Save Your Breath

Roblin Meeks
3 min readJul 25, 2023
Air Quality Index for June 7, 2023 in NYC

The air better today in New York but still bad, the dashboard I now keep open on my phone shows a needle down out of lavender but caught just into yellow. You can still detect the burning, though, a bass note under the shots of espresso being pulled on the corner, the washing of the sidewalk by a super up the block, the heaving crosstown bus. At its worst, the sky glowed orange, not on fire but full of it, of Canadian ash, yet it felt oddly cool. The radio says it’s because the air is so thick that sunlight can’t warm the earth like it should. Everything incongruous. We pull out leftover pandemic masks, ones designed to filter stuff just like this, but the mind inhales everything.

When I was in middle school, we had our house insulated with formaldehyde foam. Being natural, plentiful, and versatile, formaldehyde made an inexpensive and popular insulator in the 1970s and early 1980s. I knew formaldehyde as what preserved the fetal pigs in the science-room specimen jars and what morticians pumped into bodies in the funeral-home basement to make them look familiar.

A fist of men arrived one day and stripped the siding from our house. They drilled hundreds of holes in the plywood skin, put on respirators, and shot foam into the walls. They left when the house looked new, covered in fresh cedar.

At first we thought we were just having a bad year — more colds than usual, the thorough fatigue just from growing up, more school, more sports. But I didn’t get better, and my cough became deeper, rougher. Regular. Others noticed, too. My mother still talks about the day the band teacher sent home a note saying that I couldn’t move enough air to make my saxophone play a note. More than on doctor had me blow into a tube as hard as I could to see how high I could send a small ball up a graduated chute. All the doctors confirmed that I’d lost about 40% of my lung capacity.

Breathing became so difficult that my parents moved me out of our house to the New Grove Hotel, an old mansion converted into a dozen ornate rooms. Sleeping on that high old bed, across from the school I was too sick to attend, my family on the other side of town still in our house, I would dream that water came in under the door. I would watch the room slowly fill until the water’s surface reached the ceiling. I would hold what breath I could.

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Roblin Meeks

Essayist, lapsed professional philosopher, associate dean of ice cream. Author of creative nonfiction about work, love, self and other stuff. Welcome, pals.