after Sarah Kay’s “Hiroshima”
Before they bombed Hiroshima, before a mini supernova
turned a city into ash, before the test sites and the radiation damage
and even before an atomic scientist entered the war effort,
there was Robert Oppenheimer, not yet the father of the
atomic bomb, but just a physics student working with researchers
who had finally discovered the basis of it all: Atoms.
Proton, neutron, electron, a swirl of particles forever circling each other, forever tethered. It left Robert breathless. Our foundation, he learned, is this
impossible connection. Proton, neutron, electron, separate things, somehow united.
When I was small, my sister Kathryn and I would beg our dad
to roll his giant telescope outside on clear nights. We’d take turns
wiggling the lens into focus until the white blurs became perfect
orbs of light — pinprick stars through the black sheet cloaking the sky.
It took our breath away. We studied the constellations and shaped
their names with our lips. The stars, I learned, are usually not just single units
but exist in twos, or threes, or fours, all huddling together. Desperate for
each other’s gravity to stay fastened in empty space. If they drift apart, they flicker
out. What my sister and I saw as solo lights were actually stars in endless relationship.
My parents named my sister Kathryn. It’s a family name.The first Catherine, they tell us, was my grandparents’ first child,
a baby girl born with a debilitating defect. In the hospital,
my grandparents huddled together, studying her bubblegum cheeks,
breathing in the smell of her hair. My grandpa held her body, disfigured by the defect,
loved still. For fifty hours, two days that felt like one long night, they clung
together until her heartbeat flickered out. They learned to lean closer.
To stay tethered. To fill each others’ empty hands. Now, my grandparents
have gravity eyes for one another. Know how desperately they need connection.
After Catherine’s birth, my grandpa learned that some defects come from radiationdamage. As a U.S. soldier, he trudged through cities bombed clean away. His skin soaked in chemicals that might have caused Catherine’s defect. He carried guilt
like a rucksack. Didn’t realize the bombs for another city could come so close.
Robert Oppenheimer didn’t realize that either. He learned that the building blocks
of this life — proton, neutron, electron — that the union of particles that makes us
could be pulled apart, destabilized, and when that relationship is broken it incinerates everything around it. He called this the atomic bomb. A flash of light, and generations disappear. Buildings vanish. Trees turn to powder. He didn’t know the radiation can linger long after the first shock.
Sometimes, I also pull away, thinking I can exist as a solo unit. A single
light, hovering in the dark, tugging apart from the force that ties us. I have pushed
away the hand that tries to wiggle the telescope lens with me, vanished
when someone wants to trudge through the rubble by my side. I see my grandparents’ eyes, the moments fastening them through this wild life,
and still I hide. Still I try to carry on alone when guilt is heavy as a rucksack,
when I see only my defects, when the night lingers long. An electron tearing from the unit I’m made for. When I resist the fact of us, the gaps I cannot fill, the needing and being needed, I flicker out. I kick up ashes in my wake.
After the proton disconnected from the neutron, and the electrontore away, and the A-bomb left cities in ruins, specialists said it would take seventy-five years for anything to grow from the radiation-damaged dirt. But that spring, new buds poked out of the earth. After Catherine, my grandparents filled their home with four new lives, one of whom held me and another Kathryn in her womb.
And after galaxies explode and dissolve, new stars yield to each other’s pull. What I’m saying is: I need you. What I’m saying is: Our very foundation is a connection. Proton, neutron, electron. We are made in the image of relationship. Father. Son. Spirit. Separate things, somehow united. What I’m saying is:
When everything is turning to powder around you, we will carry you to the God who brings life from the dirt. When you are up against the rubble of a disfigured world, we will trudge through together. We cannot resist the gravity of needing each other. That impossible connection. Endless communion. Separate things, united. We are made from it, we are made for it. We are tethered by the moments we lean closer, and let the stars come into focus, and hold tightly until the night turns to day.
Courtney Kiolbassa is a freelance writer and poet based in Dallas, Texas. She has worked on projects like the Catholic Creatives podcast, the OSV Innovation Challenge, and a thesis on pilgrimage in the American Southwest. You can find Courtney’s work at courtkiol.com.