In my goals for the new year, I’ve been decent about sticking to my running routine. It’s a spare hour a day when I am forced to be in my body, keeping my steps in time to the beats of my favorite drum groups and focus on my breathing. It’s in that focus where I start to feel trapped.

The Omicron surge led the City of Minneapolis to renew its mask mandate and my gym is complying. I know I’m the only one in the place when I go late in the evening but I keep my mask on. I’ve noticed my breaths getting shorter with a mask on, it’s not like at the beginning of the pandemic when I breathed easy through the layers of fabric of my specially-designed mask. And I begin to wonder if I have long-term symptoms.

By this point, my steps become off-beat and my panic starts me coughing. I cough when I’m anxious, it’s a remnant of my days as a smoker when I could just blame the manifestations of my anxiety on the physiological effects of smoking, another manifestation of my anxiety. And by the 20-minute mark, I start gagging and not focusing on my breathing.

I’m reminded of the former roommate who brought COVID-19 into my house, how angry I still am at him for making a decision on my behalf. For traveling to the exurbs and the far-flung parts of western Wisconsin where mask mandates were loose at best. I even joked when he brough back baked goods from his misadventures, “Oh good, you bought us COVID!” Three days later we were sick.

And I am back in my body, angry and going at 9 miles an hour, close to my regular pace a decade ago. I’m angry. I’m pissed off at all the white people who make decisions for me, who have always felt no compunction or second thought about making a decision for me … for my parents, for my grandparents, for ancestors.

And I’m back in rhythm with the music. The dry throat is gone. The coughing has stopped. I feel my breath in regular pulses again.

Both my parents struggled to breathe in their final years, the result of a lifetime of smoking away their anxieties, too. They were frustrated with their bodies for breaking down. In the exhaustion, they’d apologize for being burdens to us, that their bodies just weren’t listening to them anymore. I got angry back at them, “STOP TALKING LIKE THAT, YOU’RE NOT A BURDEN, CHEE.” And we’d all start laughing at our self-pity.

I’m angry because the people who continue to spread this virus have no clue how precious a breath can be. They don’t know how we fight for every breath at the end. They’ve never seen their parents—the people who gave them life and took every effort to preserve their children’s’ lives—fight to the end for every breath. They’ve never held their parents’ lifeless bodies after the last breath has left them. I’m angry at those people who make decisions about how many breaths we get to take. I’m angry at the people who don’t see that it’s not just their breaths that they’re trying to control because they think COVID is going to mild for them, so to hell with everyone else.

My breathing returns to normal as I begin my cool down. I have not removed my mask out of fear. I know my body will fight to keep going. I trust it implicitly. We don’t get to judge who gets to breath because of our fear.

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