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Looking

A #VQRTrueStory Essay

ISSUE:  Summer 2022


1.

A sheet of ground glass is useful for manual focusing in photography. With a ground-glass viewer inserted at the back of some large cameras, the image appears upside down, in vivid detail. When using an optical microscope, ground glass evenly illuminates the specimen. My father’s oncologist points to the ground-glass opacities that explode his lungs like stars, fill her computer monitor with a galaxy. He is the specimen; we take him in. He’s large as sprawl, rising off her screen in waves of light.

All that year, his stomach, opening. He’d leak. Poor plumbing, he’d joke. Then they’d open him in the ICU. Drain him. Again, an NG tube. A pump. A plastic receptacle filling with his body’s red fluids.

Anne Boyer: “The boundaries of our bodies break. Everything we were supposed to keep inside of us now seems to fall out.”

The year he was dying, his body was a porous thing. I saw us as less solid than I had imagined us to be before.

When my father was in the hospital, his surgeon presented on his disease during a medical conference. The conference attendees had been very interested in my father’s gastric cancer and its unusual progression, he said, as if paying my father a compliment. I knew by then that his cancer occurs at a slightly higher rate in areas that produce industrial waste and pollution. Was what made it unusual that we had long lived on the fence lines of industry? Was it the outside toxins within his body? It would be impossible to know, the surgeon said. What was and was not possible tethered us to the questions his body posed.

“How easily,” writes Lia Purpura, “the body opens.” My father died because his body was unwell. The industry  near our home in Minneapolis was a part of his cancer, I was coming to see, or maybe this was paranoid. It crossed my mind that it could be both, but I didn’t yet know how. 

 

2.

Photo by Kathryn Savage

“Join the club,” my friend said over drinks, handing me the book Some Thing Black weeks after I stood in the crematorium where a man I did not know and would never see again pushed a button and I watched my father’s body move toward flame in a cardboard box with our surname scrawled in marker on its side. 

That day, I had been bothered by and too aware of the curtains over the window that separated me from him. Chintzy pink satin, heavy pleats. The man who worked the button asked if I wanted to see. I realized the question was if I wanted to see my father’s body burned to ash. I said I did. The curtains parted slowly, loudly. I stood. I looked. I said, “Stop.” I understood now why they were there. 

Or it was like this: In The Republic, Socrates tells the story of a man, Leontius, who saw dead bodies lying on the ground beside where the men had been executed. He wanted to see the dead, to look, but he felt dread and disgust at this want; he struggled and covered his eyes, but after a while his desire got the better of him, and, pulling his hand from his eyes, he ran up to the dead. 

My father’s body was on the other side of glass. I felt a responsibility to look. I was his only daughter. Looking can be many things, and one of those is love. 

Some Thing Black was strange. This made me love the friend who’d given it to me more, because my grieving was also strange. Jacques Roubaud wrote it in the years after the sudden death of his wife. It is a transcription of his loss and the ever-present “not-there-ness” of her—her things, his memories. Roubaud writes: “Through simple repetition of *there is no more* the whole unravels into its loathsome fabric: reality.” 

On the weekends, the year after my father died, I’d drive from my home in Tulsa to Picher, Oklahoma. A strange sight—windowless, abandoned houses of red brick, spray-painted with the words keep out. Pale hills swelled in the distance. I went to see what remained. One afternoon, I saw a bit of floral dinner dish in tall grasses and remembered sorting his things in the days following his death. How the room smelled like him. What generous haunting. The apartment, briefly, alive.

 

3.

Photo by Kathryn Savage

Picher is the heart of the Tar Creek Superfund Site, a forty-square-mile area that human-created environmental catastrophes have left uninhabitable, like Pripyat, Ukraine, after the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl, or Centralia, Pennsylvania, where an underground coal mine has been burning since 1962 and spreading through tunnels and is predicted to smolder for another hundred years. I grew up near less-infamous toxic land: hundreds of acres of unassuming industrial pollution. A smelly shingles factory. A noisy train-switching yard. Wood-treatment plant abandoned, ponded.

The Tri-State Mining District, of which the Tar Creek Superfund Site is a part, is a contaminated prairie spanning Oklahoma, Kansas, and Missouri that impacts the sovereign lands of nine tribal nations: the Quapaw, Seneca-Cayuga, Miami, Modoc, Wyandotte, Ottawa, Peoria, Eastern Shawnee, and Cherokee.

During Picher’s boom, there were 14,252 residents living in pastel clapboard homes nestled among white chat hills—grainy rises pregnant with lead, zinc, and cadmium. The mined metals were melted into bullets fired during both world wars. The Tri-State Mining District, home to three Superfund sites, thrived economically during a condition of war.

Before Picher was evacuated and unincorporated, having been deemed hazardous to live in by the federal government, children took refuge from Oklahoma’s pressing summer heat by swimming in creeks ruddy with cadmium and arsenic. At dusk, families picnicked on chat under broad, uninterrupted sunlight. At night, teenagers grabbed at each other’s bodies on hills bright as moonscape, faintly glowing.  

On a windy July day in Picher, near one hundred degrees, I see a metal desk chair at the base of a chat hill and a deflated cardboard box of beer. Chat interrupts the horizon. I walk to the chair, sit, and stare at the hill until my eyes sting from the blowing dust and I look away, in the direction of Lytle Creek. Past cracked roadways barely getting traffic and busted mine shafts, more pale swells rise. I am alone. I am someone’s mother and someone’s daughter. My eyes, mouth. A chalky dust, the taste of it. How easily the body opens. 

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