Every year when my breast is squeezed into the machine and the woman behind the Plexiglas tells me not to move, when the radiologist reads the film and says, “You’re high risk,” I’m forced to think of Barbara, my maternal aunt, who found a lump at fifty-six, the age I am now.
My mammogram happens in July, so Barbara wasn’t on my mind on February 10, 2017. That night, the Snow Moon was in partial eclipse, and then comet 45P/Honda-Mrkos-Pajdušáková, named after the astronomers who discovered it, was burning across the Milky Way.
I’m a sucker for outer space, for how it is out there but inside too. When we inhale and exhale, we offer ourselves to space one moment and draw it into ourselves the next. Every few weeks there’s some new cosmic event to take in. I’ve learned the names of stars, clusters, galaxies, and exoplanets, and downloaded apps I point skyward to find constellations and space junk floating unseen. Astronomers can tell us a lot about outer space, but there’s so much they still don’t know. I’ve learned to trust the invisible. But even more, I stalk the sky for what I can see.
* * *
It was cloudy in Moscow, Idaho, where I live, so I had no hope of watching the night’s events. On the other hand, the forecast for Hanford, Washington, three hours away, was clear. I’d been eyeing Hanford’s brand-new astronomy observatory called LIGO. The weekend of February 10 was the first anniversary of LIGO’s biggest discovery to date. It had found something new in the universe that proved Einstein’s theory of general relativity. This new thing had the potential to change the way we think about space, time, and ourselves. So I packed the car and set out, though it was already 9 p.m. on a Friday.
I’m a sucker for outer space, for how it is out there but inside too. When we inhale and exhale, we offer ourselves to space one moment and draw it into ourselves the next.
Highway 26 winds across Washington state over undulating hills planted in a dozen strains of wheat. It’s a lonely road, and I met only two other vehicles in seventy miles. We’d had above normal snowfall that winter. The snow had melted, but the hills shimmered with patches of white that seemed, in the darkness, to stretch and contract like spots on a leopard.
I knew the Hanford Reservation—a sprawling complex of nuclear reactors and buildings dedicated to research—and Richland, the nearby city of 80,000. I’d once lived on the edge of the reservation, teaching high school while my husband, Myron, tried to get an engineering job. I hadn’t been back in twenty-eight years. I didn’t know anyone there. I couldn’t really remember what the place looked like. But as soon as I drove into town, cruised down the long straight road past buildings squatting under the streetlights and the Snow Moon, I found myself among scenes from my earlier life, which I had not thought about in a long time.
I arrived at midnight and checked in to the Hampton Inn on the Columbia River, one of America’s great arteries, fed by the Snake, Deschutes, Willamette, and Yakima Rivers before making its way to the Pacific Ocean. The government built its reservation here because of the Columbia. Nuclear reactors, like people, need water.
Outside the hotel, the river flowed wide and placid. The woman at the front desk remarked on the Canada geese, how they had not migrated that winter as usual. “I’ve seen them on the golf course all year,” she said as she handed me the key.
“They sure are noisy,” I said.
In my room, I flung open the window. The air smelled desert-y and dark. I could tell by my giddiness that the river and the very air were bringing me somewhere. I stepped out on the deck looking for the green tail of the comet with my small telescope. But I couldn’t see anything special. Tired, I folded into bed, bathroom light reflecting in the mirror, moon glowing outside. Throughout the night, I slipped in and out of sleep, conscious of the chirps of grebes, plovers, and the Canada geese.
* * *
Perhaps it was the geese that drew me back to when Myron and I first arrived in Hanford in 1986 to begin our lives. When we’d entered college in Calgary, he in engineering, me in education, oil companies were handing out signing bonuses to engineering graduates. We assumed we’d end up north of Edmonton or Fort McMurray in the tar sands. But during our senior year, the oil industry plummeted, jobs dried up, and we made our way south to Spokane where my parents lived. We moved into my old bedroom with the soiled white carpet. Myron worked for my parents’ plumbing company. I hit the pavement with my teaching degree, interviewing at schools in Connell, Clarkston, Asotin, and Milton-Freewater, though Myron’s job prospects in these small western towns were grim. When the principle at Hanford High School told me that Richland had more engineers than any city in the state and offered me a position as a drama teacher, I took it.
At Hanford, I started directing plays and teaching Shakespeare. We rented an apartment across from the school. To our west grew a huge field of Russian thistle that threw roots ten feet down and bloomed into prickly green barrels that tumbled across the highway. From a distance, those barrels looked like moon rocks. Beyond the field was the 600-square-mile nuclear reservation where engineers worked. Myron began applying for jobs at Westinghouse, Battelle, Rockwell, and the Department of Energy. Neither of us knew the reservation was a response to a 1939 letter from Einstein to Franklin Roosevelt. Much later, when I started work as a professor at Washington State University in Pullman, I learned from an exhibit in the library that Einstein and fellow physicist Leó Szilárd informed the president in that letter that it was possible to use uranium to set up a nuclear chain reaction and create an unfathomable amount of energy. This process would lead, they said, “to the construction of bombs.”
In my own high school days, I had watched grainy films of nuclear detonations, the Trinity test in New Mexico and the Castle Bravo in the South Pacific. No one who grew up in 1960s American public schools can forget the trembling footage of a black, simmering sea and a sunrise lasting a split second followed by fire, dust, smoke, and then slow-forming rings, like giant halos, appearing above it all. There was something about those perfect rings I never got out of my mind, something more powerful than the mushroom cloud itself because the rings made terror look holy. The footage entered the dreams of thousands, becoming an archetype like the cross or the flood, and even seeped into the imagination of Hollywood, giving birth to Godzilla.
What seemed strange to me now as I tossed in the ample hotel bed, is how Myron and I moved to Hanford that summer of 1986 and I didn’t even think about the footage of the slow-forming rings in the South Pacific. The only way I could account for it was that Hanford and other nuclear towns of the Manhattan Project like Oak Ridge and Los Alamos were secret cities. Employees were forbidden from talking about their work. The bombs they made killed tens and tens of thousands in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Yet during World War II and the Cold War, less than one percent of Hanford’s 50,000 employees knew they were doing nuclear research, much less making bombs. Some thought they were working in a sandpaper factory.
Shortly before dawn, I checked my telescope again. Still no sign of the comet, just a warm glimmer on the river.
* * *
The Hampton Inn breakfast lounge had a great glass window facing the Columbia. The deck outside, strewn with aluminum umbrella poles, wicker tables, and plastic chairs—all coated with ice and snow—looked desolate. I wandered out. The hotel guests, separated from me by the glass wall, watched news reports on the TV about possible Russian interference in the United States election, piling their plates with muffins, toast, and waffles, as if Russian meddling were nothing to worry about. On the river, geese swam curlicues, their black necks flecked with patches of white. Ripples traveled in concentric rings toward the edge. The patrons, the birds, me. Three worlds brought together in silence.
I sipped my coffee watching the birds, remembering that I may not have come to Hanford all those years ago if not for my Aunt Barbara. Barbara’s husband Merle had been a high school principal in several dust-blown Eastern Washington towns, and they knew the superintendent at Richland. Unbeknownst to me, they’d called the school district the morning of my interview. When I signed my contract at the district office, the superintendent said, “Your application went straight to the top when I found out who you’re related to.”
Barbara and Merle made quite the pair. The image I carried in my head was him standing under a tree, a portly man with prematurely white hair and a wide, gleaming smile, and her next to him, slight and emotionally remote, arms folded across her chest. I always felt as if I should have known Barbara better, given that she was my mother’s only sister. I was connected to her in one special way at least. I had inherited her feet, petite, arched, and lightly padded, with the middle digit on the left foot just a stub.
Barbara and my mother, ten years apart, looked like twins, with their black eyes and bony shoulders. Their brother, unable to hit a ball because of his glass eye, was too artsy to please their baseball-loving father and too disobedient to satisfy their mother. That left my mother and Barbara to compete for their parents’ affection, or so I understood from the way my mother talked. Barbara was forever ahead in those competitions: she folded socks in a neat twist while my mother’s were lumpy; she had boyfriends while my mother spent her time with her horse; and she played the sleek, sultry clarinet while my mother chose the loud trumpet. Barbara could do no wrong. But miraculously, my mother didn’t resent Barbara. “I looked up to her just like everyone else did,” my mother would say. Throughout my childhood, I saw Barbara as someone born under a lucky star.
Though I was bundled up as I sat on the deck at the Hampton Inn, a chill cut through me. I was remembering more things now, connecting the dots. Barbara was diagnosed with breast cancer the same year I started teaching at Hanford—could that be right? I did the math. Yes, it was.
More than two hours may have passed before I gathered my camera, my notebook, and my courage. Under a pale sky and bright sun, I hopped in my car and drove down George Washington Way, the main road through town, toward LIGO, the place that some claimed had made the most important discovery in astronomy since the telescope.
And I somehow thought she would be okay. How could I have not been concerned? My mother was my pulse for how to feel about family crises, and I recall her saying the doctor told Barbara to “watch the lump” to make sure it didn’t get worse. For some reason, we all assumed she would get better. And, in a childish way, I thought of Barbara as too beautiful and beloved to get seriously ill.
I walked back into the breakfast lounge. The other patrons had left, and the hotel staff were busy cleaning up the buffet. Back at my room, I checked the Internet for some credible information about the nuclear bomb, thinking I would jot down a quick timeline before I left for LIGO, but soon I was deep into a puzzle. I figured out that the April before Myron and I moved to Hanford, Chernobyl had melted down. Vaguely, I recalled photos showing steel innards of concrete buildings and piles of rubble, a landscape in outlines. I pulled up some old newspapers, where phrases like “nuclear disaster” and “thousands dead” danced across the screen. I wasn’t aware until that moment just how closely Chernobyl’s failed operations mirrored those at Hanford.
In fact, I realized, Myron and I had arrived at Hanford with our newly minted college degrees, our hopes and dreams, when the first wave of documents exposing the contamination of the 1940s and ‘50s was released in response to Freedom of Information Act requests. Also that year whistle-blower Casey Ruud leaked information to the Seattle Times about Hanford’s safety violations. As a result, the largest plutonium production facility for nuclear weapons at Hanford—Reactor N, of similar design to the one at Chernobyl—ceased production.
In the hot tub at our apartment complex, I recalled, we had soaked in the water while talking with our neighbors. “Do you work at Hanford?” I’d said in a chirpy voice, angling for a contact that might turn into a job interview. Men and women five or ten years older than we were narrowed their eyes and said nothing, as if they weren’t vulnerable, as if we all weren’t practically naked. The hot tub jets bubbled. Our words vanished in the damp air. Myron and I had walked into Richland’s forty-year history of refusing to know about the risks, not talking shop, and shunning or expelling those who did talk. The community focus was on how whistle-blower Casey Ruud cost people their jobs, a fact to which we were oblivious.
* * *
More than two hours may have passed before I gathered my camera, my notebook, and my courage. Under a pale sky and bright sun, I hopped in my car and drove down George Washington Way, the main road through town, toward LIGO, the place that some claimed had made the most important discovery in astronomy since the telescope. I was overcome with a sense of presentiment thinking about how this strange place where I had once lived was now at the center of describing the universe. I passed the courthouse and glanced over at the hospital, Richland Bell Furniture, and the Red Lion Motel, buildings suddenly familiar.
I sailed by the high school and down the grid-like roads of the reservation, past the barbed wire and thistled tumbleweeds. Even now, long after Hanford had quit producing mass quantities of plutonium, after the government had launched a $110 billion cleanup, I had a sense of entering a forbidden zone, signs warning: “All Persons/Vehicles Are Subject to Search” and “Roadways on the Hanford Site Are Private Roads Owned and Maintained by the Department of Energy for the Department of Energy.” Some fifty years earlier, those signs would have said: “Loose talk—a chain reaction from espionage” and “Protection for all—don’t talk. Silence means security.” The government was worried about information leaks when they should have worried about radiation leaking into the ground, air, and water.
I wanted to focus on LIGO but couldn’t put to rest what I’d just read. The nuclear program at Hanford had left behind fifty-six million gallons of radioactive waste—not just fourteen-foot-long fuel rods and fingernail-sized uranium pellets, but regular things, a pile of computers, a bag of clothes, rags, faucets, plastic gloves, scissors, shoes, hair brushes, a book about the migration habits of geese—which they had buried in tunnels and underground storage units in the 1980s.
I passed the sturdy research buildings of the reservation, like Pacific Northwest Labs and Test America, some made of corrugated aluminum, others poured concrete, and then the desert fanned out before me, flat, treeless, seemingly endless. Now half under snow, with bromegrass poking through, it was hard to imagine the place being the most contaminated nuclear site in America. In some ways, it felt pristine, undeveloped, except for the remains of nine reactors, now shut down, simple cement squares or domes.
The room was quiet. The sound left me breathless. I was in love with it, the way you’re in love with what can open you up.
I made a couple of wrong turns, the roads not being marked and with no helpful signs to guide me, before I pulled up to six gleaming white buildings set against crusty snow. I had imagined the facility to be a windowless cement structure similar to the mothballed reactors. But no, it was a celestial city. A small sign read: LIGO, Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory.
The sky was a high chroma blue and the sun at an angle as I pulled into the parking lot. Minutes later I was in a pleasant foyer full of displays. Einstein played a central role. The outline of his face was drawn in stars across a wall, as if he were a constellation. A man came and shooed us away from the exhibit. “The program’s about to start.” He wore square glasses that darkened in the light and a nametag, “Raymond—Research Engineer.” I shook his hand and told him I’d lived here in the ‘80s. He only said, “Go sit down in the theater.” Perhaps he’d heard that too many times.
The theater reminded me of a university lecture hall, dimly lit, staunch, hushed. Raymond, I could see now, was a fragile man with a precise nose and chin. He stood at the front fiddling with a computer. He didn’t seem to know how to operate his PowerPoint show. I wondered how those skills translated to his operation of LIGO, which he told us was the world’s most sensitive instrument. “In 1907, Einstein had what he described as his happiest thought, that gravity disappears when you free fall,” Raymond said in a soft voice. He told us we had all experienced that on a roller coaster. “What happens in free fall,” he continued, “is we’re going as straight as possible through empty space, yet we’re on a curved path, the curvature of space and time.”
The metaphor worked for me, sitting there imagining the thrill and terror of free fall, the way we all migrate through the universe. “And Einstein,” Raymond said with a crooked smile, “came up with the idea of relativity by thinking about things like that.” Raymond didn’t mention the irony that Einstein would not have been permitted at Hanford during the war because the US Army denied the famous scientist a clearance to work on the Manhattan Project, or that after the war, Einstein regretted writing to Roosevelt. He told friend Max von Laue he did so only because he was afraid Hitler would make the bomb first. If not for that, he said, “I would not have participated in opening this Pandora’s box. For my distrust of government was not limited to Germany.”
Einstein had predicted gravitational waves in a 1916 paper, Raymond told us. “No one, until now, knew if those waves existed”—and here his voice rose in excitement—“but LIGO sensed them by measuring distances in two different locations!” Besides Hanford, the government had built an identical LIGO in Louisiana. The two LIGOs had detected two black holes 1.3 billion years ago. The black holes had spiraled around one another, then collided, then merged. The event was so catastrophic it actually bent space and time, sending a ripple like a rock dropped in water.
The beauty of the idea overwhelmed me. That the black holes had been so massive in the first place, that they circled one another like lovers—not even Romeo and Juliet at the Capulet ball could have been so powerfully attracted—that they wrinkled the very universe, flowing backward in human time, and now the faintest swell could be heard on Earth at Hanford—it seemed mythic.
“One day LIGO may even hear the Big Bang itself,” Raymond said. He clicked the computer off and on and then nothing happened. He got on his phone and called another engineer who came and pressed buttons and checked wires. After ten minutes, the theater shook with rumbling sounds, the kind of aggressive noise of World War II bombers. Then another vibration abruptly took over, strange and comic, and carved out a soft space in me. A whooop. People smiled. These instruments had recorded the waves on a graph and translated them into sound. Raymond replayed it. Whooop. “It’s a chirp,” he said. “The cosmos is talking to us at Hanford.”
The room was quiet. The sound left me breathless. I was in love with it, the way you’re in love with what can open you up. But underneath the love was another, darker, feeling. The machinery of death and murder at Hanford had been retooled to hear the universe.
* * *
In 1955, Barbara finished college and started her teaching career in Washtucna, an ordinary small town on Highway 26 with one gas pump, one store, and a main street. I had just passed it on my drive the night before. But that same year, something extraordinary was happening at Hanford. Swallows were building nests out of radioactive mud. It soon became apparent to the few people paying attention that everything around Hanford was “hot.” Hot rabbits, mice, ducks, and coyotes. Hot salmon and trout. Hot mulberry bushes, sagebrush, and Russian thistle. Hot garbage—apple cores and banana peels. Even geese were hot. But the worst were ants, mosquitoes, flies, gnats, wasps, and worms. Radioactivity concentrated in the tissues of invertebrates at vastly higher levels than what had originally discharged into the environment. Miniature Godzillas. Miniature bombs, slowly detonating.
Barbara married Merle a few years after she started in Washtucna, and over the years, the two of them moved to one little Washington town after the other, including Washtucna a second time. All of those places were downwind from Hanford, and of course the 237 different radionuclides leaked into the ground, air, and water on the reservation eventually affected people as much as they did banana peels, ants, and geese. Over two million individuals, who were later saddled with the grim moniker “downwinders,” got sick with lung diseases and cancers of the liver, thyroid, lungs, pancreas, and breast.
Halfway through my second year of teaching at Hanford, I got pregnant. That year, Barbara’s breast lump grew worse. She went back to the doctor and told him it hurt. She was tired of watching it. My mother and I visited her in the hospital in Spokane after her mastectomy. When we came in, me with my newborn daughter in my arms, an orderly was leading Barbara around the ward, bathed in broken light from the slatted blinds. She seemed strong, more radiant than I had ever seen her, dark hair curled at her temples. Suddenly I remembered her spaghetti sauce made from tomatoes and basil grown in her garden when our family would come for dinner, how rich and earthy it tasted, or how when she held her grandchildren on her lap they wiggled and her body moved like a curve of music.
“You look wonderful,” my mother said, offering her arm to Barbara. The two talked the way close sisters do, heads bent toward one another. When we went to leave, Barbara opened her arms to hug me. Our bodies came together, my daughter wedged between, the three of us one braided strand, and I felt very close to her.
“She’s walking,” my mother whispered as we boarded the hospital elevator. “They always want you up walking after surgery. It means you’re getting better.”
* * *
Raymond led us outside. LIGO, the actual instrument, was two long detectors made of steel vacuum tubes and set at right angles. We crunched over the snow, walking in the footsteps of people who had done the tour before us. Feathery contrails shot across the sky like shadows. From the outside LIGO appeared like an ordinary engineering site. Water tanks. Pipes. A tractor. A place in flux.
The tubes stretched into the horizon two and a half miles. We couldn’t see inside the tubes—they were sheathed in heavy concrete—we had to take it on faith. “We’re sending lasers down these long vacuum tubes, and if LIGO hears something, the distance changes by something that’s one-hundred million billion times smaller than the thickness of a human hair,” Raymond said.
“That’s one way to say really small,” I said, and a man who looked to be in his thirties smiled. Raymond did not smile. The man and I took photos of one another in front of the tubes, him in a new Carhartt jacket with his hands snuggled into the pockets and me in my neon yellow ski parka. We continued chatting as Raymond led us back inside. His name was Victor, I learned, and he had immigrated from Mexico a few years earlier to work “on the cleanup” at the Hanford Vit Plant. It was hazardous work. The radioactive waste that had been buried in the 1980s had leaked, he told me, and now he and others were digging it up and turning it into glass and reburying it, a process called vitrification. We walked through the LIGO office buildings, which seemed too ordinary to be listening for the Big Bang. A watercooler, a fern, a carton of disinfectant wipes, makeshift cubicles, pink Post-Its on computers, photos of people smiling with their children. I asked Victor if he was putting himself in danger by working on the cleanup. He shook his head “no” but his smile lifted into a slight smirk. “We wear suits and masks,” he said. “Don’t worry.” I nodded, and because his eyes were so kind, I half believed him.
* * *
My mother was with Barbara for her last meal in the hospital. “It was heartbreaking,” my mother said. Even after the mastectomy, the cancer spread to her liver and bones. “They brought her a tray of food. There was soup, some fruit. A salad. And do you know what she said? ‘I’m trying to eat healthy.’ It makes me so sad to think about it now. She was eating healthy, but her health was gone.”
I would have gone to see her then, but a few months after our daughter was born, Myron and I left Hanford. Every manager Myron met with during his job search turned him away saying he was a Canadian and couldn’t get a security clearance. Casey Ruud, the whistleblower, left shortly thereafter. He started a construction business, and then a brewery in another corner of Washington away from the controversy and the contamination.
* * *
As different as they were, Hanford and LIGO had some things in common. The power of the nuclear bomb was the closest thing to the two black holes colliding that humans could devise. Violent events bent space and time, sending out ripples long afterward. Violent events in human history sent ripples out long afterward, as well. Sites across Hanford continue to exhibit newly found contamination, even to this day, Victor had told me. Radioactive plumes inched closer to the Columbia River. Wildlife was still radioactive. “The environment will never be the same,” he said. It struck me how I couldn’t see the contamination with my naked eye. I had to see it through scientific measurements and newspaper reports. That day at LIGO required imagination too. All we could see were steel tubes covered in cement. The waves were invisible.
But a person could see the effects of Barbara’s disease when Merle brought her home to die. She lifted her shirt for my mother. “And the cancer had eaten through her body,” my mother told me. “There were round, open sores up and down her torso.” Rings spreading outward, I thought, devouring her skin. Signs of cancer’s migration through a body.
I love the transitional moment of being in a place and leaving it. It’s a moment of having no home but the now, a small opening before the finality of having left. The middle-aged couple who had been sitting next to me in the theater, the mother and daughter a few rows down, Victor, and Raymond, we had driven from wherever we were to the Hanford Reservation to lose ourselves in the whispers of the universe, and now we were dispersing. We got back in our cars and left the dream of LIGO.
I stopped for a double espresso in Richland, then headed back across the state on Highway 26. I was settling accounts with myself. The tender and tough part of a woman—breast tissue—connected Barbara and me in strange ways, yet I had always been afraid to think about it, afraid of statistics and risk factors, of what else I might have inherited from her besides a left foot and a love of teaching. I was even afraid to talk to my mother about her sister’s death, and maybe, unconsciously, to think about what we all had inherited with the nuclear bomb. Instead, I had lived in denial, not letting myself free fall into memory.
The sun had already set as I drove past Washtucna, but the Snow Moon was keeping the darkness awake.
DJ Lee is Regents Professor of English at Washington State University. She has published over twenty nonfiction essays in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Narrative, Vela, Terrain, and Superstition Review, as well as other journals and anthologies. A recipient of a National Endowment for the Humanities Research Grant and a Charles A. Ryskamp Fellowship from the American Council of Learned Societies, she has written or edited seven books on environmental history, oral history, British poetry, and travel literature.