My body matured on the flood plain of Lake Erie, weather-maker, nearly ten thousand square miles of freshwater surface area upon which winds kick up violent waves. I grew up on its eastern shore, fifty miles south of Buffalo, New York, in the rural village of Silver Creek, surrounded by vineyards and apple orchards, with a population of only twenty-five hundred. Its once-vital Main Street, where my parents could buy our shoes, clothes, fabric, groceries, hardware, jewelry, notions, toys, gifts, and greeting cards, was eroded gradually by the building of malls in the suburbs of Buffalo, then by the demise of the steel industry in nearby Lackawanna. . . .
On drives to Buffalo to visit my parents’ immigrant Latvian friends, the thruway took us through the steel-mill town, with its spewing stacks and grimed-up row houses. Lackawanna, P.U.! my sister and I chanted, pinching our noses, rolling the car windows tight against the sulfurous stench. My friends’ parents worked at the mills, at the car plants. When those shut down, in some instances, their sons worked for environmental-monitoring companies, testing the abandoned sites for leaching toxins. We came of age an hour’s drive from Love Canal, downwind of Three Mile Island, on the heels of [Rachel Carson’s] Silent Spring. The Cold War and fear of nuclear attack — my mind came of age to those nightmare-makers.
My body came of age working the vineyards snaking across Lake Erie’s fertile flood plain. Concords grown for juice and jam. In high school I was trimming the leafless vines over spring break; combing the heavy, flyaway new growth bare armed in the heat of summer; harvesting rows too narrow to accommodate mechanical picking machines in September. The grapes were heavily treated with chemicals, something that never crossed my mind. Walking home from school, it was a rite of spring, like bounding, excessive light in April in Alaska: the sick-sweet antifreeze stench hovering in the air after the sprayers had crawled up and down the rows of grapes across the street from my childhood home, the smog-haze that hung in the air, penetrating into our house. I ate, drank, breathed, and practically bathed in grapes dusted with chemicals like Alar, a plant-growth regulator banned in 1989 and labeled by the Environmental Protection Agency as a known human carcinogen. Chemically sprayed fruit was a given in my childhood; the only time I heard the word organic was in chemistry class. After a two-year 1989 peer-reviewed study, the Natural Resources Defense Council reported that, via food, “the average preschooler’s exposure [to chemicals like Alar] was estimated to result in a cancer risk 240 times higher than the risk considered acceptable . . . following a full lifetime exposure.”
I think about that adolescent body that was mine, working the harvest at the Burt farm, just across the horse pasture from our backyard, snipping grape clusters with bare hands, eating grapes until my mouth grew raw. It’s easy to romanticize those memories: the smell of ripe grapes rising off the fields in the early-September heat; the sweet jelly of flesh the color of cucumber sharpened by the astringency of the skin; the farm lunches breaking up our workdays at the Stebbins’ big dining-room table with a group of sweaty teens; the rituals of picking and preserving fruit with my mother, of walking down the street to buy fresh eggs from the Burts, or homemade Italian sausage from the DePasquales, or vegetables from the Grizantis’ farm stand. I ate with abandon my mother’s grape pie, drank her grape juice, slathered her preserves on black Latvian bread. My mother put by jars and jars as well as bags and bags of preserves each year, filling our freezer and the shelves in a dark corner of our basement. Every couple of weeks we packed our baskets for another excursion to a U-pick farm, none of them organic or no-spray: cherries, blueberries, peaches, apples. My father sprayed our own orchard and sprinkled chemicals on the vegetable garden. I ate his fruit straight off the branch, the slight pesticide essence woven in with that of plum, pear, and apple. On Fridays, being Catholic, my family ate fish caught in Lake Erie. My body came of age nourished by western New York’s soil and water. I ate the place; I breathed it in. It became my body.
In the late winter of 2010, just before I turned forty-six, I crisscrossed that childhood landscape in a rental car. Looking back now, it seems that I carried cancer as an invisible companion occupying the passenger seat upon which I, oblivious, carelessly tossed mix CDs, coffee cups, empty water bottles, cellphone, bags of trail mix, toll tickets. It was March, and I was driving along the eastern curve of Lake Erie, north across the Peace Bridge to Canada to visit an aunt with pancreatic cancer, west into Ohio to visit my stepson at his college in Gambier and my brother in Mineral Ridge, east again to stay with childhood friends still living near Silver Creek. It was my first time back since my aging parents had moved out of our childhood home to an assisted-living facility closer to my sister, who was then on Cape Cod in Massachusetts.
As I drove, the landscape triggered an ache of recognition in my chest. The scenery was more familiar than my own eyes in the rearview mirror, more real than my own body on the car seat: grizzle of bare trees and sinuous, leafless vineyards and Baltic fields of corn stubble, and over all of it, a gusty wind out of a coarse-grained sky. That landscape was mine in a wholly different way than the landscape of Alaska I’d chosen as home, where I’d high-tailed myself after college. I’d learned the western New York landscape young, by touch and sound. I’d learned it planting potatoes in my parents’ garden, learned it as soil embedded under my nails and stained my ankles. I’d learned it scooping up glass jars of minnows as I waded for hours in the creek a half mile from our house, the acrid fish stink clinging to my wet clothes and hands. I’d learned it digging for antique bottles with my friend Elise in the walls of the gorge the creek had carved over eons, learned it troweling up wildflowers with my mother among the discarded washing machines and dumped tires in the woods of the creek bottom. As a young adult I’d learned it backpacking down the creek with my boyfriend, chewing sassafras growing at the ends of grape rows with my fellow farm laborers, ice-skating the creek in winter with my girlfriend, skinny-dipping in Lake Erie the night I saw my first red aurora and lost my virginity. I’d learned it with my mind in college, working as a naturalist, studying biology, learning to identify the trees, ferns, and wildflowers by name, spore pattern, flower form. I’d learned the birds by sound, the fish by fin placement, the insects by body type. And I’d learned the landscape again, middle-aged, in another place, Latvia, my parents’ birthplace. The landscape of my youth, I discovered when I traveled there in my forties, was an echo of the landscape of theirs.
The dark songs on the mix CD my brother Andy had given me fit the scenes I drove past: the small eroding towns, the Howard Johnson’s restaurants along the thruway, the vehicle-struck deer laid out on the road shoulder, the messy second-growth woods between fallow fields, the windward-leaning barns with their fading, painted-on Mail Pouch Tobacco ads. Silver Creek, and many towns like it, had actually lost population — and jobs — since I’d left, due to the collapse of the steel industry.
I imagine cancer sitting quietly, staring out the window, humming. The actual cancer, unbeknownst to me, I carried in my right breast and in the lymph nodes under my arm. I can’t say I was utterly oblivious to its presence. Cancer had tried to announce itself a few months before, first as an ache in my breast, which I’d attributed to strenuous yoga. But the ache had come and gone and come and gone again. One January morning, lying in bed next to my sleeping husband, I’d pushed my fingers deep into my breast, determined to find the source of the ache. There. A hardness, a wrongness, a solidness within softness. I’d shaken Craig awake. I found a lump in my breast, I told him as I straddled him and leaned toward him and told him to feel for it. He’d reached up and pressed and groggily said, No, it just feels like your breast. The next day I’d googled the symptom, read that breast cancer rarely presents as pain.
So I’d pushed the wrongness down, deeper into my body. Besides, there is no breast cancer and very little cancer at all in my family, though I must admit, beyond my grandparents, my genealogy recedes into a fog bank of war and toil, obscured in preliterate Latvia, where my ancestors tilled land as serfs to German overlords and likely died early. Until the early twentieth century, culture and history were completely embodied for my ancestors, not written down: folk dance, needlecraft, riddles, songs, tales, weavings. Religion for my ancestors arose out of nature, gods of sun and thunder. Stories were handed down mouth to ear, and cancer stories never reached my ears. Likely people didn’t give voice to such private travails; probably they don’t even today.
Genetic testing would eventually reveal one piece of my ancestral story. I didn’t carry any known mutations on the inherited breast-cancer genes known as BRCA, but I did carry a mutation on the one known as p53, the tumor-suppressor gene. It had been turned off by some insult somewhere down the line, or perhaps by a random genetic mutation, what recent studies suggest is the trigger for much cancer. The mutation shut off my immune system’s ability to fight breast cancer. It was just bad fucking luck — genetics meets life history. My oncologist would later say as much: We live in a poisoned world. Some people have the genetics to handle it, some don’t — that’s my sense of it. Yet despite his statement, the data linking specific environmental toxins unequivocally to breast cancer is sparse, since testing chemicals on human subjects is unacceptable. Nevertheless, people with cancer, like me, can’t help but ask why, can’t help but attempt to trace it back to something, to create an origin story. Why me — a nonsmoker, nondrinker, slender, athletic, wilderness lover who (now) eats only organic?
Slowly, though, some data about breast cancer and the environment has begun to emerge. In 2014 the Silent Spring Institute released results of a study that cited gasoline, diesel, and chemicals formed by burning gas among the largest sources of breast carcinogens in the environment. Other chemicals named in the study include organic solvents, flame retardants, and styrene, found in tobacco smoke and Styrofoam. Pesticides, carried in our bodies by most of us in the United States, increase our exposure to xenoestrogens (estrogen mimics), disrupting the endocrine system, basically feeding the processes that turn breast cells cancerous. In 2008 a study by the Public Health Institute found that exposure to DDT in girls before mid-adolescence resulted in a fivefold increase in breast-cancer risk.
Who could say what, ultimately, seeded the cancer growing in my breast? One too many strawberries, wolfed down unwashed, picking pint after pint beside my mother in the farm field down the road? One too many dollops of grape or gooseberry or blueberry or cherry or strawberry jam? One too many whiffs of pesticide wafting off the vineyards, breathed on my walks home from school? One too many inhalations of my father’s cigarette smoke, trapped in its cloud in the family car? One too many dunks in a lake tainted by DDT, PCBs, and heavy metals? One too many shots of tequila in college? One too many pots of Kraft macaroni and cheese? One too many oil changes on my research boat as a grad student in Alaska, not wearing gloves or a respirator? One too many coats of toxic bottom paint slathered on the research-boat hull, dribbled on my skin (again no gloves or respirator)? One too many sticks of sugarless gum? One too many smears of antiperspirant? (Those two would be dismissed outright by my oncologist, the others countered with It was nothing you did; it was not your fault.) I was forty-five on that drive, already postmenopausal. Still wearing low-cut jeans that pinched my hipbones, still thinking I might one day train for a marathon, still running five miles a day with iPod earbuds pumping music into my head and glands pumping adrenaline into my legs, but — how can I say this — disassociated from my body as flesh, which is vulnerable, which is mortal. Disassociated from my body as a repository for my natural history, and the unnatural history of my birthplace. No health insurance, no primary-care doctor, some vague and silly plan to head to India or Thailand if I came down with cancer. Twenty-plus years into a life in wild Alaska, obsessive about the purity of what I ate and drank. Yet I was a body passed through four decades of toxic exposure and two environmental disasters close to the places I call home: the 1979 Three Mile Island nuclear accident 250 miles from Silver Creek and, ten years later, the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Prince William Sound, where by then I was studying orcas, living a life I could never have foreseen back in Silver Creek, a girl sliding along the algae-covered bottom of the creek in bare feet, holding her collecting jar.
There are many ways of not knowing, not seeing, and there are equally many ways of knowing, of coming to know deep in your body, embodying knowledge the way my ancestors embodied culture, the way the earth embodies language and spiritual belief and insult. Or maybe what I want to say is that it takes many ways of knowing to overcome your brain’s many refusals. To admit you know a thing like cancer resides — is seizing control — inside your body. To admit, as a culture, that our acts can set a river on fire, kill a lake, poison our food supply, mutate our genes, change the weather. And then, even if you can admit it for a second, you return to not knowing, and it takes many more ways of knowing after that to incorporate, to accept such frightening truths, and even more ways to act. . . .
That January morning my fingers had dug into my breast and found a peach pit, a cobble, a tiger’s eye. My mind had dropped like a cement block down into my body when my fingers made contact, and I’d known, instantly but momentarily, bodily with all of me, flesh and brain, what it was: malignancy. Death encapsulated in my flesh, arising from my own mutated cells. My fingertips had known it and had told my brain. My brain had known it and had fallen into my stomach. My stomach had known it and had told my mouth. My mouth had whispered it into my ear. It was then only an inch away from my brain. All the knowing had happened in less than a second. And then I’d risen back out of my body and into my head and said to myself, No, you are paranoid. It is nothing. No, there is no breast cancer in your family. No. This is not your story.
I became stranded then, in that memory of knowing. I was as alone as I’d ever been in my life, as I’d ever be, after that. Alone in and with my body and its mad, ever-dividing secret. On the road trip, at my childhood friends’ house, I swiped fog off the bathroom mirror and stared at my breast, towel at my feet while the shower ran behind me. Now I saw it. My breast deformed by a mound above my nipple. It’s astounding how you can inhabit a body and not look at it for months at a time. You can judge your body, evaluate, compare, critique, withhold from or indulge your body but fail to see it. In three months the unspeakable silent cancer within me had grown from an invisible, aching thing to a buried lump to a visible swelling. I had no words for this, though a pathology report would attach to the rapid growth a series of numbers that added up to nine on a scale of one to ten and translated into the adjective aggressive. But that was yet to come. In the now of myself beholding my misshapen breast in the bathroom mirror before it fogged up again, in the sensation of falling into knowing, it was a secret between my body and me. It was the most intimate with my body I’d ever been. My body was suddenly speaking for itself, and I was, for once, listening. I knew I would not tell my friends, in whose mirror I was looking. I would not tell my husband. Not yet. I couldn’t bear to make it real by translating my inner, wordless knowing into words and delivering those words to another person to share with me. I would not tell my sister, who is a doctor, until I saw her in a few weeks’ time at the end of my road trip. I would drive my knowing back down, out of reach of consciousness, as I steered my car across New York State’s southern tier. I would keep living a story already over. That’s what I mean by alone.
Another way of saying: I was, at forty-five, no longer a child. In that moment I inhabited not a story but a body, all the way in.
“In the Body That Once Was Mine” is from Becoming Earth, by Eva Saulitis. Copyright © 2016 by Eva Saulitis. Used by permission of Red Hen Press.