he was putting it behind him.” When she looked over at him, she noticed he was awake, and rushed to his side. “How are you feeling?”

He squinted up at her, raising himself on his elbows. He nodded, noticing the gurney he was lying on.

A young woman in a nurse’s uniform came over. “His vitals are fine. He just needs to get some rest once he’s home, but you can leave whenever you’re ready.”

His mother thanked her, and the nurse left. Turning back to Owen, her brow creased. When he managed to sit up on the edge of the bed, he surveyed the empty family room around him. The patients and their relatives had gone back to their own rooms.

Parker approached slowly, short black hair spikey where he’d tugged at it.

“Hey.” The hospital smell stuck with him, and the ache was back, but otherwise Owen felt all right.

“What happened, man?” Parker breathed, taking a seat beside Owen’s mother.

Owen shrugged. “I guess it was just too much at once.”

His mother squeezed his hand, and said, “I’m going to get a soda from the machine down the hall. You boys want some?” They shook their heads. “All right, I’ll be in the car once you’re ready to get back.”

“How are you feeling?” Parker asked as he handed Owen his jacket.


Parker put an arm around Owen’s shoulders and teased, “Let me know if you’re about to puke again, all right?”

Owen shrugged him off and punched him lightly in the shoulder. “You’re an—”

He stopped midway as Violet stepped into view, leaning on the doorjamb. “I heard you were awake and thought I’d come check if you were okay.” She turned to Parker as he grabbed his guitar case. “You were great by the way. Those songs were beautiful. There’s rarely so much emotion in lyrics these days.”

Parker smiled and pointed to Owen over his shoulder. “He’s the brains behind it all. I just put his words to music.”

Violet looked at Owen and flashed him that closed-mouth smile of hers. A smile that wasn’t totally complete.

“I’ll go meet up with your mom so I can put my stuff in the car.”

Parker said goodbye to Violet, and shot Owen a wink as he stepped out of the room.

Owen cleared his throat, trying to recover from the half-cough, half-chuckle the wink had brought on. He looked at Violet and smiled sheepishly. She smiled that smile of hers.

When they stepped out into the hall, Owen noticed it had gotten dark out. “Heading home soon?”

Violet shook her head, toying with a button on her blouse. “Quinn is sick. I’ve hardly left her bedside since she was admitted.” She took a few steps down the hall and beckoned him closer. Unsure, he followed her toward a window that looked into one of the rooms.

“That’s her,” she told him, and Owen peered through the glass.

On the bed lay a bloated, pale girl in her early twenties. She was connected to a respirator by a breathing tube in her throat, and a wall of blinking machines surrounded the head of her bed. A dozen different slim tubes were affixed to her arms, running to the equipment and IVs in her room.

Owen looked over at Violet. She was gazing into the room too, arms folded across her chest, lips set in a hard line.

He hesitated before asking, “What happened?”

“She had a skateboarding accident and split her chin. It got infected after she got stitches, and the flesh-eating bacteria attacked her throat. They operated on her to keep it from spreading, but she’s been in such a critical state that they’ve had to keep her in a coma ever since.” She paused, looked up at him. “It’s been five weeks.”

“Is she…” he cleared his throat, tugged at his jacket, “is she going to wake up?”

Violet shrugged. “It’s up to her now. The doctors say they’ve done everything they can.”

He felt his stomach knot. He looked back at Quinn, throat covered in bandages where they had operated. He suddenly realized how, in a way, he’d been lucky. When his father was sick, they had still been able to talk. He’d never truly been grateful for it until now.

“I thought I felt powerless when my father got sick,” he said to no one in particular, eyes locked on the frail figure in the hospital bed. “I can’t imagine not knowing what’s going on inside her head. And what it’s been like for all of you. Not being able to tell her you love her.”

Violet nodded slowly. “I wish it was me instead of her.”

“I guess we all feel that way sometimes.” He remembered watching his father sleep in his hospital bed, a part of him wishing he could shoulder some of the pain, but another part grateful he wasn’t the one suffering. He felt ashamed of himself just thinking back on it.

Violet looked down at her mud-splattered boots. “If I could, I would live out every bad thing that’s ever going to happen to her in her place, just so she never gets hurt again. Growing up without a mom has already done enough damage to her.”

“If she never gets hurt, she’ll never grow.” He was surprised when the words came out of his mouth, and the sudden realization of how true they were.

He looked at her as she fidgeted with the ring on her thumb. “What about you? You don’t deserve what you’re going through any more than she does.”

“I’ve already been through hell and back. I know I can make it out. But that…” She pointed to Quinn through the window, “that is unfair.”

He was about to ask her what she meant by through hell and back, when a couple came rushing down the hall, wet boots squeaking. “How is she?” The woman hugged Violet, and rushed into the room before she could answer.

The man squeezed Violet’s shoulder and followed the woman in.

“I’ll let you get going.” Her eyes were dry, but there were dark rings under them.

He took a deep breath, taking one last look at Quinn, and nodded. “Yeah, the others are probably waiting for me.” He turned to leave.

“Don’t stop writing those songs,” she called after him, as if she knew about the feud he’d been having with himself. “I want to hear more of them some day.”

He looked back, smiled thinly, and walked away. She joined the others around Quinn’s bed.


Watch out for your mother, son. She tries to fix the world to forget her own pain.

Owen sat at his desk, pen in hand, staring at the notebook lying open in front of him. He hadn’t been able to write any more than those two lines. It had been two days since he’d volunteered at the hospital with Parker. The image of Quinn kept surging back. And every time he thought of her, he thought of Violet, and how she had probably seen more of his father than he had.

He rested his head in his hand and tapped the tip of his pen against the blank page. He scribbled aimlessly, looked at the time, got up. It was two-thirty in the morning; Parker would be off work from the bar soon.

Owen pulled on a fresh shirt, grabbed his jacket and rubbed his eyes. He was wide awake, and tired of sitting at home with too many ideas whirling in his head.

Watch out for your mother, son. She tries to fix the world to forget her own pain.

He pulled his hood up as he stepped outside, trying to shield himself from the downpour. It didn’t take long before he was soaked. He got to the bus stop and waited, shifting his weight from one foot to the other, hands deep in his pockets. His teeth chattered as the cold seeped into his coat, and he began to regret his decision. As he was debating whether to turn back for home, the bus came into view.

He got on, grateful for the warmth. As he headed to the back, he spotted Violet staring out the window, earbuds in. She was just as drenched as he was. In the past few days, a part of him had been hoping they’d cross paths again. He went over to her, and pulled his hood down.

She turned, and smiled the smile he was coming to recognize. She took out her earbuds and looked up at him.

“Hey,” he said. “Would you mind some company?”

She scooted over and patted the seat beside her. He sat down.

“To be out at this time, you’re either a night owl, or a very early bird,” she teased.

“Night owl, definitely,” he answered, unzipping his jacket. “Which one are you?”

She thought about it for a second. “What kind of bird doesn’t sleep at all?”

He smiled thinly as she turned to look out the window. He asked, “Coming from the hospital?”

She nodded, pulling her soaked hair into a bun. “I haven’t been home all weekend.” Then she laughed. “I wanted to take a shower at home and wash my clothes, but the storm took care of that for me.”

He chuckled. “How’s Quinn?”

“Good, then bad again. She knows we’re there though, so that’s a positive sign.” She leaned her elbow against the edge of the window and toyed with one of her many earrings.

“What do you mean?”

“She squeezes my hand whenever I ask if she can hear me.” When she saw the look on his face, she added. “I know it sounds like nothing, but if it weren’t for all those beeping machines she’s connected to, you wouldn’t even think she was alive in there.”

“You and your step-dad are really brave. I know a lot of people who wouldn’t be so hopeful. Like me, for one.” He peeked out the window, checking to see if the bar was in sight yet.

“I know you must have been there for your father. That’s what matters most—being there. You need to stop beating yourself up over what happened.” She gave him a look that said Trust me, I know, then asked. “Where are you headed?”

He wiped his hands on his jeans. “I was going to pop into the bar where I work.” He thought about it and laughed. “I should say worked. I don’t even know anymore.”

They were silent for a moment, then he got up the courage to say, “It’s right up ahead, if you want to come with me. I mean, since we’re wide awake anyway.” Then he felt weird for asking. After all, it was almost three and she hardly knew him.

“Now that you mention it, a drink wouldn’t be such a bad idea.” She laughed half-heartedly. “Lead the way.”

They got off a few stops later, without bothering to shield themselves from the rain. He peeked at Violet, who was lost in her thoughts as the wind whipped her hair out of its bun and sent strands flying all around her head.

For the first time, speaking about his father hadn’t brought on the ache. Suddenly, the melody he’d had in mind for weeks resurfaced, but this time it was a bit more complete.

Watch out for your mother, son

She tries to help the world and show a brave face

But she forgets what you are learning:

If we don’t ache and we don’t love, how will we grow at all?

Raphaëlla Vaillancourt is a Creative Writing student at Concordia University. A survivor of the flesh-eating disease, she blogs about the experience and her journey since. A year after her recovery, Raphaëlla was granted a mentorship alongside author Monique Polak, with the help of the Make-A-Wish Foundation and the Quebec Writer's Federation.