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How often do you think about your breathing?

How about your child’s breathing?

This fall my youngest son Lucas, who is not yet three, caught a virus that triggered an asthma attack. This had never happened before – suddenly I was thinking a lot about breathing.

We took him to the emergency room.

When we arrived his breathing was fast and shallow. He couldn’t talk, and every now and then he would grunt with effort. Something that normally comes so naturally, so effortlessly, was now taking all of his strength and attention.

Yet even in that state – pale and panting – Lucas kept his cool. His eyes were wide with fear, but when I held his hands, he looked at me and managed a smile.

To my relief, and the ER nurse’s surprise, his blood oxygen levels were okay.

“He’s strong and he’s managing to force air into his lungs, but it is taking all his strength.” The ER doctor told me. “The trouble comes when he gets too tired to work this hard.”

I shuddered at the thought.

The doctor prescribed a steroid to reduce inflammation and a rescue inhaler to relax the muscles in the small airways of Lucas’ lungs. Within an hour he was breathing easier and I was thanking my lucky stars for modern medicine.

After several hours of observation, and a chest X-ray to confirm no pneumonia, we were on our way home with a prescription and instructions to administer the inhaler every 4 hours for the next few days.

“Every 4 hours,” I thought, relieved but exhausted, “Like having a newborn again.”

Sometimes life forces you to slow down, to breathe.

The ER adventure left me with a splitting headache and a sore throat, and Lucas needed around the clock surveillance. Clearly, daycare and work were out of the question for the next couple of days.

The first day we rested and recuperated.

The second day dawned clear and sunny, with the sky that deep blue that only fall skies can be. I knew we needed to take it easy, but it seemed a crime to stay indoors, so Lucas and I took a short walk to the Riverdale Farm. Instead of going to see the farm animals, we headed down the less traveled path, through the woods, to the Lower Ponds.

riverdale ponds

WANDERING TO THE RIVERDALE LOWER PONDS. PHOTO: DEBBIE BUEHLER

The Lower Ponds at the Riverdale Farm are the remains of an oxbow from the pre-channelized Don River. Amazingly, during the era of the Riverdale Zoo these ponds housed the hippos!

The zoo closed when the Metropolitan Toronto Zoo opened in the Rouge Valley in 1975. In the mid 1990s, the concrete and stone shorelines of these ponds were removed to create a natural shoreline, though a co-operative project between Toronto and Region Conservation Authority (TRCA), the City of Toronto, Parks and Recreation, and the Task Force to Bring Back the Don (TFBBD). Then thousands of trees, shrubs, wildflowers and wetland plants were planted by hundreds of volunteers, giving us the Lower Ponds in their current form – a sanctuary of green in the big city.

riverdale ponds

ONE OF THE LOWER PONDS. PHOTO: RIVERDALE STEWARDSHIP

Lucas and I were in no hurry as we wandered around the ponds. For once we had nowhere to go, and Lucas wasn’t due for his inhaler for another two hours.

So we slowed down, and we waited, and we watched.

riverdale ponds

WATCHING AND WAITING. PHOTO: DEBBIE BUEHLER

At first Lucas picked up stones and threw them into the water (his favorite pastime). Then we gathered fallen leaves, in deep red and bright gold, and floated them on the water like little boats. We were calm and quiet and the wildlife started to come to us.

A Blue Jay landed in a nearby tree giving its characteristic call. Ruby-crowned and Golden-crowned Kinglets twittered in the trees above, many of them en route south.

The sun was warm on our faces and sparkled on the pond surface.

Dragonflies skimmed the water. Green Darners, feeding up for their fall migration and Autumn Meadowhawks (I think) that hovered in front of us as if saying hello.

“Hello, dragonflies!” we called.

We crossed the old stone bridge to the Lower Pond Island and to our delight found a group of Painted Turtles sunning themselves on a log in the water.

riverdale ponds

PAINTED TURTLES. PHOTO: KEN SPROULE

As we watched the turtles, I hugged my son. I held him close. I listened to him breath. We breathed the air by the Riverdale Ponds together, slowly and deeply.  I was grateful for that breath, his breath, coming easily now, and my breath, going in and out, in and out, in time with his.

Then he bent down and started to collect rocks to throw into the water.

“You help me Mami.” He said, happy to have my attention all to himself. “You help me with my rocks.”

And I did.

Deborah M. Buehler is an ecologist, an editor and a writer in Toronto. Follow her on Twitter. See her earlier columns for Wild City here.

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