"Has she ever been exposed to benzene?" The question ricochets through my mind as I head for the hospital. Every day for two weeks I've driven this way down Texas 225, "Chemical Plant Row," the question bouncing around in my head, loosening a memory here, triggering a question there, until now there's an avalanche of images and emotions inside of me.
Two weeks ago Mam-maw, my grandmother, was diagnosed with acute leukemia. That's when the doctor asked my mother about the benzene. When she repeated his question to me, my first thought was, "How could an 87-year-old-woman who spends her time sitting on the porch, browsing at Kmart, and going to church get exposed to benzene?"
Out the window on my right, the north side of the highway, chemical plants reign; the cities of steel and gardens of white storage tanks fill in just about every square foot between the highway and the Ship Channel. Puffs of steam rise to the sky. I take a breath and wonder what's sneaking into my lungs. Benzene, carbon monoxide and other gases are colorless and odorless. But sometimes the intruder isn't so furtive. It sneaks into the van when we're running errands, driving on nearby roads that border chemical plants.
"Hold your nose!" I'll shout, and little fingers fly up to seal little noses without questions.
On humid days it hangs in the still air, greeting our noses and stinging our eyes when we step outside.
"'tink, 'tink," my 2-year-old says, holding her nose.
"What's that smell?" the 5-year-old asks, wrinkling his.
"Who knows? Just pollution," I answer, feeling helpless in the invisible cloud and trying not to breathe.
A mile from my older son's elementary school on the edge of our subdivision, huge furnaces rise from a pasture, dominating the view. Proposed hazardous waste incinerators. On humid nights, lights from the chemical plants near our neighborhood reflect on the low-hanging clouds; the yellow glow on the horizon reminds us that we're surrounded by a sentry of reactors and columns.
And then there are days like the one this summer when I became conscious of a smell while I was cleaning the pool. It had been flirting with my nose for some time, coming and going, but I had ignored it, daydreaming. I wondered how long I had been smelling it before I realized it wasn't "right." Going inside, I punched in the phone number for the pollution control office to report it, mentally trying to describe the odor, knowing they would ask. "Not natural" were the only words that came to mind.
The woman on the other end took down my location and said, "Oh yes, we've had other reports. There was a fume release - investigators are tracing it now. It looks like it's coming your way. If you have kids, keep them inside and turn off your air conditioner."
"Do you know what it is?"
"Some type of substance like formaldehyde. It irritates the nose and throat. It already it us over here."
I called in my kids and notified my neighbors, then dialed the local police who are also in charge of the city's emergency alarm service. They knew nothing about a chemical cloud heading our way. They took down my number and that of pollution control, but no alarm ever sounded.
My three asthmatic children had enjoyed a record-breaking two months free of breathing problems until that evening, but the next morning they woke up coughing, sneezing, wheezing and needing breathing treatments and antihistamines.
But most of the time, it's easy to forget where we are and what's around us, especially on days with sapphire-blue skies and dry air. Looking out from our front yard, our neighborhood looks like any other. Nothing but trees peek over the rooftops of the modest homes plopped among green lawns. A brisk breeze can dilute the smells or carry them high over our heads, dispersing them, we hoped, before they descend on communities miles from us that feel safe from the drawbacks of living near chemical plants.
I know 87 isn't young. I know that leukemia strikes people much younger - people who don't live near chemical plants and refineries. And I know I can't positively, scientifically, make a link between the environment and Mam-maw's disease. But, driving on the overpasses, I look south and see my old high school. I think of my not-so-old classmates from the class of 1977. So many of them have battled cancer themselves in the past few years. At our last reunion, one friend looked classy in her black hat. Chemo treatments had stolen her dark hair; it had just begun growing in again. Another friend, father of two young children, had successfully battled one tumor after another for a few years. He lost the fight last spring, outnumbered by tumors on his abdomen and vena cava. His cheerfulness through it all reminded me to be grateful for each healthy day I'm given.
There are so many others; some who have won, some who have lost, and some who are still fighting. The numbers scare me. I realize I've been fooling myself, pretending it couldn't happen to me or my family.
Farther down is the aging neighborhood where I grew up and the pasture where we kept our horses, caught crawdads and picked dewberries. I remember standing at the end of my street, watching steam and smoke float up and blend with the clouds, wishing the dancing flares would vanish. "Daddy, why can't we live in the mountains instead of these old chemical plants?"
"I wish we could, Barbara. I wish we could. But we've got to eat."
A former highway patrolman, Daddy moved here to be a city policeman. Working two other jobs to make ends meet, he soon realized he could earn more as a shift worker at a chemical plant. We had a nice house, new clothes and presents under the Christmas tree.
As I grew, I better understood our dilemma: These chemical plants were our bread and butter, our security. My prom dress and new shoes.
My urge to leave makes me feel ungrateful. When I quit college, I sought the legendary high wages found at chemical plants to help me gain my independence. Now my husband's job as a computer technician amid the columns and tanks lets me be home with my children, write and go back to college. Even though we scramble and juggle to stretch each paycheck to the next, I've never felt the hunger or hopelessness of real poverty, thanks to the booming chemical industry. We've shackled ourselves to this spot with a mortgage, household projects and babies. When our oldest started school, we realized our plan to move someplace prettier and less polluted was fading into a wispy dream.
I picture my parents' house in my mind's eye and see Mam-maw puttering among her roses and azaleas in the front yard. I can't imagine that house without her.
She came to live with us when I was just two. From her chair by the front window, she would keep an eye on the neighborhood while watching As the World Turns. Her hands stayed busy crocheting lacy doilies or colorful afghans for our beds. She baked poppyseed cakes, oatmeal cookies, and pies from the dewberries we picked. She drowned out the TV when she played her piano and sang hymns in her garage-turned-bedroom. She drove us crazy talking to herself. She was part of our household, for good or bad.
She had to be tough on me sometimes. "Where'd you get that sugar?" she demanded when she discovered me and my friend Ricky stirring it into mud for deluxe mud pies.
"I...I...borrowed it from Billie."
Billie was our next-door neighbor. She and Mam-maw had an unofficial borrowing contract, and it wasn't uncommon for Billie to find me at the door asking for eggs or sugar.
"Did you tell her it was for mud pies?"
"Uh...no...I told her you needed a cup."
She swatted my rear and marched us both to Billie's to apologize.
But after a hard half-day at kindergarten, she would trim the crust off my ham sandwich and peel and core my apple for me just the way I liked.
As I grew, she kept an open-door policy to her room, patiently answering my nosy questions or letting me plunk on her piano. She sewed many of my school dresses and Halloween costumes; for Senior Kid Day she turned me into a toddler in bloomers and a pinafore made from a white sheet.
Over the years, our relationship evolved. From being my childhood babysitter, she became like a sister - we teased, bickered, supported, confided. She never let my dark, teenage moods penetrate her honey sweetness. When I was studying Malcolm X in college, we discussed racism. As I breastfed my first baby, she sat close and told me stories about her babies, of the four who grew up and of little Marie, who died. As she watched my children grow and get into trouble, she'd laugh, telling me stories of her own childhood, of getting in trouble with her sister and how her daddy would discipline them. She had an easy smile and soft arms that liked to catch me in a hug, even after I could look down on her white, fluffy hair. I felt lucky that she lived with us. Other kids' houses seemed empty in comparison.
This summer, Mam-maw just hadn't felt like her old energetic self. She had aways washed her own car and weeded her flower garden, but now she was too tired. Blood tests were run several times. Cancer was ruled out; it was only that her thyroid medicine kept needing adjustment. Then, suddenly, acute leukemia showed up on the latest blood test. She was just a few weeks shy of her 88th birthday. I couldn't remember her ever being in the hospital before.
The first days she was like a queen on her hospital bed-throne, despite her weakness and nausea. She loved family get-togethers, and here were her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren trekking to the hospital, visiting first in her room, then in the waiting room across the hall when she was put in isolation. I brought her drawings by my kids and showed her photographs of our trips to the zoo and the beach. The nurses let the kids stand in her doorway and blow her kisses, which she caught and blew back again. "Little precious darlin's," she whispered with a weak smile.
One day her vital signs weakened, and she was rushed to the intensive care unit. She wasn't responding to the treatment and would have to stay in a glassed-in cubicle in ICU. As June bugs are drawn to a light bulb, her grandchildren were pulled from the far corners of Texas to the hospital, overflowing the small waiting room and mingling in the hallway, waiting for their turn to tiptoe through the double doors.
When my turn came, I could see her propped up in her bed, tubes running to needles in her arms, delivering hope-giving liquid. Her hair was fluffed against the pillow as white and soft as the clouds outside in the summer sky. Wearing a face mask and rubber gloves, I stepped into her room and up to her bed. She squeezed my hand. "You're my baby, you know," she told me. I smiled and nodded my head.
She spoke of her youngest sister, Jessie, who died recently of colon cancer. "I miss her. I never expected to live longer than Jessie." Tears filled her eyes, and I didn't know what to say. I'd never seen her cry.
The next day she was sleeping when I entered her room. I could speak only to her closed eyes, hoping she could hear me. I patted her arm, hoping she could feel me. I wanted her to know I was still beside her.
I had been expecting the call this morning, but dreading it. Daddy's voice, unsure of the right words, was on the other end. "Mama asked me to call. Mam-maw's not doing too good. She thought you'd want to be here."
Now I zip down the highway as fast as I dare, feeling time ticking away. Finally, I pull into the near-empty parking lot. I hurry through the automatic doors, through the small lobby and around a corner. I stop. There's my sister talking on the pay phone. Her eyes, red and swollen, meet mine. I know. Mam-maw has moved on to a prettier place.
Driving home, tears blur my vision, turning the steel cities on my left into an impressionist's work in shades of gray. This time the urge to move won't fade. Somehow, for our children, we'll break the cycle of dependence on these chemical plants. My parents and grandparents, like so many others, did what they felt was best for their families by moving here. In the same spirit, we'll move ours away.
Written by Barbara Wilson Shallue, copyright 1995, all rights reserved. Originally published January 29, 1995 in Texas magazine, a publication of the Houston Chronicle.