Conflagrations

A story of motherhood, mental illness, and a planet on fire.
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(Photo: Matthew D’Annunzio)

(Photo: Matthew D’Annunzio)

The year Ruby turned five, it was hard to say which was more imbalanced — the planet, or this mother. Spring was more manic than usual, even for our remote corner of southwest Colorado. One minute, drab skies hurled galvanized sheets of freezing rain. The next, a blinding white sun scorched the ground. Hard winds gnashed at our aspen saplings — bending the trees to the earth like supplicants, their new leaves so dry they curled like paper held to a flame. Seismic activity increased — small but noticeable tremors in an otherwise stable landscape. Then a rash of small brushfires erupted. Things trembled and burned all around.

They fit a larger pattern, those mad swings in weather and shudders of ground. Every aspect of the natural world is shifting, due largely to human influence. Ice shelves recede, oceans rise, and man-made earthquakes are induced by fracking. Here in the American Southwest, red dust — having been kicked up by oil and gas exploits, cattle grazing, off-road vehicles, and bulldozers paving the way for unconscionably large homes — darkens alpine snowfields, causing them to melt a month earlier than they used to. In the brushy, upper woodland deserts, vegetation is already bone dry, and then lightning happens, abandoned campfires smolder, and a tossed cigarette may as well be a blowtorch to roadside grasses. What was once a five-month fire season now lasts for seven — more than half the year — and in just over three decades, the average number of thousand-acre-plus wildfires has nearly doubled. Western landscapes, already parched by years of sustained drought and hotter temperatures — places already deemed monumental tinderboxes due to years of fire suppression on millions of acres of public lands — may all go down in flames.

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It was in the midst of all this upheaval that I awoke one morning to find a black widow on the wall above our bed. The next day, one paraded blatantly across my daughter’s pillow, while another fell out of her shoe. Two more strolled casually along the baseboard beneath the sink, where I stood barefoot to wash dishes. Throughout the month I continued to find their black orbs, as dark and oily as French-roast coffee beans, crouched on every surface. Outside, along the foundation, their sticky, sloppy webs looked like half-assed latticework. The invasion was too much for an already distraught mother whose grasp on reality had grown whisper thin.

My husband, Herb, dismissed it as coincidence — the fact that I had been dreaming about so many of this same species of spider — for he believed I made far too much of things. But I was certain: The widows had spilled out of my lopsided mind into the light of day.

War was declared. I mean hands-on, in-the-trenches battle. I bought spider traps, squeezed putty into crevices, and vacuumed daily every nook. I even bought two geckos and turned them loose, after reading that these slender, chirping lizards were known for eating arachnids. One scurried under the refrigerator, never to be seen again; the other was found behind the toilet, so desiccated it looked like a shred of crepe paper, post-birthday party.

“The moods grew more extreme as the pregnancy progressed. I did not understand what was happening.”

Still, the spiders grew thicker by the week. Then other bugs crossed the threshold. Tiny brown sugar ants plastered the bathroom counters, and the most aggressive wasps I’d ever seen built nests at six-foot intervals beneath the eaves — attacking like fighter planes whenever we stepped outside.

I called the Colorado Department of Agriculture to ask if such infestations were normal.

“It’s the drought,” the woman explained. Throughout the West, many insect and spider populations have exploded in the hotter, drier weather. While bark beetles are causing widespread devastation in Western forests, wasps are setting up shop in watered gardens, and spiders of all kinds are crawling indoors in search of relief from the heat.

I resorted to poison. Compared to other pesticides, permethrin sounded less harmful. I was told it was derived from chrysanthemum flowers, biodegradeable, and far less toxic to humans. How bad could it be? I thought.

The bug man showed up in a crisp white golf shirt with short sleeves. No mask. No gloves. “Aren’t you going to cover up?” I asked.

“It’s hot, lady,” he scoffed, as he slung a large canister over his shoulder and tested the nozzle, sending a vaporous cloud my way. Ruby was already in the car with our bags and dogs; we were vacating the house for a week, until the spray had done its magic and dissipated. As we drove away, Ruby asked, “Will it really be safe, mama, to go back home?” I assured her it was. It had to be.

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In the months after we returned home, my thyroid grew sluggish, while the same gland in my daughter revved up, her heart and metabolism erupting into a firestorm of frenetic activity. I felt cold and muddle-headed. But Ruby was a continuously stoked furnace. Sleep was hard-earned, and her brain was furiously addled. Her symptoms, we would learn, were caused by an autoimmune disorder in which antibodies attack the thyroid. She had always been a restless sleeper, but now her body began to buck and shake throughout the night — a condition known as nocturnal epilepsy. As our lives tipped further out of balance, I began to wonder if maybe Ruby had been right. Maybe we never should have come home at all.

The days grew hotter, gustier. On the worst of them, Herb took off for a walk in the canyon below our mesa — claiming that both the crazy weather and my moods were throwing him off-kilter. So I talked Ruby into curling up to read with me. When she asked for a glass of water, I got up and headed to the kitchen, but stopped short in front of the east-facing windows. Not more than a mile away, the edge of our mesa was crowned with fire. Like soldiers, the flames marched in neat rows, with 50-mile-an-hour winds battering their backsides. They joined forces to become a great wave, red and undulating, headed straight toward our home.

My heart ricocheted between sternum and spine. Thoughts bent at odd angles, then ran to extremes: The redcoats are coming. Does one fight? Or take flight?

I turned to find Ruby standing there, her wide hazel eyes darting back and forth between the fire and me. Taking her small hand, I tried to feign reason and calm while I explained.

“We are going to pack a few things, just like we did when we had the house sprayed, OK?” My voice was shriller than I intended.

Ruby nodded, then ran into our bedroom and dove under the bed. When she wriggled back out, every suitcase and duffel bag we owned was in tow. She hauled them to her room and filled them with stuffed animals while I made a few calls — to friends who lived even closer to the flames, to compare my perceptions to theirs, to see if things were as ominous as they appeared. I had not yet learned the reasons why my mind kept spinning some disjointed take on reality. All I knew then was that my husband, along with friends, neighbors, my daughter’s teachers and doctors, thought my responses to things were hyperbolic, neurotic. It was possible that I was blowing the whole thing out of proportion.

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I was one of those mothers who joyfully marked on the calendar the date when sperm collided with egg. But it was only a matter of days before the tectonic plates of my internal landscape began to shift and slide. And just like that, the woman my husband had married was replaced by some disastrous and incendiary force of nature. The moods grew more extreme as the pregnancy progressed. I did not understand what was happening. Other pregnant women had faces that shone like tulips — even as they worked and exercised right up through their first contractions. When I saw them in the grocery store, it took everything in me not to run them over with my cart. But encounters with other expecting women were rare, given that a staggering sense of nausea kept me almost exclusively at home — in bed or near the toilet — for the entire pregnancy. There was a dense flu-like feeling so relentless that I was forced to quit my job. Inside the house and horizontal, I watched Law & Order obsessively. Simple tasks, like feeding the dogs, required an hour-long recovery. I almost appreciated the migraines, if only for a change in symptoms.

Mind you, I was no wimp. Prior to getting pregnant, I’d been a nationally ranked competitive rock climber, a National Park Service ranger, and a wildlands firefighter. A woman who ate organic foods before it was a thing, and traded her plastic, BPA-laden water bottle for stainless steel, also ahead of the trend. Still, nothing worked to ease that pregnancy — neither the natural supplements I started with nor the pharmaceuticals I resorted to.

And then, this breathtaking rosebud of a girl was born and things just got worse. Ruby was one month early, colicky, and she nursed incessantly. I thought this was a good thing, because all the research showed that breastfeeding was best for children’s immunity. I’d even gone off my antidepressant for this task — a fact I was proud of but which, in hindsight, may not have helped matters, because after giving birth I was in a constant state of fight or flight. I had no idea where I left off and others began. I could barely boot up my computer, pay bills, or put air in the car tires. Any one of these tasks unleashed waves of panic that landed me back on the couch, which by now was threadbare from all the time I had spent there. Personal hygiene was forgotten. Not that it mattered, as sex was a bird flown out the window, and my good dietary and exercise habits were impossible to re-claim. It was all I could do to nurse and soothe my daughter.

(Photo: Matthew D’Annunzio)

(Photo: Matthew D’Annunzio)

To be clear, I sought help — and a lot of it — both during the pregnancy and after. Each appointment began with me saying: “Something isn’t right. I don’t sleep. The baby doesn’t sleep … we are sick all the time….”

The doctors called it “the baby blues,” even when I insisted it was more than that. “It’s normal,” they would say as they washed their hands and checked their watches before breezing out the door to the next patient. When I complained to other mothers, they were quick to say: “Buck up. This precious time will be over before you know it.” I’d just stand there slackjawed, wondering what kind of monster I was to be so incapable of relishing my time with this small miracle of a being who, in spite of it all, made me wild with devotion.

I spent most days inside, pitching back and forth furiously in a rocking chair that, had there been an odometer on it, would have registered the equivalent of a trip to the moon and back. As I rocked and nursed, rocked and nursed, in the same pajamas I’d worn for a week, I scanned constantly the windows and doors — to make certain they were locked against intruders. On the rare occasion I forced myself outside to walk along the road, the sound of a car coming sent me diving into the trees for cover, convinced that some deranged man was about to grab the baby from the sling on my chest and head for the hills.

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Freud popularized the term hysteria, but it has been around since Hippocrates, who believed that a uterus made sick from a lack of sexual activity “not only produces toxic fumes but also takes to wandering around the body, causing various kinds of disorders such as anxiety, sense of suffocation, tremors, sometimes even convulsions and paralysis.” These notions seem bizarre and outdated, yet it is still socially acceptable, whenever a woman’s thoughts or behaviors are deemed errant, to suggest that hormones may be the culprit. Few women would deny that hormones can upset our equilibrium. New mothers are especially vulnerable. The thoughts and feelings we may experience due to hormonal shifts can range from slightly more emotionally charged to seriously deranged — although we may not even understand ourselves where we are on that continuum.

It wasn’t until just before Ruby’s 10th birthday that I would learn, from a pair of 2014 New York Times articles, about maternal mental illness, a term used to describe not just postpartum depression but an array of mood disorders that can occur during or after pregnancy and range from mild to severe. One article noted that maternal mental illness is caused by a “complex interplay of genes, stress and hormones,” and cited recent research suggesting that “in the year after giving birth … at least one in eight and as many as one in five women develop symptoms of depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder or a combination.”

The narrative of maternal mental illness is problematic in a society that believes women should experience motherhood as a state of bliss.

What a relief to know that I hadn’t simply imagined this dark, inflammatory state of mind. That I wasn’t just a bad mother. The information would come too late to repair the damage done to my marriage, which would end a year later, or to magically heal my relationship with my daughter, who would for years feel very anxious about my state of mind, and question repeatedly the veracity of my love for her — traits that are common in children born to depressed new mothers, and that can have lasting effects.

Maternal mental illness (also known as perinatal mental illness) can take many forms. Depression is by far the most common. Anxiety disorders and bipolar disorders are less common. The rarest but most serious is postpartum psychosis, which occurs in one or two out of every thousand births. Any of these conditions can occur out of the blue — to highly functioning, emotionally healthy women, although previous psychiatric history is one of the strongest predictors of which mothers will develop a form of maternal mental illness. Women with disorders like OCD or major depression can have disturbing thoughts of harming themselves or their children, and for those with postpartum psychosis, the compulsion may be so overwhelming they act on it. A woman with untreated postpartum psychosis has a 4 percent risk of infanticide and a 5 percent risk of suicide. Consider Andrea Yates, who, after struggling with severe psychiatric episodes, drowned her five children. Even with overwhelming proof of Yates’ compromised, psychotic state, a Houston jury delivered a guilty verdict in three-and-a-half hours. “A woman with postpartum psychosis who commits infanticide needs treatment rather than punishment,” argued Dr. Margaret Spinelli in a 2004 paper in The American Journal of Psychiatry that examined the Yates case. In a 2006 re-trial, the conviction was overturned, and Yates was found not guilty by reason of insanity.

The narrative of maternal mental illness is problematic in a society that believes women should experience motherhood as a state of bliss. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), considered the reference bible for psychiatric illnesses, didn’t even include a reference to postpartum depression until the end of the 20th century. Like climate change, maternal mental illness has been considered an exaggeration by some. But in 2013, JAMA Psychiatry published findings from a study by Dr. Katherine Wisner in which 14 percent of 10,000 mothers being screened for postpartum depression were diagnosed with one form or more of maternal mental illness. One-third of those cases began during pregnancy, and nearly one-fifth of those who screened positive reported thoughts of self-harm. Among the diagnosed women, 69 percent had unipolar depressive disorders, 23 percent had bipolar disorders, and 6 percent had anxiety disorders. Wisner’s study was widely reported, and it gave the public and health-care providers a sense of the scope and breadth of the problem. Nevertheless, in the years since the study, very few laws have been proposed or enacted at the state and federal level to encourage outreach, screening, and treatment for postpartum psychiatric disorders.

Imagine, for a moment, how many women may yet go untreated for various forms of maternal mental illness. How many have been or may still be punished, or incarcerated. And how many maternal infanticides — one of the most underreported forms of death in the United States — may have happened because of an untreated maternal mental illness?

As with most psychiatric disorders, little about the different forms of maternal mental illness is clearcut. Today, even the more severe forms remain difficult to identify — for patient and health-care provider alike — given that other factors, such as sleep deprivation, can mask them. Many women keep quiet about their struggles for fear their child will be taken away if they were to disclose how bad things really are. And then there are mothers like me, who seek help but are met with dismissiveness, left to suffer inside our own private conflagrations.

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I fought forest fires in the backcountry the year that one-third of Yellowstone burned. It was 1988, and the government had assigned to me a squad of firefighters on a blaze in Idaho — guys with zero backcountry experience, freshly recruited as they exited prison gates on various kinds of parole. I was 22 years old then, and used to spending nearly every day outdoors — on duty as a ranger and off duty as a climber. I was fit and trained for fires and medical emergencies, while my crew was made of men who were tattooed and dubious. They laughed when I was first introduced as their boss; the largest and scariest of them said he wasn’t taking orders from “some scrawny bitch.” We bonded, though, over Skoal Long Cut. And they learned to trust me. When we lost radio contact with the command center and the wind shifted, so the fire doubled back on us — this was pre-GPS — I got my squad out of the burn zone because I was the only one who kept my cool. After that, even the big scary guy who had done time for things he said I “didn’t want to know about” listened.

The problem turned out to be the only other woman in our squad. Let’s call her Eva. She began to melt down several times a day. While we hacked at smoking tree roots with our pulaskis, Eva would wander away from the line, perch herself on some breezy vantage point, then take off her boots to massage her feet, much to the rest of the squad’s dismay. One evening, on the long hot climb out of a blackened gorge where we’d put in 10 hours of hard work, Eva lost it. She tore off her pack and threw it down the steep slope up which we had just trudged, then threw her pulaski too. Next, she tore off her bright-yellow Nomex shirt and threw it to the ground and, standing there in a grungy, sweat-stained bra and government-issued green pants that rode too far above the waist, she leaped forward and landed squarely on the shirt, which she ground into the earth with the ash-caked Vibram soles of her boots.

I…” Stomp. “Can’t…” Stomp. “Fucking…” Stomp. “Do this!

(Photo: Matthew D’Annunzio)

(Photo: Matthew D’Annunzio)

Then Eva fell to the ground and raked her fingers through the black steamy soil and wailed. The sound was piteous, like a drowning cat. We looked on with an awe that flirted dangerously with reverence — because, male or female, secretly each of us wanted to fall apart too. We were hot, tired, and filthy. There had been little to eat, save unidentifiable, Army-issued meat in a can, because so much of the West was on fire that summer, and crews were spread too thin. Rations and equipment were low; one of my men had suffered a serious injury and we waited hours for an evacuation because the choppers were doing double-duty, dumping buckets of retardant and hauling supplies.

That night, Eva cornered me near the latrines. Her red hair, frizzy and unwashed, stood on end and her gray eyes were feral. She wanted to apologize, she said, for her crazy behavior. She wanted me to know that she’d had an abortion the week before, and her guess was that her hormones were out of whack. She was feeling anemic, too, from post-surgical bleeding. She held up a Ziploc full of thick white pads and shrugged.

I didn’t know then what a wild ride being pregnant was, how reproductive hormones skyrocket a hundredfold but, once the womb is emptied — be it by birthing a baby, having a miscarriage, or choosing an abortion — those same hormones plummet, causing a disturbance of brain chemistry in some women. That night with Eva I played nice and feigned support, but as soon as I could escape, I bolted to the mess tent to find my supervisor so I could request a discharge for her. I felt odd that I could hang in this camp full of men who catcalled when I walked by, but wanted distance from Eva, and fast.

It would be years — decades really — before I would connect the stars between Eva’s meltdown and the time when I was 16 and finally, after a year-long romance, said Yes to my boyfriend. That first time was not without planning and protection, but the condom broke and I found myself alone, looking for a doctor who would scrape away my insides but neglect to tell me that, for a long time afterwards, I would feel wildly out of control, my red-hot heart burning away acres of grief and shame.

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The wake-up call in this story is this: Our interior ecosystems are as complex and delicate as the exterior ones we inhabit. Mental, physical, and emotional well-being all depend largely on the proper function and balance of reproductive hormones, thyroid hormones, and variousothers that, optimally, function together in exquisite synchronicity. Any one of these tips slightly off-center, and brain chemistry is altered.

Some of these hormonal changes occur naturally, but others can be attributed to chemicals in our environment. I’d been so overwhelmed by my day-to-day crises that it took me a while to look more closely at permethrin, which I discovered is suspected of being an endocrine-disrupting chemical (EDC) — much like BPA, PCBs, and DDT, the pesticide made infamous by Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. Once absorbed by the body, EDCs either block or mimic hormones produced by the endocrine glands — the pituitary, thyroid, adrenal, thymus, pancreas, ovaries, and testes — all of which release carefully measured amounts of hormones into the bloodstream to act as the Pony Express, traveling to different parts of the body with messages that control vital functions such as metabolism, sleep, mood, reproduction, and immunity.

EDCs are found in plastics, pesticides, toiletries, food, water, packaging, toys, computers, and building materials, to name a few. They wreak havoc on hormonal health in some wildlife populations and in lab animals too, and research suggests that they may do so in humans, especially at critically early stages of development. A scientific statement, published last year by the widely respected Endocrine Society, represents “a comprehensive review of the literature on seven topics for which there is strong mechanistic, experimental, animal, and epidemiological evidence for endocrine disruption.” These include: obesity and diabetes, female reproduction, male reproduction, hormone-sensitive cancers in females, prostate cancer, thyroid function, and neurodevelopment and neuroendocrine systems. In other words, EDCs can influence our most basic functions — how we think, learn, feel, grow, mate, parent, eat, and fight.

I don’t mean to suggest that permethrin was the cause of my health issues, or my daughter’s, but even the possibility caused me ample concern. EDCs are ubiquitous, they accumulate in the body, and, despite a lot of research to date, there is still little consensus on how they interact and whether they cause adverse effects in humans at low-dose and environmental exposure levels. Of the thousands of chemicals we interact with daily, few have been tested specifically for endocrine-disrupting effects. What testing is done is typically done on animals, and at high doses, but low-dose exposures may be the bigger threat.

Dr. Carol Kwiatkowski, executive director of The Endocrine Disruption Exchange, an advocacy organization that focuses primarily on human health and environmental problems caused by low-dose and ambient exposure to chemicals that interfere with development and function, believes that EDCs are a formidable threat. “This year marks the 25th anniversary of the science community’s recognition of EDCs,” she says. “We are seeing more thyroid issues and other endocrine problems than ever, and yet we still understand so little about non-lethal levels of EDCs — which are minuscule and yet very influential. The science needs to change, so that EDCs are studied at the levels that the body’s natural hormones influence endocrine function — which is in the parts per trillion. One part per trillion is comparable to a single drop of water in 20 Olympic swimming pools.” One drop, and the effects ripple outward.

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The day I nearly took my child’s life began when I touched her head and found that it was, for the fourth day in a row, red hot with fever. “You can give her Motrin at night so she can sleep, but during the day, let it burn,” the doctor had told me. “It’s the body’s way of fighting the illness.” Believing that the medicine might harm her kidneys and liver — maybe even cause brain damage — I was OK with letting her burn. She cried for three nights straight, and I stayed awake for the duration, certain I had somehow failed her. By the fourth day, when she wasn’t getting any better, I marched out to the car at five in the morning, my child tucked under my arm like a football. Her red, fever-soaked curls left a damp spot on my shirt.

We were in Salt Lake City then, visiting my mother, who was still asleep when we left. En route to the hospital, rain assaulted the vehicle with a vengeance, and I took it personally — for I was that far gone by then. As the world outside the windshield bled through the glass, I saw only dark distortions of things once familiar. The wipers wagged in my face, and the wretched wails in the backseat began to dislodge things in me, things I had believed to be permanently affixed. Then my blue Subaru veered away from the hospital and headed south. We were pulled along by dark horses on a boulevard that skirted the base of the Wasatch Range, the great citadel of peaks that borders the eastern edge of the city. There was the clattering of shod hooves on the rushing ribbon of pavement, the flash of yellow centerline between their legs. And somewhere, far more distant, the garish blare of horns, and shriek of brakes.

(Photo: Matthew D’Annunzio)

(Photo: Matthew D’Annunzio)

We careened left into a canyon lined with stark white granite. My seatbelt was off now, the alarm sounding for this breach in safety, ding-ding, and it dinged in my skull, behind my eyes, as the horses leaned into the V of earth and the timpani of hooves thundered in my body. The steeds, lathered now, sought a good solid bend in the road — one without a guardrail but where the canyon dropped away anyway. And there it was, shining dead ahead, one voluptuous curve amid many — and the great, heaving beasts skidded to a stop. Ruby’s wails rose from the backseat. A stainless-steel sippy cup hit me squarely upside the head.

I glanced at her in the rearview mirror but the mirror was cockeyed so instead I caught the reflection of my own face. It had split in two, like a log halved by an axe. A glistening black matter oozed forth. It fascinated, the way it slid down my arms, my neck, my chest, then pooled in my lap, wet and warm like those days before Ruby was toilet-trained, when I’d take her out of the bath and set her on my thighs to towel dry her hair. The adorable child peed every time.

The car idled and the horses pawed at the gravel and out of the liquid in my lap rolled small, dark dots. At first they were flat, two-dimensional figures, like circles of finely rolled dough with little black toothpicks sticking out the sides. They looked like black suns drawn by sad children. And then the dots plumped up and out, so that they were now bulbous black orbs perched atop eight articulated needle-nosed legs.

The spiders formed ranks of 10 or so. A group would rise up and then scuttle away to make room for the next group, and there was a rhythm to it, in the rising and scuttling, rising and scuttling, which I found soothing. Every now and then a flash of red was visible on their slick round underbellies, as the spiders moved out in every direction — down my legs and across the floor, over my hands and onto the steering wheel, up my shoulders and into my hair. Then they spilled down the headrest into the back of the car, where Ruby was still strapped and screaming.

All of this slid smoothly, like easing a canoe into a river, into an ill-formed logic, which is this: The female of many species, in a state of psychological or environmental stress, has been known to kill, even cannibalize, her young. Take the neighbors’ cat, to which two kittens had been born earlier that year. Ruby and I had been invited to bear witness to the miracle, but the bedraggled and weary mother, still a skinny juvenile herself, had no sooner pushed them out than her small jaws engulfed the black one — her mouth dilating, then contracting, like a python’s — until the kitten was back inside of her. As if the dark thing had never been born at all.

As the world outside the windshield bled through the glass, I saw only dark distortions of things once familiar.

And there was a polar bear at the Nuremberg Zoo, in Germany. Her name was Vilma. About a month after giving birth to two seemingly healthy cubs, she reportedly ate them, “bones and all.” Imagining how those cubs would have been faced with a snowless life on concrete, behind bars, I remember thinking, when I read about her, “What a tender thing to do.”

So it made perfect sense, just then, that the canyon would soon devour my daughter and me both. It was the most natural response to a wholly unnatural situation.

Somehow the hood of the car came to face the great maw of the canyon squarely. The boulder-strewn canyon bottom beckoned. I toed the gas pedal. Imagined the plunge. The glorious sound of steel and bones on stone. Who knows how long we sat there. But finally, the clouds overhead broke, and silver shards of light tumbled into the canyon. Steam rose in wisps off the hood of the still-idling car. I rolled down the window just in time to hear the clatter of rockfall. Then silence. The world around me holding its breath, and my own body poised between two conclusions. My daughter had her neck craned forward, her eyes wide and fixed. On me. She looked like a baby vulture, ravenous for whatever scraps its mother could regurgitate.

I don’t remember turning the car around, but suddenly we were driving back to the city in total quiet, no other creatures in our company. And when I finally carried my now-cool daughter into the emergency room, through the automatic doors that hissed shut behind us, I began to shake. Not with relief, or chill, but with a violence that begged to be exorcised from my body. Out of the corner of my eye I could make out the waiting area, the vague shapes of people there, leaning forward, trying to make sense of my shuddering figure and the small, frail child in my arms. Straight ahead, figures in white and green rose from the desk, briskly moving forward with outstretched arms to catch my daughter as I thrust her outward.

“What’s wrong?” The nurse quickly scanned Ruby for signs of harm.

“Take her, please.” My jaw shook the words off a dry wooden tongue. “You must take her and make her better. I cannot do this. I will kill us both.”

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After much trial and error, successful treatment for me came in a complex combination of bioidentical estrogen and testosterone, thyroid replacement, DHEA and melatonin supplements, along with a higher dose of my prior antidepressant. Sleep, exercise, and steady meaningful employment are possible again, and I am a far better mother — which is vital, given that my daughter’s autoimmune condition and nocturnal epilepsy remain constant. Not a day or night goes by now when I am not keenly aware of how our assaults on the planet marginalize our own chances of survival — whether by changing the climate or changing the chemistry of our own bodies. We are entering a new era of volatility.

That day on the mesa, after the wind changed direction and drove the fire back the way it came, the adults — husbands and wives, mothers and fathers — tucked jackets and blankets under their butts and sat with legs dangling over the rim. Just behind us, away from the edge, our children played hide-and-seek in a stand of pinion and juniper. We held up glasses of red wine to a dusky sky and toasted our good fortune.

Flecks of gray fell onto our eyelashes, into our goblets. The kids pretended it was dirty snow. We drank anyway, as the fire marched steadily up another landmass, not ours. It worked its way through a grove of ancient ponderosa, many over 150 feet tall, in steep pristine terrain that had seen neither cow nor chainsaw. Up each trunk the yellow flames slid like fingers on a rail, until they were combing through the crown, where the boughs were thick with needles and cones. There they bloomed suddenly, a riot of red and orange.

When the tallest tree fell, there was an exquisite moment when everything was suspended and resonant, like a bow drawn slowly across a cello. The flaming crown was falling through the gray smoke in space, and then the trunk fell too, toward the smoldering, sharply slanted slope. Along the way, it took out smaller, younger trees, and then everything was one burning mass that hit the ground and tumbled, sparks flying into the sky like meteors.

For once I didn’t want to think about tipping points, or the inevitable doom at which they hinted. Our family was intact. Photo albums and stuffed animals had been preserved. And we’d be returning home that night, where the black widows had at last been defeated.

I looked over at Herb. His face was gauzy in the thin veil of smoke. There may have been a smile on his lips as he raised his glass to me. To us.

Just beyond my reach, our daughter danced in circles, her arms out and face upturned. Her eyes were open to the falling ash.

A version of this story first appeared in the July/August 2016 issue of Pacific Standard.

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