Our theme for the month of November is “the periodic table.”
The sign above the visitor center 14,115 feet up in the air read “Welcome to the summit of Pikes Peak.” I snapped a photo, then joined my family in the line to go inside, appreciating the fact that most groups were standing six feet apart from other groups and that almost everyone already had masks on even though we were still technically outside.
I tried to think about these things instead of thinking about breathing, or how difficult it was, or the way my heart was pounding a little harder in my chest because of it. It was my first trip to the summit of a mountain, and my body was protesting the altitude. I wanted to open my mouth and just inhale a big gust of the cold wind that was whipping my hair around my face. But I had my mask on.
Once we got inside the visitor center, breathing was even more challenging. The wind outside was at least somewhat refreshing; inside the air was warm and stuffy, practically suffocating. I wandered toward a collection of souvenirs and saw a sticker with the words “Got Oxygen?” on it.
I found my dad by the T-shirts, and noticed at the same time as the cashiers that he had pulled down his mask.
“Sir by the T-shirts, please pull up your mask! Sir, please pull up your mask!”
“Dad!” I hissed, elbowing him.
“Oh, oops!” He yanked his mask up over his nose. “It’s just hard to breathe.”
“I know,” I said, thinking about that sticker. “I feel like I can’t breathe, too.”
Oxygen isn’t something that’s usually at the forefront of our minds until we notice that we’re not taking in enough of it. This life-giving element makes up 21 percent of the gas in the air we breathe. At higher altitudes, the air is less dense because there is less atmospheric pressure, meaning that oxygen molecules are spread much farther apart. With each breath, we take in less oxygen. It’s something I learned in chemistry and biology classes (and at this site) but didn’t fully comprehend until I was experiencing it for myself.
It’s also something I’ve been dwelling on since it happened. My words—“I feel like I can’t breathe”—echo in my mind. But it’s not just the memories of my Colorado trip that resonate with that phrase.
I remember the harrowing video footage from May 25, as the world watched Derek Chauvin kneel on George Floyd’s neck for several minutes. We heard Floyd plead for his life, saying over and over that he couldn’t breathe. And we know that Chauvin said, “Then stop talking, stop yelling. It takes a heck of a lot of oxygen to talk.”
In that moment, oxygen became a privilege, not a right. It was especially telling when protestors put the words “I can’t breathe” on posters. In an opinion piece for The Guardian, Ben Okri writes, “‘I can’t breathe’ suddenly equates racism with the deprivation of air, which is what it always was. Previously we saw racism, if we saw it all, as a diminishment of a person’s humanity. But that was always too vague. ‘I can’t breathe’ goes beyond saying that you are depriving me of freedom, of humanity, of respect. It says: ‘You are depriving me of the right to air itself.’”
Perhaps the phrase “I can’t breathe” really did strike a chord in all of us, especially in light of the pandemic. That our fears of a virus that wreaks havoc on the human respiratory system are now linked to prominent outcries against the institutional racism afflicting our nation is incredibly profound. Would one feel equally as impactful in this moment without the other?
But then, there are some who don’t feel any impact. Some wield the phrase “I can’t breathe” as an excuse to not wear a mask (if they are medically able to do so). And what does that say to those who are in hospital rooms, desperate for oxygen? What does that say to those who are risking their lives to tend to them, fearing the same fate? What does that say to those who are in the streets, also risking their lives while advocating for oxygen as a right and not a privilege?
I know one thing for certain: our basic need for oxygen binds us all together in our shared humanity, no matter how messy and complicated that tends to be. Perhaps I needed that “Got Oxygen?” sticker—not to commemorate my experience at Pikes Peak, but to serve as a reminder that it’s what everyone deserves.
It is my hope that we remember to use the breath we have in our lungs to speak up, to show mercy, and to act with love. Not just this year, but always. As Okri writes, “This is a great moment in the life of humanity and it is rich with the possibilities for change.” Maybe hearing “I can’t breathe” can motivate us to help make that change.
Kayleigh (Fongers) Van Wyk (’18) graduated with a degree in writing and resides in West Michigan. She works as a reporter for the Grand Rapids Business Journal and Grand Rapids Magazine while also making time for freelance writing. When she’s not behind a screen, she enjoys going for walks, eating ice cream, and buying more books than she’ll ever read.