On Tuesday morning, my daughter came into my room crying. I was still asleep. She had checked the weather to decide what to wear to school and seen an air quality alert for our town in the Hudson Valley, about an hour and a half north of New York City. She told me she was having a low-grade panic attack and she knew the smoke was from wildfires in Canada—her father had explained. She was afraid she wasn’t safe. “Mom, I had lung radiation two years ago,” she said, her voice shaking.
As if I didn’t know.
She’s 10. At eight, she was diagnosed with Wilms’ tumor, a kidney cancer, and went through almost a year of treatment, including radiation. She’s not alone in worrying that her lungs are compromised as a result.
There were so many things that broke my heart that morning about her too-adult fear, including her beautiful capacity to articulate her emotions. I jumped into fix-it mode, explaining what I know from my work about air quality, health, and wildfire smoke. I suggested staying inside and limiting outdoor playtime, which after all this pandemic time saying exactly the opposite felt weird. I suggested drinking lots of water. All my suggestions felt too small.
Her school bus was about to arrive, and in my pre-coffee rush to soothe her, I somehow forgot to suggest wearing a mask. I quickly wrote her school with all these suggestions, leading with masking. Her teacher let her know to put one on—and she did, outside. The school nurse was quick to respond too, saying they were going to let all “sensitive” students know to take precautions. Less than 24 hours later, most schools in our region had expanded this precautionary approach to include all students, which makes sense. My older daughter’s high school choir performance was moved indoors, as were all outdoor activities. Our governor declared the worsening air quality an emergency crisis.
All day long, neighbors were talking about the wildfire haze, at the grocery store, at the farm stand, even at the dermatologist’s office where I had an appointment. I was struck by this sudden arrival of the sort of public discourse about air pollution I have wanted for so many years! All these random people were swapping stories of eye irritation and shortness of breath. Some strangers were even linking the smoke to the climate crisis. To me, after years of what can feel like no one wanting to talk about the climate crisis and looking at me blankly when I bring it up, this onset of casual but constant air pollution chatter was as eerie as the dark sky midday and the ominous orange light.
When my 10-year-old arrived home from school, she was still out of sorts. She went straight to her room, shut her door, and turned her HEPA filter on high. We talked about masking indoors, but she didn’t want to at home. Fair enough.
I saw on social media that people in places where poor air quality is a constant felt us East Coast newbies were being dramatic. Welcome to the club, read more than a few sarcastic tweets. I get it, but it’s an emotional and new experience for us, so we deserve a learning curve moment. Much has been written about the mental health aspects of the climate crisis. This smoke is a lot to process.
For me, the smoke feels like another apocalypse I have no control over—on the heels of COVID and pediatric cancer. But being stuck indoors because of unsafe air quality linked to the climate crisis is a terrifying situation I have actually considered before. I’ve been afraid of it for years. When I watch the news about extreme weather or air pollution or drought or floods or wildfires in Canada or Pakistan or China or California, some part of me feels grateful I live where I do. Like I’m getting away with something; we have trees and a deep well and plenty of access to nature and local agriculture. In my relief to live here is a shadow of awareness: I know we aren’t immune to what’s already happening elsewhere. Soon it will be our turn too—and consistently. We all share air.
This time, rain will come and winds will shift and this wildfire smoke will clear. I know this. Wind connects us all. I really deeply profoundly hope when this week’s smoke dies down, people’s newfound concern will linger. The cynic in me is convinced they won’t. That woman I spoke to who was also buying several containers of the ethereally delicious strawberries that are in season locally for a too-brief window of time won’t suddenly vote for candidates running on climate initiatives. She won’t get involved lobbying the school board for electric school buses.
Or will she?
I have to hope. My kids—and all our kids—deserve hope. They can’t be left alone in tears with wildfire smoke, orange skies, and health impacts. Maybe the strawberry lady will remember exactly how many times her grandkid had to use his asthma medication this hazy week and realize it’s not an aberration.
And she will help us curb the climate crisis.