Juliet Patterson

Sinkhole

In the early hours of December 17, 2008, my father drove home from the swing shift at a data recovery company, changed his clothes, and then walked a mile through the snow to hang himself from a 27-foot-high bridge in St. Paul, Minnesota. My father chose to die on the north end, near a set of stairs that winds up a steep embankment to the mouth and side-rail of the bridge, covered in trees. There, the canopy is so dense that the bridge's approach is not visible from the street; the structure appears to grow from the hill and in the dim light spreading from the rails, the crown of its arch bestows darkness.

When my father was found, nine inches of his right hand and wrist were frozen, though his trunk was still warm. The official time of death, 8:48 a.m., was when the police were dispatched to the scene, but the medical examiner estimated the actual time of death to be sometime between 2 and 3 a.m.. My father hung for nearly six hours through the night.

I was asleep when he died. I woke that morning feeling drowsy and hopeless, largely a side effect of the Vicodin prescription I'd been given to relieve pain from injuries I'd sustained in a car accident. One week earlier, my car had been rear-ended at high speed in a bottleneck stretch of the I-94 freeway; the driver hadn't perceived that traffic ahead was slowing. I'd seen the taxi careening toward me in the rear-view mirror and I knew I was going to be hit.

On the day my father died, a bitter cold wave swept across the northern regions of the country—snow and sleet fell from Minneapolis, where I lived, to states in the eastern seaboard, Connecticut and New Hampshire. This was midwinter, near the solstice, a time marked by the shortening of days.

In the weeks that followed, I searched for meaning in the significance of the date, December 17, and found it to be the Christian feast day of Daniel the prophet and Saturnalia, the ancient Roman festival honoring the deity Saturn. I saw 17 everywhere. The biblical flood began on the 17th day, and Greek superstition holds this as the best day of the month to cut wood to build a boat. There are 17 muscles in the tongue. A haiku was often written using 17 onji or sound-symbols. And for the ancient Greeks, 17 represented the number of consonants of the alphabet: these numbers were also in relation with the harmony of the spheres. Seventeen is an ominous number for Italians, considered the numerical value of the Latin expression meaning I lived, and by extension, I am dead.

Even before I held the suicide note with the familiar, almost tender handwriting, I knew that I would have to write about my father. I didn't have a clear plan, but I knew I had to find a way to think about him beyond the circumstances of his death. It was perhaps a curious reaction to the immediate reality, but one that a writer might have. I had often imagined that I'd be immobilized with grief when the moment of his death actually came. I was certainly numb, but already I searched for language to affirm his existence in the imagination of the living.

In the months that followed, I realized that I didn't know him very well. I realized that I had not spoken to my father about things that mattered. When he was dead more than a year, I wished that I had. I knew even as a very young child that his silence was more far more complex than a simple refusal of the past. It was, instead, a response to unthinkable grief, a coping strategy that had also forged a collective bond between my parents and placed large parts of the family history under taboo. Both my parents lost their fathers to suicide. My father was nine when he lost his father, Edward White Patterson, and my mother was 28 when her father, William Ronald McCluskey, took his own life. We were all children of suicides.

Even before my father's death, I well understood the psychological burden of such an inheritance. My own vulnerability to depression had led me to therapy years before, where I had begun to understand the elusive nature of trauma between generations. Even in the conspiracy of family silence, I knew that suicide had become a part of me, a distinguishing mark of the family. My parents' traumatic history was given to me to carry but also deny. After my father was gone and I felt the violent shock of his absence, I needed to break open the narrative housed in the silence we all had complied with. It was part of the story I could not yet see. Who were these men? What led up to these deaths in my family? And what did my family's self-destructive history imply? And what did it mean for my own future? Through the layers of sediment, I looked for meaning without reason—grasping at dust.

***

Two years after my father's death, I found myself in the small town of Pittsburg, Kansas—my parents’ ancestral home, on one of many trips I'd make there following his funeral. I was driven by a restless search for meaning, for an explanation of the legacy of suicide in my family's history, and this place was where I believed it all began. What I knew of Pittsburg was fragments. I had impressionistic memories—stilled images waxed and faded, bits of red rock and clay, the perfumed bathroom of my grandmother's house or the fragrance of magnolias wafting in the air. But I knew nothing of its history or how it may have shaped my ancestral stock.

My parents left Pittsburg after they were married in the late 1950s and moved to upstate New York before settling in Minnesota. Neither talked about why they'd left. They were the only members of the extended family (on both sides) to leave Kansas behind. Some relatives, particularly my mother's mother, seemed not only to disapprove of their decision to leave Pittsburg but internalized the choice as a personal affront. Over the years, my parents' visits became more and more infrequent. Even as a child I understood the journey as psychologically taxing, and I could recognize the complicated emotions aroused in sudden outbursts and arguments. On any of our visits there, my father's mood was notably volatile, his body language tense. I can still see him in the front seat of the car, gritting his teeth, the muscles at the back of his jaw throbbing in the highway's glare as my mother sat silently in the passenger's seat. We made very few trips to Kansas; I count no more than six. I didn't yet know and would long postpone the discovery of why this memory overwhelmed me with so much anxiety, but later as the landscape of childhood rose up like a dream—the pale green of my bedroom walls, the curtained windows of our dining room—I understood that my early years began in mourning, though not my own.

What I knew about suicide up until my father's death had been pretty basic. Of course I knew the legacy of suicide in my family, but since no one ever talked about it, it was faraway to me, like the missing piece of a childhood puzzle that once lost, had created a gap, a physical mark of vacancy. Only after my father's death did I realize that suicide had become the most alarming problem of my life. How could one understand it? Why does one do it? Why does one not? It seemed irrevocably destructive, leaving behind guilt and shame. I can see now that above all else, I was driven by a need to confront and untangle myself from the strong ties suicide had attached to my life. I wanted to bring the past closer, to excavate a wound. I had been looking for a story, until I realized the story I needed to tell was my own. It was the story of inherited grief, one that my parents had refused to tell. Eventually, I came to the conclusion that if I did nothing else, at least I needed to uncover that story that had long ago been sealed away in rock.

It was the middle of March, but already spring in Kansas. The drought that had plagued the region in previous years was coming to a close: it had been raining for several weeks, which made the weather humid and unseasonably hot. Magnolias blooming, the air was thick with sweetness. I spent the night at my cousin Krista's, and the next morning, I got up early to take a drive.

On an impulse, I decided to drive by my grandmother's house on my father's side, where she had lived after her husband died. In my previous visits, I had avoided the neighborhood, though even now I can't say why. Driving there for the first time in many years, I made the wrong turn off Broadway, approaching from an unfamiliar direction. Afraid that I might not recognize the house without a view of the porch, I drove slowly over the narrow streets until I reached an intersection I could recognize. There, a battalion of traffic barricades blocked the road. I parked the car, got out and started walking.

Through a canopy of trees, I noticed a white clapboard house in the middle of the street. Literally. Resting on a platform of cribbing and beams, the house loomed strangely out of place. It was a small structure, box-like, a story and a half, but in the street it looked enormous, towering over the sidewalk and curb. The interior of the house was dark. I couldn't see past the flowered curtains that still hung in the windows, so it was hard to know if the house was empty. I couldn't imagine why it was resting in the street. Relocation? Foundation repair? I slipped under the barricade tape and walked alongside the house to the curb. As I reached the sidewalk, I saw what was left of the house's concrete slab basement crumbling into a gaping, cavernous sinkhole.

I called out into the yard.

—Hello?

No one answered.

The hole had swallowed up most of the backyard. From where I stood, it looked as if the lawn had been punched with a massive awl, exposing the ground's deep interior. The hole was frighteningly deep. A mass of shrubs had been pulled into the void, littering the rim with branches and leaves while broken concrete, pipe and wire beetled everywhere. I had never seen anything like it. The terrifying, alien world of a sinkhole—the earth turning in on itself—an obvious metaphor. One I couldn't ignore.

That morning staring at the hole, I felt as if I were looking into an earthly realm, one I could not enter. A world of dark earth, of broken rocks and minerals, of air and water, all the old things that were always there and would always be there, but which we don't very often consider, and the sight of which, for some reason, made my hands tremble. I looked down to see the fencing quiver, my fingers wrapped in the mesh of its grate.

I turned back to my grandmother's house across the street. A white-latticed porch sagged in front and flowered curtains hung in the windows. An oriole flashed in a nearby tree. The drone of traffic rose and fell in the distance. A train ground to a halt. I looked up to the roof, where I could see a small strip of sky. I turned my head in all directions: the streets were empty. Why did I have to make sense of this alone?

I walked toward the lawn of my grandmother's house, one I'd played on so many times as a child. A high ceiling of clouds drifted above. My shadow stretched across the lawn and onto the sidewalk. I reached down to touch it, doubting its existence. As soon as my fingers reached the grass, I sat down. I felt the familiar emptiness that had come with my father's death, a particular kind of emptiness unique to suicide. But the sense of emptiness I felt now was also somehow different—as if my body had become frail, hypersensitive, disjointed. I pressed my palms into the grass. The feeling didn't pass. It became entwined with what I saw, a part of the grass, drifting clouds, the cavernous hole.

A few days later, I found a copy of a United States Geological Survey Map of Pittsburg. It showed the town from above, a photo of its streets and homes veined with thick red lines, each representing a confirmed room or tunnel beneath, some as deep as 450 feet. Pittsburg once had a ready supply of coal within 20 to 100 feet of the surface. Now, eighty percent of the area is undermined, pockmarked by abandoned prospects, mine cave-ins, and mine shafts. In some towns like Galena, it is possible, just by crossing a street or stepping out of a backyard, to go from a residential neighborhood to a field of pits left behind from abandoned underground mines. I found on the map my grandmother's house near the intersection of Olive and Euclid, where an abandoned mine stretched from her front yard into the street, invisible below a row of cottonwood trees planted long ago in rows along the boulevard.

***

— Happens all the time around here, Krista said later that afternoon when I described the sinkhole I had seen earlier in the day. We were standing in the kitchen. She was buttering toast.

— Especially when it rains, she said, because more of them open up.

— Do you want something to eat? she said.

— No thanks.

She kicked off her shoes and we both sat down at a counter separating the kitchen and the living room.

— It's a little bit nerve-wracking, she said, you never know when the ground underneath you might disappear.

Later, I learned that a sinkhole is essentially any hole in the ground created by erosion. It can be just a few feet across or large enough to swallow whole buildings. A sinkhole can also be called a swallow hole, an earthfall, a blue hole, a cenote, swallet, blackhole or sink. In Kansas, a sinkhole is known as a snakehole, and well known; there are numerous descriptions dating back to as early as 1800s. The famous Meade Salt sink engulfed a portion of the Jones and Plummer Trail, an often-used wagon road in 1870. It was 60 feet deep and had a circumference of 610 feet, the size of a football field. An unusual type of sink developed in Mitchell County in 1927 (200 feet long, 75 feet wide, 18 feet deep), attracting national attention. Over 1,500 sinkholes have been reported in and around Galena, Kansas, a town just sixteen miles south of Pittsburg. In 2006, a two-story apartment was swallowed by a sinkhole that also destroyed the town's only remaining bar.

Sinkholes occur naturally when rain, transformed into weak carbonic acid, eats away susceptible underground rock like limestone or gypsum, and creates underground holes. Around the world, some of the most beautiful and strange formations naturally result from this process, the not-so-solid Earth slowly, slowly dissolving away, leaving us the caves of Slovenia, the hills of Ireland's coast, and the pillars of Guilin, China. But, there are also man-made sinkholes, caused by drilling, mining, construction, broken water pipes. Sinkholes have plagued southeastern Kansas for years, just one of the lingering legacies of coal, lead, and zinc mining in the region. On most occasions, these are small, like when a sofa-sized crater opened up in Pittsburg on 10th Street a few years ago. Other times, they are much worse. In 1966, an abyss 300 feet wide and 200 feet deep swallowed up the road out on the edge of town. Somehow, no one died.

In the days and weeks that followed my sinkhole sighting, I would learn more. Sinkholes are tremendously infrequent events, even if common in Pittsburg. I looked at more maps online, read more geological abstracts and environmental reports published by the U.S. Bureau of Mines. I culled headlines from newspapers and watched terrifying videos of massive sinkholes swallowing cars, trucks, animals, people and trees. I watched two people disappear in a subway tunnel; a dog fall away into a lawn and Lake Jackson—a four thousand-acre natural body of water near Tallahasee—disappear down a hole, like a bathtub emptying into a drain.

My preoccupation with sinkholes hasn't waned. I still follow them in the news—from the sensational to the banal. I've spent the last eight years collecting information about sinks around the world. I continue to watch with interest, for example, the ever-growing sinkhole in Bayou Corne, Lousiana, a massive hole that went viral in 2013 swallowing cypress trees in Assumption Parish and forcing more than 300 people from their homes. The hole is now about 35 acres, almost as big as 20 football fields, biting off chunks of forest and creeping toward an earthen berm built to contain oily waters. It keeps growing. And I, like a long-dazed widower, keep watching it.

The World Property Journal declared 2013 “The Year of the Sinkhole,” following several catastrophic events in Florida. One of these disasters was the stuff of nightmares: Jeff Bush, a Florida man, screamed for help and disappeared as a large sinkhole opened up under his bedroom and swallowed him alive. His body was never found. Word spread that year of Pennsylvania sinkholes in Allentown, Bethlehem and North Londonderry Township. One of these holes swallowed a creek and drained a duck pond. And then there was the hole in Bayou Corne.

In the years before my father died, I'd been reading a lot about climate change, circling around the idea for a book of poetry. As a consequence, I'd encountered other disasters similar to Bayou Corne in my reading, disasters caused by modern mining and drilling for coal, natural gas and oil. Over the last 60 years, in the Gulf Coast—and to a lesser extent in Kansas, Michigan, Nevada and New York—the gas industry has used the caverns for injection mining as a place to store things—crude oil, pressurized gases, and even radioactive material. The federal government considers salt tombs ideal for the U.S. Strategic Petroleum Reserve.

The hundreds of salt caverns are safe, most of the time. But when something goes wrong, the results are disastrous. What happened in Bayou Corne, as near as anyone can tell, is a salt mine collapsed. The cavern, operated by Texas Brine and owned by Occidental Petroleum, was also used as a storage reservoir for crude oil. When the walls of the mine collapsed, tens of millions of cubic feet of oil and natural gas were released, which have seeped into the aquifer and wafted into the community. It was a familiar story, one I'd heard before. Still, disasters like the one in Bayou Corne have done little to slow the growth of injection mining. It's all a matter of doing business.

The thing about fossil fuels, Naomi Klein has written, is that they are so inherently dirty and toxic that they require sacrificial people and places: people whose lungs and bodies can be sacrificed to work in the coal mines, people whose lands and water can be sacrificed to open-pit mining and oil spills. As recently as the 1970s, scientists advising the US government openly referred to certain parts of the country being designated national sacrifice areas.

These kinds of fossil-fuel sacrifice zones dot the country. In my research on the subject, I was astonished to learn that despite these environmental hazards, we're drilling for more oil and digging up more carbon than ever before. In recent years, millions of acres for gas and oil have been opened up for exploration across 23 different states. We've quadrupled the number of operating rigs to a record high and we've added enough pipeline to encircle the Earth, all in the name of energy independence.

Meanwhile, climate change is spiraling out of control. In the last few years, we've seen the hottest temperatures in American history. We've watched ice around the planet melt. We've seen the Arctic lose three-quarters of its summer sea ice and Greenland shed ice in an unprecedented surface melt, double Greenland's contribution to global sea rise since 1991. We've seen flooding in unexpected places and raging wild fires—some of the largest ever recorded in the mountains of California, Colorado and New Mexico. Animal and plant species, meanwhile, are dying out at a spectacular rate. Scientists have warned that human activity — greenhouse-gas emissions, urbanization, the global spread of invasive species — is driving the planet toward a “mass extinction” event, something that has occurred only five times since life emerged, 3.5 billion years ago.

Back in 2007, when I first started digging into the subject of climate change, the possibility of ecological collapse seemed impossible—an abstraction. And even if a total collapse is not a foregone result, I now know it's a possible one. Back then, I didn't want to face these facts.

I tell you this now by way of suggesting the muddled impulses that arrive in grief, to express my state of mind when news of my father's death arrived. Even if I was also in denial, I was already feeling a new kind of sadness, a mixture of guilt and a mourning for what was to come.

***

December 14, 2008, a Sunday, was the last day I saw my father alive. He and my mother stopped by our house in the late afternoon, three days after my accident. After they left, my partner Rachel and I drifted off into another part of the house to watch a movie. When we returned to the living room before bed, it was frigidly cold. The front door had been left ajar and the wind had blown it open. Snow massed on the threshold. A large ficus tree that had filled the corner of the entryway with its canopy now sagged to the floor in ruin, branches bent and broken, blackened leaves strewn in every direction. I thought even then of the tree as a strange harbinger of fortune. And in the weeks and the months to come, I would know for sure it was the herald of death.

We didn't throw the tree away. We moved it from the entryway into another room, stripped it of every leaf and cut it nearly down to the roots. The tree stood bare for months: apocalyptic, forbidding. Its bald, tangled branches sprung from the soil in what was now an enormous and oversized pot, cut and scored as if some remnant from some vanished past. Each time I passed by, I felt its visual presence mirrored my sense of grief and expectancy. I don't know why my faith remained. More than once I had considered throwing the tree in the compost heap, but on every occasion something stopped me.

As my parents entered the house that evening, I slowly made my way across the living room to the couch. Having been confined to bed the last three days, my body was weak and it was difficult to walk. I was dizzy, my vision blurred from medication. And in a slight state of confusion, my thinking was dull but also crowded with anxiety. Even so, I still could see very clearly the snow falling in huge flakes in the window frame behind my father's head. I could see him in the entryway, the slag of snow from his boots trailing behind him to the door. He was wearing a baseball cap, blue parka, and a pair of brown leather boots. No gloves, no scarf. A small man with a trim and muscular build, he looked many years younger than his 77 years, despite his white and thinning hair. An outsider might have mistaken him for a man who worked physical labor; partly because of the way he dressed and partly because of the way he walked with a subtle but recognizable swagger.

In the entryway of our house, my father pulled his boots off by the heel and kicked them to a rug where other shoes were gathered. Rachel had opened the door to greet them and offered a hanger from a closet to my mother, who after removing a pillbox hat constructed of synthetic fur, unzipped her coat. My mother gave Rachel a cursory embrace, and from the couch I noticed my mother's thumb cocooned in a bandage. Her hands frequently chapped in winter months and her thumbs split from the bitter cold. It is there that my attention remained, until my mother caught sight of me on the couch and then seemingly burst into the room, Rachel behind her, holding the empty hanger.

—Oh—my mother said, as she entered the living room.

My father hung his own coat and rushed in behind her.

I steadied myself on the couch and turned my body to face them, unable to rotate my neck under the constraint of a brace.

—Why didn't you call us earlier? she said.

—She's needed rest, Rachel said, answering so I didn't have to.

My mother and father stood in the center of the room stiffly, visibly uncomfortable.

—Why don't you sit down, Rachel suggested.

Although Rachel and I had already been together more than five years, my parents still approached her with a certain degree of formality or even uneasiness. This was not my first significant relationship with a woman. Still, it was hard not to think their reaction centered on sexuality, not Rachel herself. My parents had endlessly meddled at all the wrong moments in previous relationships, and I had become reluctant to forge a new and extended family bond. I had preferred, at least up to this point, to guard the privacy of my most valuable relationship. It was a partnership that felt elemental, like bedrock. As writers, our relationship had been forged by creativity and we stood guard, as the poet Rilke has said, over the solitude of the other. Living and creating side-by-side had given us the ability to see each other whole, not something easily explained to my parents.

I was forty-five years old, but around my parents still somehow trying to break free from the confines of being their child. I did little to facilitate anything beyond civilities.

My mother ignored the invitation and remained standing in the middle of the living room, rummaging through her handbag.

—You need to get a lawyer, she said.

My father sat down in a chair across the room as my mother removed a plastic bag from her purse. The bag was not only sealed but also wrapped in tape. Inside, my mother had packed a homeopathic analgesic for minor muscle and joint pain and a bottle of herbal pills meant to diffuse specific side effects of Vicodin.

Unwrapping the tape, my mother nervously slipped into a monologue admonishing painkillers that she referred to as narcotics.

When she finished talking, she set the medicine down on a coffee table in front of the couch and sat down in another chair across from my father. Rachel offered tea, and then left the room for the kitchen. My father was silent for most of the visit. A chain of questions from my mother subsumed the hour: How did it happen? Did you call your insurance agent? What did your doctor say? What will you do without a car? How will you get back to work?

In her discomfort, my mother was incapable of attending to my pain in any other way. And even though my pain was by then enormous, I imagine that I carried on with a certain degree of impassivity, thereby misrepresenting the truth. Still, I was angry with her and with my father, who sat silently in the corner of the room.

At this point in the visit, I think I did try to suggest that I hadn't yet considered all the logistics.

—I've been in a lot of pain, I said.

—And what about the car? my mother continued. How will you find another car?

It was a few moments before I could speak.

—I don't know. Maybe one will fall from the sky.

Weary of my mother's questions, I said this with a great deal of frustration and sarcasm. This phrase, these precise words would come back in my father's suicide note: Maybe Juliet will use the Volvo, he wrote, If she wants to use the car for a short time that would work also as 'a car from the sky' she was waiting for.

It had snowed and was snowing still when my parents left that evening. It was a windy, bitterly cold night. We walked them to the door—the last time I saw my father. He held on to mother's arm as they moved out to the porch, down the sidewalk, and out to the car. I watched them through the window, two shadows under the sweeping arm of a river birch in our front yard, two shadows in the dark light of winter.

Juliet Patterson is the author of Threnody and The Truant Lover (Nightboat Books) and the chapbooks Epilogue and Dirge. Her poems and essays have appeared widely in numerous magazines. She lives in Minneapolis with her partner and son. This essay is excerpted from her memoir-in-progress, Sinkhole: An Unnatural History of a Suicide.
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