These aren’t my lungs,” he told his theatre classmates. It was 2013 and Brennen Reeves was facing an eager audience, speaking of an illness without a face. No one knew. Brennen, who was born with the progressive lung disease, cystic fibrosis, has fought for every breath. As a child, doctors told him he’d wouldn’t live until 18 unless he traded the old pair for the new. Not only did he survive a double lung transplant, he would invoke his own story in a oneman play entitled “Breathe. A True Story.” These are his lungs, now.
Imagine being punished for laughing. That’s the cruel irony of cystic fibrosis, when laughing fits become coughing fits. Brennen, who by all accounts cracked people up, couldn’t laugh at his own jokes. And so unfolded a childhood fraught with the very contradictions that in hindsight become comic gold. In his acclaimed play, he recalls, “I don’t remember the day or time I was told I was going to die, but I do remember eating a quesadilla explosion salad.”
Childhood for Brennen featured all the same fads and mischief that accompanied coming of age on a resort island. We both jokingly recall the difficulty of dropping-in to a half pipe on inline skates, begging dad for candy in line at Blockbuster, and the toy store in Main Street Village that sold the coveted “Yomega Fireball ‘Auto-Return’ Yoyo.”
But there were some notable differences. His family used to go on beach vacations without ever leaving. It probably felt a bit like The Truman Show, the 1998 movie where Truman is the unsuspecting star of a reality television series broadcast throughout the world; he lives on a finite T.V. set he thinks is the whole world. One summer evening after a baseball game at Crossings Park, 10 year old Brennen decided to run the bases. While mom and dad were chatting it up, he dove into home plate, rupturing his feeding tube in a bloody mess.
Cystic fibrosis has no cure. It’s caused when just one of 1,480 amino acids goes missing, a genetic ‘whoops’ that results in excessive mucus in various organs. Lung failure is the predominant cause of death. Imagine being told at 15 you have three years to live. In his dry-witted play, he recalls the doctor: “Brennen, from looking at your tests and your charts, unless you get a double lung transplant you aren’t going to live past your 18th birthday. I look up. My mom’s crying, my dad’s crying. And my brother’s texting.”
Cut to December 2010. After his first semester at college, Brennen’s health was decaying fast. He was carting an oxygen tank wherever he went. He was now 19, a year past his lease on life and a double lung transplant was his parachute.
The day following initial surgery, Brennen suffered internal bleeding forcing doctors to perform emergency surgery on a blood clot in his heart, accidentally paralyzing his vocal cords. He went five weeks without solid food or drink, leaving him reliant on an IV drip. What’s more, his brain struggled to coordinate with this healthy pair of lungs. Years of fast, shallow breaths left his diaphragm weak, untested. It took Brennen a month to breathe deep.
But, by and by, Brennen’s body adopted these foreign lungs as its own. Color returned to his cheeks. Just to breathe and talk at the same time was a revelation. And the characteristic blend of cynicism and optimism he developed through suffering would unmistakably shape his humor. He could laugh, finally he could laugh.
If the disease would follow Brennen his whole life, why not unleash its creative potential? In his senior year at college, he was taking a solo performance class taught by David Lee Nelson, who prodded Brennen to find the courage to write about his condition and subsequent transplant. During the final showcase for the class, Brennen went last, just blowing people away. No one knew. After our end of the year workshop “I had people come up to me—friends and professors—not only hugging but also thanking me and crying, showing me that they actually cared.” It was such a part of who he was but he’d never before hit the release valve.
Soon after the performance, Nelson cast Brennen into the desert for months to face his own story. Finally, Nelson agreed to direct the play, shaping it into what is now “Breathe. A True Story”. The first time his family ever found out about the play was in the invite they got to its premiere. Recalling memories shared and releasing emotions pent, the show was a depth charge. Playgoers were apt to say, “I laughed so hard I cried, I cried so hard I laughed.”
Brennen would go on to perform Charleston’s 2015 Piccolo Spoleto Festival, where the play was voted top five. That same summer, he was featured on NPR. He’s now toured the show from Florida to New York, in black box theaters and even hospitals. Brennen holds a torch for the kids who often go weeks without seeing family. Ultimately, Brennen explains, “Maybe my story will motivate someone else to write down their thoughts, fears, guilts onto a page and create something of their own.”
It’s been three years since that debut and I’m sitting at a picnic table facing Brennen in backgammon, an ancient game involving skill and strategy but ultimately bound by the luck of the dice. “I’m not sure what’s next for me really,” muses Brennen, “I’m hoping to attend graduate school to pursue an MFA in creative writing and continue doing my show in the meantime.” After the game, we sit watching wind lick the grass around an island inhabited only by bees, and I can’t help feeling the fates at play here, too. “But I think that’s the most exciting part; not knowing what’s next.” And then across the brackish creek swims a racoon. I look at Brennen dumbfounded. Queue laughter.
To follow his journey or book his play, visit www.BrennenReeves.com.
Editor’s Note: At 18, I left the island and never looked back. I struck out to New York City where I write and play jazz. Now I’m coming full circle, catching up each month with a Lowcountry native who also set sail for new horizons. We ask ourselves what it meant to grow up on a resort island and how far we’ve come. To nominate someone special, email firstname.lastname@example.org.