First there was the time my mother asked me to cut her hair. She already had a pair of red-handled scissors in her hand, their plastic curves shiny and cheap. I guess she knew I wouldn’t, couldn’t, say no. It must have been morning because I remember she was still wearing a nightgown, though nightgown time had expanded in the preceding weeks and it’s also possible that it was afternoon. The nightgown was sleeveless and soft, worn cotton covered in a faded white and buttercup yellow diamond pattern. She held it bunched at her hip with her scissorless hand as we walked through the kitchen, hallway, and red-floored mudroom onto the back patio. My feet stung against the coldness of the uneven flagstones, brick sized but grey-toned and soft like they’d been sifted with a thimble of fine flour.
There she was, sitting now straight-backed at the picnic table, the table where last summer we’d all eaten watermelon, corn on the cob, laughing as the dog’s eyes followed each hand in turn from plate to mouth. A light breeze stirred her hair, pressed the nightgown against her chest. She wore no bra and the uneasy peace of all the times I’d laid a feverish head on her body so her cool fingers could skim through my hair overtook me mid-stride. I took the final two steps as if through a fog, took the scissors from her outstretched hand. She looked up at me and I met her gaze. It was the least I could do.
I lifted a strand of hair from above her left ear. It was wispy and soft, like bird down laid across my palm. Strands of silver glinted in the hazy sunlight of an uncertain midwestern sky. I angled the scissors downward, then arranged the blades horizontally. I didn’t know how to cut hair. Once I began, the strands looked forlorn as they fell from each other, wafted separately to the ground. Of course there was no way to stop them from falling, and catching them in my hand wouldn’t have changed a thing.
The second strand of hair I lifted came half away in my hand before I closed the blades. So did the next. Each time this happened I still opened and closed the scissors, releasing the truncated, metallic sound of their shutting and making sure to hold my hands so that she couldn’t see them exactly. She kept her eyes on her own hands though, cradled loosely in her lap. I was stupidly relieved that her shoulders weren’t shaking.
By the time I got around the back to her right side my hands were covered in hair. I was reading Harry Potter at the time, the fifth book had just come out, and I tried to pretend I was an animagus, a shape changer, my hands turning slowly into wolf paws that would carry me away. My imagination balked, the hair too scratchy against my clammy palms.
When I got around to the front I forced myself to look at the tear tracks I knew were there. Not to look away. We stared at each other, helpless, appalled. We looked and looked and neither of us said a word. I guess there were tears running down my face too. I’ve always cried easily and often. I sat down next to her on the bench, the uneven wood hard underneath me, and circled her shoulders with my arm. I was still a little shorter than her, and I remember how my shoulder joint pinched after a while. My feet, no longer resting on the flagstones, tingled as they warmed and the weight of my mother’s head felt like it was leaving a bruise on my collarbone.
I don’t know how long we sat like that out there, lawnmowers whirring on and off around us through a suburban day like any other. I do remember getting the broom later and sweeping the crescent of hair that had fallen around us, hoping that a tuft or two had been taken and was being woven into the snug walls of some nest nearby. The first star had appeared over our slatted fence and I could hear clinking silverware as the neighbors sat down to dinner, their framed square of light an ache in my chest.
In March, 2015, 17 experts from 11 countries met to assess the carcinogenicity of the organophosphate pesticides tetrachlorvinphos, parathion, malathion, diazinon, and glyphosate. While tetrachlorvinphos and parathion were plunked into category 2B as possible human carcinogens, malathion, diazinon and glyphosate made it into category 2A: probable carcinogens. Glyphosate is the world’s most widely used herbicide, and now as well as then, according to the IARC, a carcinogen. Probably. Only Monsanto disputes this claim, raging about cherry-picked data. Glyphosate is an ingredient in Monsanto’s weedkiller product Roundup and has become more popular with the increasing market share of crops that are genetically engineered to be tolerant to the herbicide. Monsanto takes in between 13 and 15 billion dollars each year. Some of this money goes toward footing the bill for industry financed studies, all of which have found glyphosate to pose no risk to humans. None of these studies were included in the deliberations of the International Agency for Research on Cancer experts that day — the IARC only considers peer reviewed journal articles. Following the release of the IARC’s findings, the EPA stated their intention to conduct a formal review of the safety of glyphosate. In the same press release, they shared that they, however, did not consider glyphosate to be carcinogenic in humans. An Australian scientist said, I am a vegetarian so I eat a lot of vegetables and I’m not worried by this report. My mother has been a vegetarian for over forty years.
After water, the ingredients in generic shampoo, the one I got out of the guest bathroom the last time I was at my parent’s house, are: sodium laureth sulfate, cocamidopropyl, betaine, sodium chloride, fragrance (parfum), citric acid, polyquaternium-10, tetrasodium EDTA, DMDM hydantoin, polysorbate 20, propylene glycol, hydrolyzed keratin, hydrolyzed wheat protein, tocopheryl acetate, panthenol, methylisothiazolinone, niacinamide, biotin, blue 1 (CI 42090). I haven’t had time to research studies of the carcinogenic properties of these ingredients, except for polysorbate. I heard about that one because it’s a preservative in most store bought hummus, but I guess it’s better if you don’t eat it. Or put it on your scalp. In 2010 Dove spent 209 million dollars on advertising. The annual advertising budget of the cosmetics and personal care industry in the U.S. totals 13.72 billion dollars.
Any sunscreen that doesn’t cost more than a dollar an ounce contains something close to: Avobenzone, Homosalate, Octisalate, Octocrylene, Oxybenzone, Neopentyl Glycol Diheptanoate, Propylene Glycol, Oxybenzoate, Polyglyceryl-3, Methylglucose Distearate, Retinyl Palmitate, Acrylates/C12-22 Alkyl Methacrylate Copolymer, Benzyl Alcohol, Styrene/Acrylates Copolymer, Chlorphenesin, Acrylates/C10-30 Alkyl Acrylate Crosspolymer, Glyceryl Stearate, PEG-100 Stearate, Fragrance, Disodium EDTA, Sodium Hydroxide, Tocopherol, Aloe Barbadensis, Sodium Ascorbyl Phosphate. Of these ingredients, discomfiting research on oxybenzoate and retinyl palmitate has caught my attention. I haven’t looked into the others and I don’t know why the sunscreen ingredients are capitalized while those on a shampoo bottle aren’t. I haven’t had time to check; I don’t think it means anything. Even people who research cancer as a full time job don’t know what’s going on.
My mother applies and diligently reapplies sunscreen. UV radiation is a category 1 human carcinogen.
Later in that suspended summer, through a glorious midwestern fall and well into a vicious, drawn out winter, my mother often called me into her darkened room. When she didn’t I would tiptoe in unsummoned before school. The shades would still be down, enfeebled darkness framing each window; the world was still out there. I’d slide into bed next to her, maybe she would turn over and push the covers toward me with a skeletal arm. Her morning breath would drift over me, stale and corporeal. I hardly noticed, I felt so far from that light dappled surface of experience where smells and sights reigned. As if trapped in a well, heavy, sodden, I stared at her and she stared back. I don’t know what it felt like where she was. Maybe I would say Hi. If I did, she’d croak a Hi back. We didn’t talk about death. Mostly we’d just lay there. I didn’t want her to be alone like we all are; company masks lack of control only thinly. I wanted thin to suffice. I remember one time she told me I was beautiful. I don’t think I said anything back.
When the syncopated slam of the screen door resounded up the stairs, my father returning with the dog, I’d put my forehead against hers. I don’t know if I would say anything before rolling over, drifting downstairs for a bowl of cereal and the day’s comics. I hope I did, I hope I told her something confident and comforting, though I doubt it. I don’t know what to say to her this time either, though I continue to search for the words that can soothe someone whose foreseeable present is so obviously riddled with fear and pain of uncertain ending. In her bedroom back then the frames of light around the windows would be more distinct by the time I left, and I do remember sometimes rolling the shade up an inch or two on my way out. Something to mark the passage of time. A bird outside, probably a robin, might catch my eye, sear me with jealousy.
Downstairs, my dad would be sitting at the lightslapped breakfast table, steaming mug of black coffee cupped absentmindedly in his hand as he read the newspaper. The Chicago Tribune, usually the front page and then the sports section. A mosaiced glass fixture hung over the ceiling light, casting faintly ruby, lilac, emerald shapes on the white wall behind him.
Then we’d look at each other, at a loss.
How are you? he’d ask.
I don’t know. Fine. You?
What’s going on in school today?
You know, stuff. I’d say. I never asked him about his job.
It’s a hard time, he might say.
Yeah, I’d reply.
You doing ok?
Maybe he’d reach for my hand across the table, tell me that I was a good kid or something like that. My eyes would water and then we’d eat our cereal in silence, rustle our newspapers, make our own lunches with groceries we’d bought together and tell each other to have a nice day. He smelled like shaving cream and listerine when he’d kiss my cheek goodbye. When I left for school I’d walk by a bottle of dusty blueberry champagne I knew was shut away under the kitchen sink, out of the ordinary for my red table-wine drinking parents. Some kind of vintage or gift from friends, I can’t remember. I knew they’d put it under there after my mom had gone back for a second scan, wanting to have it ready to celebrate with when everything came back clear. Of course no one could drink it now, and sometimes I wondered if my dad thought about it down there too. Hard glass in the darkness, waiting.
When I would come home later, sometimes late at night, carefully rolling my weight over the outer edges of the steps I knew creaked, I’d pause outside their bedroom door. Instead of hoping to hear silence as I had before all this began, my heart would pull me into the room, around the bed in the dark, and over to my mother’s side. Always a light sleeper, she would stir and say my name. I would bend over, reeking of weed, to kiss her cheek, breathe her skin. Smelling of smoke didn’t hold me back anymore, and she didn’t care like she used to either.
Outdoor air pollution is classified as a group 1 carcinogen: an agent definitely carcinogenic to humans. The World Health Organization defines air pollution as the contamination of the environment by any chemical, physical or biological agent that modifies the natural characteristics of the atmosphere. Motor vehicles and industrial facilities are two common examples of how particulate matter, carbon monoxide, ozone, nitrogen dioxide, or sulfur dioxide, all carcinogens, can be released into the atmosphere. A June 2017 study in the New England Journal of Medicine found significant evidence of adverse effects related to exposure to PM2.5 and ozone at concentrations below current national standards. PM2.5 is fine particulate matter, defined as particles with a mass median aerodynamic diameter of less than 2.5 μm; I looked it up. Our president dreams of repealing the Clean Air Act, saying that it cripples and unduly burdens industry by limiting legal emissions, for example from power plants. In fact, he thinks he already has: Did you see what I did to that? Boom, gone, he told a cheering crowd in Alabama in the fall of 2017. Air doesn’t come with an ingredients list, but my mother breathes it. Boom, gone.
In February of 1984 residents of Woburn, Massachusetts received scientific confirmation of what many of them had suspected for years: the drinking water in their town explained the abnormally high rate of childhood leukemia. After her son Jimmy died of it in 1979 at 12 years old, Anne M. Anderson helped form a group called For a Cleaner Environment. She’d always felt the water made him sick. It also rotted out her dishwasher, tasted bad, smelled, corroded pipes. Her time in the hospital with Jimmy showed her that although leukemia was a rare disease, it wasn’t rare among the children in her neighborhood. Though the state shut down two of the four wells that supplied Woburn with water in 1979 after finding various toxic wastes, including trichloroethylene (category 1), and studies confirmed a high leukemia rate in Woburn, the two couldn’t be linked until three nearby Harvard University scientists became curious. They, along with 300 Woburn volunteers, found a significant pattern of positive associations between the amount of water consumed from two contaminated wells and the incidence of childhood leukemia. Anne M. Anderson expressed a sense of relief upon learning that science is behind us. She also, along with seven other families, proceeded to sue a nearby chemical company and tannery for damages. She lived near Harvard, though that didn’t save her son.
In 2013 Steve and Shyla Lipsky sued Range Resources oil & gas in Texas; they stated that the companies nearby fracking contaminated their water — it bubbled and could be lit on fire. Tap water in parts of Texas, Pennsylvania, Wyoming, and the Dakotas is also flammable. It’s methane linked to fracking that causes it. Methane is category 1. In place of the White House’s climate change website you’ll now find the America first energy strategy page; it contains a pledge to open up $50 trillion in untapped shale, oil, and natural gas reserves. Boom, gone.
My mother lives on this planet. I live on this planet.
The time my mother asked me to cut her hair wasn’t the beginning or the end, of our time, of that dark time, or of her body’s penchant for premature rebellion. Long before that she’d carried me in a rose colored sling snug against her chest, tickled me on her bed after my older siblings had been put in theirs, taken me sledding, apple picking, to the Grand Canyon, whispered at our heavily varnished kitchen table two months earlier after I’d rolled my eyes at having to postpone meeting my friends that I was the person she’d worried most about telling. I was irrational. Sensitive. A hypochondriac. She’d waited for certainty, weathering a barrage of tests before sitting me down that night. Long before the time she asked me to cut her hair my mother had perched endlessly on my bed, sifting fine-boned fingers through my hair to soothe me back to sleep. Two fears dogged my childhood dreams: ebola, and cancer. I knew a friend’s older sister had handed me The Hot Zone, a book she was reading for class, when I was 8 or 9 years old. The scenes of ebola outbreaks I witnessed in those pages burned themselves into my consciousness as surely as the charred organs of the afflicted, vomited up in ashy chunks. I didn’t know where my bottomless fear of cancer came from and once my mom told me she was sick it felt like a premonition, karma, a curse, punishment for my fear, though Patrick much later pointed out that I’d probably overheard and not quite forgotten something as a child, likely more than once. He studied Psychology. Still, there was the time my mother asked me to cut her hair.
After her regular hospital visits stopped sometime in February of the following year, her hair grew back silkier and straight and stayed that way for eleven years. It was the hair we’d both, curly heads with a layer of frizz only half hidden underneath, always dreamed of. She would smile when she explained to someone how differently it had grown back. It went without saying that that didn’t make anything worth it, but still. She would smile.
So her silky hair was there waiting for me at the airport in Portland, where my parents now lived, the weekend after she had to tell me again. Again she’d waited until the tests were over; I both resented and pitied this. This time I knew it before she said it, or at least in retrospect thought I did. Which one of you is sick and how bad is it, I remember thinking as they sat awkwardly across from me on skype that day. I remember how it seemed to matter that the doctors told her her hair wouldn’t fall out this time. Medicine, at least in our circumstances, had come a long way since then. Thanks to a clinical trial and the passing of a decade, she was sent home with 40/60 odds instead of a fishing pole and a pat on the rump — affable doctor parlance for you’re going to die, soon. When she told me this, wistful, at least people won’t know as soon as they see me, she didn’t know that her hair would thin drastically, snarling her hands one day in the shower, turning them into wolf paws like it had done to mine on the patio that day in Wisconsin a decade before, sending her wailing into my father’s arms. I wasn’t there for that.
And when they picked me up at the airport, tremulous smiles nailed on, after I’d decided I had to fly out to see them, now, it was still straight and silky, brushing her collarbones. Later the headscarved women I remembered from hospital visits in Wisconsin were missing from her ward in Oregon. The view was different too — instead of grazing over suburban sprawl splashed with golf courses under a thin grey sky, the eyes here rested on Mount Hood. Just a glance away, the eleven thousand foot volcano was a triangle cookie cutter in the window’s slice of sky, jagged facets glittering white.
After I’d left Wisconsin, changed my mind about resettling in New Zealand and flown back to the U.S., I’d joined a band of like-minded, roving itinerants working in outdoor education, at home on the move under skies cupped by mountain silhouettes. So I understood viscerally when my mom confided in me: before she got pregnant with my older sister she’d hoped to graduate, buy a truck, put a mattress in its bed, and light out for the west, where the landscapes are. I’d never known. Now she was there, here, and the sight of Mount Hood out the hospital window was irrefutable confirmation. When she wasn’t sleeping on her gurney, the unguarded looks she shared with that volcano, culled from the breadth of her existence, left me too rock-solid and composed.
Her treatments necessitated a slow drip, we’d be there for a good five hours if things went smoothly, and she pretended to be convinced that they snuck sedatives into her IV. Each nurse laughingly denied this. They were unfailingly kind and cheerful, which comforted me until one told us how her mother, diagnosed with cancer, had to postpone treatment for six months until it was her turn to have health insurance — her husband was being treated for diabetes. After that I couldn’t let their warmth wash over me. Boom, gone. Each nurse wore a haz mat suit when they came to set up my mother’s drip or to hook up a new bag of chemicals. The bags, clear plastic, had orange biohazard stickers. I didn’t read their ingredients lists and tried not to look alarmed as my mother, propped up in bed with rumpled socks on, raised her eyebrows at me, acknowledging. She was supposed to flush twice when she peed for the next 48 hours.
For lunch she’d send me down to the food carts outside, unable to suppress a Midwesterner’s glee at living somewhere with food carts. By the time I’d make it back upstairs, fresh air lingering on my clothes, sidewalk lavender wafting from my fingertips, and eat my lunch while my mother’s salad wilted, we’d be about ready to go home. There, she’d doze on the couch the rest of the day, the cat perched on its back and dog curled at her feet, while I wandered around the house and tried not to think. Or drink, wash my hair, touch plastic, go outside, or breathe. I wondered if we felt as unduly burdened as all those companies required to regulate their emissions had.
People don’t have enough vitamin D in their blood anymore — the majority of the population has less than 30 ng/mL. I’m not sure exactly what that is, but I know it’s the recommended bottom limit. Vitamin and mineral standards in the U.S. were developed in the 60’s to give people an idea of where to find the line demarcating clinical sickness. Naturopaths recommend at least 70 ng/mL, but my culture rears me not to trust such doctors — only people who created the problem can fix it. Even people living in sunny places, or collecting the recommended 20 minutes of filtered sunlight over 20% of their body’s surface daily, have widespread vitamin D deficiencies. Vitamin D supports immune system function. Low levels of vitamin D are linked to higher rates of cancer incidence. The immune system eats tumors. Doctors and scientists can’t agree on why people don’t have enough vitamin D anymore, some call the testing itself a fad. Leading theories point to environmental pollutants that interrupt and limit human uptake and metabolic processing.
An article in the New York Times in the fall of 2017 reported a rash of studies pointing to an increasing incidence of colorectal cancer in young people in their 20s and 30s. Colorectal cancer rates, which had dropped steadily for people born between 1890 and 1950, have been increasing for every generation born since 1950 — people born in 1990 have double the risk of colon cancer and quadruple the risk of rectal cancer of someone born in 1950 at a comparable age. Doctors and scientists can’t agree on why this might be, though environmental factors are a leading theory. The honest truth is that while many speculate, nobody knows.
1 in 3 men will have cancer in this country. 1 in 2 women. Some say this is because of better and increased diagnostic tests, longer life spans. Cancer will kill 1 in 4. My doctor says cancer is 60% bad luck, the other 40% being divided between genetics and environmental factors. My mother had a routine colonoscopy two years before her diagnosis. Her doctor’s say the tumor they found this year was way too big to have grown in two. No test is perfect.
It’s unclear whether the radiofrequency of your cell phone causes cancer. Give the studies a few years. Do pesticides grow into the flesh of a fruit, or can they be washed off? Google doesn’t know. How irradiated are the banks of the Colorado River, and where does this raditation go? What is a millirem of radiation? Depending on the plane’s altitude, latitude, current solar activity, and weather conditions, the average cross country flight includes 2 to 5 millirem of radiation. A chest x-ray doses you with 10 mrem. I don’t know what those new scanners that let the TSA agents see you naked at security give off, though they hang signs comparing it to microwaves and TVs. I’m also not sure about microwaves. Natural background radiation exists in our environment and rains on us from outer space.
My steps resound with statistics while my culture investigates, perpetrates. Is silent, offers me no answers. Can you think yourself sick, or only eat, drink, wash, breathe yourself into a compromised condition? Cash registers clang, conveyer belts click, my steps resound with statistics, hoofbeats gathering speed. Ignorance. Bliss. Boom, gone.
Later still came the time when I lay in bed next to Patrick, turned on my side toward him with my head nestled in the hollow between his heart and shoulder, trying not to count his limited heartbeats. The lights were off, we’d already whispered the best parts of our days to each other in the darkness. I ask him this question almost every night and savor the way he takes a deep breath before starting with a description of breakfast and moving on from there, a disciplined optimist.
My mom has mouth sores again, I say softly.
Shit. Are they gonna take that drug out again then?
Panatalbasomethingprinomab. Or trin. No, they only did that because of what happened to her skin, she had the mouth sores every time for awhile before that.
A pause. He sighs, pulls me in closer and kisses my hairline emphatically. I imagine her curled up in Portland, wincing with every uttered word, snapping curtly at my chatty father. At least the chemo steals her appetite.
I’m going to call her tomorrow, Patrick says.
Better to just text.
Yeah, it’s usually a few days before she can really eat and talk again. Hopefully before the next cycle.
Shit. I’ll write then.
I squeeze his ribcage with one arm, raise my head up to rest my cheek on his. Silence. I catch myself again feeling like I’m thinking about someone else’s life, maybe remembering a book or movie as my mind worries the details of our circumstances. That happens a lot, though it doesn’t do anything to settle the tenuous unease that’s taken over my body. Settling back in I say, The world is so toxic. Full of our poisoned shit. So someone can make money.
He gently traces my spine. Wanna hear about the planet? he asks.
I nod against his chest in the dark.
It’s not so far from here, just on the other side of the sun. It’s full of huuuuuge trees, and more different kinds of birds than you’ve ever seen. Some look like parrots, others you could never imagine. They fly through the trees, playing in the wind and singing to each other. The forest floor is covered with moss so thick that foxes build their dens in it. There are no chainsaws or bulldozers, no one to even imagine those things. The rivers are wild and loud, and there are no dams except those from beavers on this planet without any humans. Fawns drink cool, fresh water from the rivers. Under silent ... dappled light. The clouds move across the sky without any airplanes or jets, day after day after ... day ...
His words get further apart, he’s drifting.
All we can do is lay here and fantasize, I say. Pass the time as best we can until we get sick or nuked. I hate it.
Oh baby, he sighs. Pulls me in tight. We got this. Our part is to stay strong, to share that with them. We’ll wake up tomorrow and enjoy the moments as best we can, one breath at a time. Immer langsam mit den wilden Pferden. We’re doing all we can.
I burrow into his warmth, feeling empty but somehow still aching. Hung up on the unnecessariness that is the disaster of humankind on this planet. Clean air, sunlight, fresh water, rich dirt, beauty. Into smoggy skies, barracked buildings, carcinogenic streams, infertile soil, piles of money. Boom, gone.
Thank you, I say to Patrick.
Ich liebe dich Mirale, he says, kissing the air next to my mouth. He’s already half gone.
I let him go, try to think of the planet. Its endless changing landscapes, careless mountain lines flowing into unscathed prairies, teeming canyons unseen, unsurveyed, by a single human eye. No ingredient lists, no haz mat suits. No hairy handed humans, heavy hearted with wishing. I breathe into Patrick’s warmth now curled around my back, imagine I am an animal who needs nothing more to be soothed. An animal who, I hope, doesn’t know what’s coming. What’s already here.
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