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Bone, Breath, and Fire: A Daughter's Search for her Missing Father

Over the course of this in process memoir, a daughter’s intense but diffuse grief for her Missing-in-Action father gradually becomes the fuel that propels her to become fully present to her own life. The way through is far from easy, however, and the book charts her journey from a childhood full of secrets, whispers, and hidden sorrows to a tumultuous and thrill-seeking adolescence; a painful first marriage and early initiation to parenthood; and an unfolding discovery of her own true vocation as she becomes first a student and then a teacher of meditation, eventually leading hundreds of people to face their own mortality through small groups based on the book A Year to Live. Throughout the many wrenching changes, upheavals, and zig-zags of her life, one constant theme is that of breath: from early childhood fears of gasping for air; to her work as a respiratory therapist, which first brought her to the bedside of dying patients; to the focus on breath which was central to her meditation practice; and then to the intimate experience of breathing alongside people who were facing death.

Along with the central theme of breath, the book is grounded in an exploration of what it means to be “Missing in Action.” It traces the very literal, and dramatic, story of a pilot-father’s sudden disappearance during the Korean War, and the many ways that his absence reverberated throughout an entire family, for years to come. As the memoir unfolds, it explores many other forms of going “missing”: pushing down memories, repressing feelings, pursuing danger, and creating drama to avoid having to truly look within….

As the memoir shines more and more light into the dark, suffocated, jagged and edgy places that reside in the human heart, a very palpable feeling of relief, release, and resolution converge—though never through rose-colored glasses. More than anything, the author reveals her determination to be fully present to whatever life offers, even in the midst of intense suffering. Her own father may have died alone, far from home and family, and left behind only endless questions and the bones of one foot, but his daughter will sit by the bedside of her patients, her students, her friends and family members, and accompany them breath by breath through the process of dying, and after they’ve died, she will watch as their flesh and bones are consumed by fire.

Having faced her own fear of death, having at last moved through the long grief of losing a parent she barely knew and emerged from the limbo that is the plight of those whose loved ones have gone “missing in action,” Bonnie O’Brien Jonsson’s book is a testimony to both the breadth and depth of healing that can occur when we both permit and commit ourselves to practice facing what has actually happened and is happening in our lives. Though it is the furthest thing from “light reading”—it is a book full of light and, from start to finish, it is interlaced with vivid and unforgettable moments of family love, portraits of unforgettable characters, incidents of unexpected comfort and consolation, and experiences of sheer joy: whether in greeting a new grandchild, creating a second home in a little yellow cottage in Sweden, or simply walking out into a field of golden grasses in northern California, under a vast blue sky.