When the Air Becomes Unbreathable

Living with wildfire smoke

Kerala Taylor

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Photo by Natasa Adzic via Getty Images.

The first time I saw a child wearing a mask was in 2018. It was more than a year before Covid hit us like a giant wrecking ball — smashing, splintering, shattering the lives we knew.

Back then, when I thought about face masks at all, which was hardly ever, I mostly associated them with hospitals. Occasionally I thought about the man with cold eyes, half his face smothered in blue, who wearily introduced himself before disappearing behind a curtain to cut me open and scoop out my first baby. I remember his mask, but I don’t remember his name. I’m not sure he ever asked me for mine.

When I saw the masked child on my parents’ front stoop, my heart lurched slightly in my chest. She was three years old, the same age as my son, and she had come over to play.

For the third time in my son’s three years of life, I felt a distinct Spidey sense, like pinpricks along the ridges of my spine. It told me that the world was changing irrevocably. That the End was approaching faster than anyone dared to admit.

The first time I felt the Spidey sense was five weeks after my son’s birth. We had taken an over-ambitious road trip to Southern Oregon to share a lakeside cabin with my sister and parents. When we arrived, we found a problem that the owner had neglected to mention: our lakeside cabin had no lake.

Instead of blue waters lapping up against the back of our property line, as the Airbnb photos had so brightly promised, there was an eerie collection of dead plant matter and dried goose shit. We had to embark on a treacherous quarter-mile journey to find a murky body of water, buzzing with flies, for which “puddle,” not “lake,” would be the most accurate description. The parched earth was laced with cracks; brown, brittle plants crunched underfoot.

It made me wonder, for a moment, exactly what I was doing bringing children into this world.

The second time my Spidey sense kicked in was election night, 2016. My son was 18 months and my daughter was two weeks shy of five. Their nut butter skin was the same shade as the President of the United States. Soon, I thought, a woman would take his place.

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Kerala Taylor

Award-winning writer. Interrupting notions of what it means to be a mother, woman, worker, and wife. Subscribe: https://keralataylor.substack.com