By Mary Heather Noble

Plume: An Investigation

True Story, Issue #34

In True Story #34, “Plume,” a former environmental investigator applies her forensic skills to a family mystery. What happens to us when we are exposed to toxicity, both literally and figuratively?


I always thought of discovery as something noble and deliberate: the fruit of an exploration, or a treasure at the end of the road. I used to think of weary explorers cresting a ridge and stumbling upon some glorious natural wonder, prospectors encountering oil or flecks of gold. Or scientists deciphering the solution to a problem. Like discovering the cure.

But this is not the kind of discovery I’m talking about. I’m talking about when something finds you. When you uncover something that shouldn’t be there, something that might have been there all along.

The clues can be quick and unexpected—an oily smell to the water, a hint of diesel at the kitchen sink. An acute lightheadedness, a soured stomach. A heightened sensitivity. There’s a difference: something doesn’t fit, something isn’t right.

But usually, it’s quieter, snaking through the subsurface, troublesome signs easily explained away into a much more likely scenario: what you’re seeing is a fluke, a glitch. If there are any signs at all.

• • •

As an infant, my younger daughter, M, always turned her head to her right side, and if she was lying down, she would fold her little ear right in half. She did this often enough that she began to change its topography, and if you looked at her from the front, you could detect a difference, an asymmetry. This caused me great distress. At night before bed, I would place a snug hat on her head and tuck her velvet ear under the fabric. But a few hours later, when I would answer her cries to nurse, I’d find the hat crumpled into the corner of the crib, her ear warm and pleated from the weight of sleep.

When she nursed, she could only tolerate being laid on her right side. When I emptied one breast and attempted to switch her to the other, she would stiffen and howl, hungrily tonguing for relief as she arched away from the engorged breast before her. I took it personally; I’d thrust her into my husband’s heavy arms and stomp away, leaving myself and the baby in anguish.

As she grew older, old enough that she should have been sleeping through the night, she’d sometimes cry out as if in pain or enduring some unspeakable horror—only to be fast asleep by the time I arrived, breathless, at her crib. Then I’d hear the 4 a.m. train’s distant horn and see how her body startled and contorted at the sound.

• • •

Now that she is three, I have become consumed with my daughter’s lopsided skip, her fear of swinging on the swings. Her tendency, when she falls, to land directly on her mouth. One of her front teeth has discolored, which has made me a nervous mother. Every time she stumbles, an electric current shoots through my nerves, making the tips of my fingers hurt.

At the playground, she studies bugs. She can take any attempt of mine to integrate movement into our day and turn it into a sedentary pursuit: wiping sidewalk chalk off the four-square ball, collecting rocks out in the yard. At the neighborhood park, she deviates from our path toward the play structure, distracted by a line of refugee ants moving across the ground. Mommy, she says, look.

At first, I join her, intrigued by her wonder. But this pattern curdles my pride, because I know she does this to avoid the slide.

I complain to the pediatrician, “She still can’t alternate her feet on the stairs,” or “Why doesn’t she swing her right arm when she walks? Doesn’t that seem strange?”

He angles his head in practiced sympathy. “Be patient,” he says. “Every child is different.”

• • •

I watch M through the observation window at the dance studio, while her older sister, Z, is still at school. The other mothers are texting and sharing stories about selling Girl Scouts cookies with their daughters.

The room is dark, so we can see through the two-way mirror without distracting our children on the other side as they weave through a line of cones and leap over foam blocks. M stays at the back of the line so that no one can stand behind her. She chews her hair and scratches her arms, seeming distressed by the feel of her skin.

When her turn finally arrives, she runs along the side of the cones, and rather than leaping gracefully over the blocks like all the other little girls, she stops and jumps over each block, landing on both feet with a thud.

The air feels dark and heavy, the heat metastasizing under my arms. With every thud, someone on my side of the mirror looks up and watches my daughter before quickly glancing at me. But no one says a thing.

I pretend not to feel their eyes darting between us. Yes, I want to say. I know something’s not right.


Before I had my children, and before we moved out west to Oregon, I worked for the state of Connecticut, overseeing the investigation and remediation of contaminated sites.

Some of my sites were ominous, stereotypical scenes of industrial despair: abandoned factories, forgotten waste lagoons. Others were active manufacturing plants, like the mid-century-era metal-plating facility that leaked heavy metals into the Naugatuck River. I will never forget that site. The cement floors of the chromium plating lines were pocked and scarred from decades of chemical spills, and the air pestered my nose and throat as if it had been tinged with pepper spray. I remember walking through the production floor, feeling acutely aware of the fillings in my teeth.

But the majority of my sites were not so visibly marred. They looked like normal street corner gas stations and strip mall shopping centers, unimposing warehouses with innocent signs and manicured hedges circling the flag pole out front. You may not realize it, but landscaping hides history. Areas of concern don’t always reveal themselves. You have to go and look.

• • •

When M was born, she had a deep sacral dimple, like a little hole at the base of her spine. I remember—after the cord had been cut and the blood had been rinsed from her matted hair, and the nurse was toweling her skinny pink body on the counter next to the sink—watching the doctor respond to the nurse’s gesture. He rushed over and the two of them leaned in, probing gently at my newborn baby’s tailbone with their rubber-gloved hands.

“Just a superficial dimple,” he said, dismissing the matter, though I would retain that moment as a clue when she’d fail to crawl by the end of her first year. That was how I’d been trained to think.

In environmental investigation, you must locate the source of contamination, or it will never be fixed. The job requires research, analysis, and re-enactment of the past. You watch for the entanglement of natural with unnatural, the faint odor and gathered suds at the edge of a neighborhood creek. You learn to think like a detective, your imagination giving life to the agents that cause harm—like the drops of dry-cleaning solvent that seep through the concrete slab and find paths to drinking water through cracks in the bedrock. You consider the unexpected, like the cat rolling in the flower bed flecked with leaded paint before leaping up and snuggling into a child’s quilted bed. This is how you have to think when you do the kind of work that I used to do—trace it back, interrogate. Let the story tell itself.

• • •

I sift back through the early days for signs. She wasn’t a sick baby. Not at all. I’d been fortunate: both of my girls had endured only the expected sniffly noses, intestinal bugs, and occasional worrisome fevers. No, M wasn’t sick. She was . . . inactive. Boneless, almost. She was the kind of child who seemed content to sit in a baby bouncer all day. If I laid her on her back on a blanket in the living room, she remained in pretty much the same position, always looking to the right, even as I went about the house. When I took the girls to the local gymnastics center for open gym, M would sit amidst the entropy of other children, kicking her feet until her socks came off, then sucking her fingers and falling asleep.          

I considered myself lucky at first, enjoying the extra time I had before needing to worry about having a toddler in the house again. Except that she was too docile, too easy.

It was as if the world overwhelmed her and she simply shut her systems down. And her body didn’t have any strength. Even as she grew older, if I put her in a booster seat, she’d slump over like a rag doll. If I tried to stand her up on my lap, her skinny legs would buckle under the weight.

When I invited friends with young children over to our house for a play date, they would watch in silence as M slowly rolled her way across the floor to get from one side of the room to the other.

• • •

The pediatrician examined her again, this time paying closer attention to the dimpling at the base of her spine.

He took a deep breath and paused before starting to explain, “I still think it’s superficial, which means it’s nothing. It should be nothing.” He refastened the diaper and handed M back to me, pumped some hand sanitizer into his palm. “But sometimes dimpling or hair or other physical markers by the tail bone can indicate that something went wrong during development of the spinal cord.”

He rubbed his hands together and then used them to gesture the closing of a tube. “Sometimes it doesn’t close all the way, and the cord is exposed, like in spina bifida—which M obviously doesn’t have—but sometimes the cord can end up wrapped around the end of the spine, and when the vertebrae grow, it puts tension on the cord, like a rubber band.”

I stared at his hands while M sucked her fingers in my lap, her downy hair gently swaying in the air from the ceiling vent above. I hadn’t breathed since he’d uttered the words spinal cord.

“So . . . you think there might be something wrong with her spine?” I asked.

“It’s possible,” he said. He gave me the name of a neurosurgeon and sent us on our way.

• • •

That night, after I’d tearfully explained the encounter to him, I asked my husband to call our pediatrician back. He practices cardiology in the same multi-specialty clinic, and doctors sometimes shoot straighter when they’re talking to other doctors.

“What’d he say?” I asked as he climbed into bed.

“He said if it was his kid, he’d check for tethered cord.”

• • •

A few weeks later, I sat numb in the hospital cafeteria with four-year-old Z, going through the motions of drawing animals and rainbow clouds in her notebook while my husband accompanied our anesthetized baby to the Imaging Department to receive an MRI. I stared at the people seated around me, imagining the depths of their own private hells and willing myself to bring our circumstances into perspective.

I thought about a time when I was thirteen and my father had called from the hospital to tell me and my mother that my little brother had somersaulted over his handlebars while they were out riding bikes. I was the one who had answered the phone, and I remember thinking they’d probably been racing the way we always did, probably riding no-handed down the long hill that led to the warehouse section of our town.

We rushed to the Emergency Room to find my brother lying on a bed behind a curtain, his face raw and pulped from its contact with the road. The flesh around his right eye was so swollen that the eye itself had disappeared. He needed stitches, lots of them, and he cried out when he saw us—his hands reaching and grasping for the softness that my father could not provide.

My mother began to cry as she stroked my brother’s head. His blonde hair had turned pink from the iodine and the blood.

It took a long time to quiet the memory of my brother’s cries, the buzz of the fluorescent lights. The imprint that remained was not so much the sound of my brother’s whimpers, nor the anesthetic smell, but the tension between my parents. I could see the judgment congealing as they avoided making eye contact, blame seeping through like blood through gauze.

An echo of guilt nagged at me as I awaited my daughter’s results. This was all my fault, if for no other reason than I had failed to deliver her with a body that would allow her to lead a normal life. I had made her like this. All I could think about was the likelihood that we would be back at the hospital again soon because M might need spinal cord surgery. All I could think was that she might have sustained permanent nerve damage, that she might never walk and run like a normal little kid.

But the MRI showed that her spinal cord was fine. It wasn’t tethered cord syndrome or any other neural tube defect.

Then, she finally started to crawl. And at nineteen months, after some physical therapy, she began to walk as well. We celebrated with a trip to the children’s museum.

While my husband chased Z around the brightly colored space, I hovered over M as she wobbled from one exhibit to the next, relieved that one day she would run circles around us, just like the rest of the children in the room. The reassurance was immense, so much that I had to turn my back and wipe the tears away.

• • •

She didn’t like to cuddle. Still doesn’t like to kiss or hug. It injures me now to think of all the times she fell on her mouth, bloodied her lip, and then stiffened and pulled away when I swooped in to offer comfort. How she’d howl, crying in that spastic, breathless way, squeezing large tears from her eyes, stepping farther and farther away from me, as if I were the one who was causing her pain.

Even in the quiet, tender moments before bedtime, while the cat sat on her quilt waiting for us to settle in for a story, I would reach to give M a hug, and she would either withdraw from my outstretched arms or stand as rigid as a tree.

Though I pretended otherwise, the rejection hurt. What was so radioactive about my touch? The truth is, her response stung because I’d seen it before, many times, back in my childhood home. Once, when M pulled away from me, I was transported right back to my family’s kitchen, reliving a moment in which my mother had tried to hug my father.

I remember her attempting to wrap her arms around his torso, leaning her face in close for a kiss. It was a rare, fleeting moment between them—unnatural, almost—the kind of moment that, despite the warmth it offered, made me blush and look away.

And maybe if I’d kept my eyes closed, it could have remained a beautiful thing. But instead, I had watched as my father cleared his throat and stepped away, keeping his arms pressed tight against his body. Rejected her affection, continued flipping through the mail.

• • •

The thing about toxicity is that it’s often tasteless and odorless, the offending poison masked by the composition of what’s already there. I remember thinking of my youth, What do I possibly have to complain about? We never had it particularly tough. There was always a roof over my head. My brother and I weren’t really spanked any more harshly than the kids across the street were. There was always food on my plate.

And yet.

When did I first notice that something about us was different? That the tone in our house was like a discord, a note in the atmosphere a little off? It was subtle, just enough for the neighborhood kids to detect and sometimes leave behind the ball that had wandered into our yard. They knew. They just knew, the way forest animals raise their heads and twitch their ears before the rains or fires come.

• • •

In high school, I had a teacher who reminded me of my father. He taught physics, the same discipline that my father (and his father before him) had studied in college. This teacher was tall just like my father, and the timbre of his voice was low and measured like my dad’s. When I asked him for help with a problem, he would stare at me until I began to squirm, and then he would tell me that I could figure it out.

I went to my guidance counselor, pleading with her to switch me to another class. She probed at my reasons for wanting to change, like a pin to a ripened blister, and the cloudy fluid came oozing out: the oppressive silence in my home, how often my mother cried. My father’s indifference, except when we breached the invisible boundaries he had set, like the time he put a secret timer on the basement switch box that controlled the electrical outlet to the family room TV—because he didn’t want anyone to watch it after he had gone to bed.

That’s when the counseling sessions began: a middle-aged therapist with mid-century hair, jotting down my stories on her yellow legal pad. She summoned a broader investigation, called the entire family in.

My mother and I sat on the couch together, sharing a box of tissues. My brother settled with the pillows on the floor, raking his fingers through the shaggy rug. And my father leaned back in the leather chair with his coat still on, legs bent and opened wide, filling the room with his disdain. He shrugged off questions with indiscernible grunts, looked only at the house plant in the corner—except for once, when he made eye contact with the therapist and said, “Why don’t you tell me how I feel?”

We endured this hell a handful of times. As we walked out to the parking lot to our respective doors of the car after each session, my father’s posture would straighten, as if relieved from a burdensome weight.

“Now,” he’d say in a jovial voice, “where should we go out for dinner?”

• • •

Here’s how it usually works: When you find contamination, you need to determine the extent and degree of the plume. How bad? How far? How deep? How long? Is anyone in its path? You locate wells, summon experts and equipment, hire them to dig and drill and sample and test. That way, you can fix it—or at least find someone to blame.

But in reality, it can take months, years, even decades to figure out how extensive the contamination is, or the source from which it came. One expert will suggest one possibility, another will disagree. The parties take their sides. Meanwhile, momentum slows, the urgency gets lost, and soon contamination becomes your normal. You work around it, the same way your body compensates for an injury with a limp.

• • •

M’s sleeves are wet when I pick her up from preschool. She’s been chewing on them again. She is ready to go, but when I ask her to put on her coat or shoes, she flops her arms and digs her heels, scowling. If I stand and move toward the door, she stiffens and wails sharply as if I’m causing her physical pain. The other mothers glance at us and draw their children near.

Cheeks flushed, I stoop to gather the lunchbox and shoes from her storage cubby. When the other families have left, I pick M up, carry her out to the car, and drop her into her car seat. She reaches for the silk tag inside her winter coat with one hand and aims two fingers of the other into her mouth, like she’s plugging in to recharge.

I climb into the driver’s seat, exhale, and start the car. I’ve been with her for all of ten minutes, and the relief from having a few hours by myself has completely abandoned me. We still need to pick Z up from her school, and I have other errands to do.

“What did you do at school today, honey?” I ask, “What was your favorite part of the day?”

Through the rearview mirror, I watch M turn her head and close her eyes, willfully shutting me out. She sucks her fingers and silks her tags. Sucks and silks, sucks and silks. This is the best part of her day.

• • •

Story time at the library. M does not like to sit in the front. Or the back, or the middle, or anywhere she might have to touch another person. We listen to the stories from the side of the room, leaning against the bulletin board wall decorated with construction-paper characters from Fancy Nancy and Winnie the Pooh. I sing along with the librarian and other moms, coaxing M to join in. She picks at the carpet, allowing herself to explore only the texture of the speckled wool. She avoids the eyes of smiling grandmothers, is distressed by crawling babies. When another mother breaches our space to retrieve her wandering child, M retreats into me, grabbing my cheeks with her hands and turning my face into hers until we are sitting nose-to-nose. It’s like she’s trying to communicate through osmosis, but I’m not understanding anything she says.

• • •

The physical therapist suggests a beginner gymnastics class to help M with her motor planning skills. This turns out to be a mistake. She refuses to try the balance beam. She has difficulty climbing the ladder on the little slide in the obstacle course. Soon she becomes a bottleneck in the maze on the gymnastics floor and freezes with the accumulation of children behind her. Preschool girls in shiny leotards squirm and crowd behind my stick-figure girl, uncertain what to do about her unwillingness to move.

I watch from the observation room, unsure of whether I should step in. My heart bucks and dives. It feels like a chronic illness, this worry.

• • •

It’s one of my earliest childhood feelings, in fact. Uncertainty. Did my parents love each other? Was I a good kid?

When I was six or seven years old, I forgot to return the red Schwinn my grandmother had given me for my birthday to its rightful place in the back of the garage. My father stole it and hid it from me to teach me a lesson.

I even have a vague recollection of him walking me door-to-door so I could ask the neighbors whether they’d seen the person who had taken my bike.

“Sorry, honey,” they said. “I haven’t seen your bike.”

“What about the Spinelli brothers?” I asked, referring to two teenagers who lived a few houses down and seemed, in my young mind, likely enough to be thieves based on how fast they drove down our road. “Maybe it was one of them?”

It wasn’t.

The red Schwinn returned to our driveway unannounced after a handful of somber days —and though I recall rejoicing in the kindness of God and anonymous strangers, the kids who lived across the street later told me that they’d seen my father wheel my bike from the rusty shed in our back yard.

But this is an extreme example. Or is it?

• • •

Inside our house, a tension seemed to pervade the rooms, an invisible anxiety that could drive my mother to eat an entire bag of chips in a single sitting and absently pick the blemishes on her face. An uneasiness that, if I woke up from a bad dream in the middle of the night, kept me at the threshold of my parents’ bedroom, afraid I’d get into trouble if I woke them up. It was an odd, intangible kind of fear, not the oppressive fear of bodily harm or the sting of verbal abuse. It was more subtle, like radon gas.

• • •

M and I are at the playground on a warm fall day while Z is still at school. The clouds are billowing in the cobalt sky, and the last bees of the season buzz around thick clusters of purple asters. M busies herself with mulch. She collects old pinecones and sticks, which usually doesn’t bother me, but right now all I want is for her to see and play with the other kids. She does not wish to swing on the swing or play on the slide, and today I do not want to get sucked into the vortex of her imaginary world. Mommy, look at my set-up. Pieces of mulch configured into a pretend house or school or town. She’s staging instead of engaging.

I watch the other moms, envious of their adult conversations while their children chase each other around the play structure. A little girl wanders over and approaches us. I recognize her from school or dance, but M doesn’t seem to notice. She ignores the girl, but I jump to attention, not wanting this opportunity to pass us by.

I’m friendly, almost too friendly: Hi honey, what’s your name? Do you remember M? Say ‘hi,’ M. M? Say hi. She’s shy, honey, I’m sorry. I guess she’s tired. She’s having kind of a quiet day.

The little girl departs to find more interested peers. I look at my daughter, humming to herself and quietly commentating her play as if no one had even come over. We are sitting alone together.

• • •

I do things for her when she takes too long. I avoid conflict when I know something will set her off. I work around the quirks. I become the buffer between her and the rest of the world, her ambassador. I am the polite to balance her rude, the talkative to counter her aloof. I compensate. I’m good at it. I’ve been doing it all my life.

• • •

By the time I was in high school, my family was eroded to the nerve. And yet we still gathered around the tree every Christmas morning, exchanging the unsentimental presents we’d bought for one another, writing down on a piece of paper the gifts the relatives had sent. Bath salts for my mother, flannel pajamas for me and my brother, a button-down Oxford for my father. Another Bible, sent by Grandma to mend the rifts within our home.

My first winter back from college, my brother and I stayed up late on Christmas Eve, wrapping the last-minute gifts I hadn’t been able to buy until after my finals were done. We ate gingerbread cookies and wrapped presents, threw gift bows and crass jokes at each other, stifling laughter, trying not to wake our parents sleeping upstairs in their separate bedrooms—until I knocked over a glass of water while attempting to block a shot. It drenched a pair of socks I had purchased for my father, so I tossed them into the dryer and went back to the kitchen to wrap another gift.

And then my father came downstairs in his underwear and said: “Do you want to have Christmas now?” His voice was thick and gravelly. Angry. The dryer must have woken him up. Or maybe it was us.

“Sorry, Dad,” my brother said. “We’ll quiet down.”

“Do you want to have Christmas now,” my father repeated. The staccato rhythm of his words made me suddenly aware of how late it was. The kitchen light glared and buzzed as my father stared us down. The Christmas lights on the tree in the family room glistened like an aura before a migraine.

My brother and I began to plead, No, we’re sorry, Dad. We’ll be quiet, Dad. Dad, just go back to bed—and in the midst of all the noise, my mother awoke and bounded down the stairs, urgent to extinguish the fire.

Soon we were sitting in the family room, going through the motions of Christmas morning. Opening gifts, holding them up, repeating who they were from for the scribe. My mother and I exchanged quiet glances and wiped the corners of our eyes, but nobody said a thing about having Christmas at 2 a.m. It was easier to go along, pretend this was what we would normally do.

• • •

I was private about our normal. My father works for NASA, I’d say, allowing someone else to fill in the blanks. He must be a rocket scientist, then. He must be a brilliant man.

• • •

The subtlety is maddening, this thing you see but that can’t be seen. You wonder if you’re crazy, keep your worries to yourself.

• • •

You watch your daughter intently, convince yourself there’s something there, then assure yourself there’s not. You wonder if you should do something, talk to someone about her again.        

You catch glimpses of your childhood in the corner of your eye. Wonder why you can’t shake it, this peripheral vision, why you can’t seem to let it go. It wasn’t a bad home. Was it?

• • •

Of course it wasn’t. The things that happened between your walls were nothing, like nagging aches and pains. Like the faint scent of gas from the oven pilot. Like traces of chemicals in a well.

• • •

One afternoon, I attempt to teach M how to pedal her older sister’s hand-me-down trike. She is four-and-a-half now; I’ve been trying for almost a year, and she has resisted nearly every attempt until now. But today she allows me to fasten her helmet, help her on, place her feet on the pedals. The air has the sharpness of spring, and the sidewalk is peppered with debris the snowmelt left behind. I push her forward on the trike, the rock salt and cinder crackling under the wheels.

Suddenly, I notice that her feet are dragging on the pavement. I stop to reposition her legs, place her feet back on the plastic pedals. “Keep your toes pointed forward,” I tell her, but they fall right back off.

“M,” I say, “keep your toes pointed forward.” I rearrange her legs and begin to inch the tricycle forward. We can’t even make it to the next-door neighbor’s driveway. Her feet keep slipping off, and I can’t figure out if she’s doing this on purpose.

What I should do is help her off the trike and find something else for us to do. But instead, with the mania of someone attempting to start a dead car battery, I keep trying, jamming her feet back onto the pedals with increasing force until, at some point, I actually leave her alone in the driveway and dash into the house to find rubber bands from the kitchen junk drawer so that I can engineer a goddamn fix.

She is crying by the time I come back, which breaks the wretched spell—and I suddenly awaken, lift her off the trike, and hug her tight, whispering I’m so sorry into her ear.

• • •

I’m sobbing later when I tell my husband, certain that this will be one of those moments she’ll retain for the rest of her life, just like the childhood memories I’ve been simmering and basting all these years.

• • •

The physical therapist folds her arms and bites her lip. “Hmmm,” she says. Then she takes M’s naked foot and firmly strokes her finger from the heel to the ball near her toes. M’s foot curls in, her big toe arching up, and I can tell by the look on the therapist’s face that this is not supposed to happen.

A few days later, we are sitting in an occupational therapist’s office, and I am scanning a pamphlet entitled “Sensory Processing Disorder,” which is related, but not exclusively, to another pamphlet entitled, “Autism Spectrum Conditions.” It’s filled with descriptions of other things M does that aren’t supposed to happen. I vacillate between feeling dread and feeling relief that we’ve finally cracked the code.


The textbook explanation:

Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) is the inability to use information received through the senses in order to function smoothly in daily life. SPD is not one specific disorder, as blindness or deafness is, but rather an umbrella term to cover a variety of neurological disabilities. . . .

SPD happens in the central nervous system at the “head” of which is the brain. When processing is disorderly, the brain cannot do its most important job of organizing sensory messages. The child cannot respond to sensory information to behave in a meaningful, consistent way.[1]

The real-life version: A child who struggles with everyday activities. A child who is clingy and withdrawn from her peers. A little girl who can’t climb a ladder and seems terrified of swings, who used to cry as a baby whenever I danced with her in my arms. In real life, it’s a little girl who seems sensitive about everything—her clothes, her food, the number of blankets on her bed—except the feelings of the people who love her most.

• • •

I would be lying if I told you my heart didn’t stop when I first heard the physical therapist say sensory issues. To her, sensory processing was just the neurological element of movement, the next logical explanation for why M continued to lag behind. But I had already heard those words from our neighbors back in Connecticut when they discovered that their little boy was autistic.

I can’t help but feel haunted by this point of intersection now. The similarities in our children, how close we used to live. Was there something in our water? Something in the air?

This is what I used to do, after all. Of course I’m thinking about that.

• • •

When we first moved to our Connecticut home and I was working for the state, I learned through environmental records that the ground water beneath our house was classified as unsuitable for public use. Seems the historic industry in our town had taken its toll and left its mark. No matter, I thought at the time. We were connected to the public water system, which tapped into a different, cleaner source, and I hadn’t yet considered vapor intrusion as a point of entry for contaminants in a home. But I do recall a wave of uneasiness the time it rained for nearly two weeks straight and our yard became a lake. We had ventured into parenthood by then. What exactly was in the water that was pouring into our basement?

And what about all the renovation work we did, all the messy repairs we completed to get the house ready to sell before we moved across the country? I can remember standing in our driveway in the sticky heat of summer, the basement windows staged on a newspapered table, ready for me to scrape off the crumbling layers of old paint and caulk. I had a baby bump and a respirator, because I wanted to be safe.

That makes me think of all the contaminated soil and water samples I handled when I worked for the state. Could I have been exposed to something then? I followed field safety protocol, and my medical monitoring never showed anything of concern, but what if I had absorbed some toxic chemical we hadn’t been looking for?

Maybe I ate too much fish during my pregnancy, or didn’t switch to organic soon enough. What did I do? I keep obsessing over this question, circling around it again and again. It could have been anything. It could have been everything.

And by everything, I mean me.

• • •


  1. A genetic or hereditary predisposition, often the case if the child’s parent, sibling, or other close relative has some SPD
  2. Prenatal circumstances, including:
    • chemicals, medications or toxins like lead poisoning that the fetus absorbs
    • the mother’s smoking or drug or alcohol abuse
    • unpreventable pregnancy complications, such as a virus, a chronic illness, great emotional stress or a problem with the placenta
    • multiple births (e.g., twins or triplets)
  3. Prematurity or low birth weight
  4. Birth trauma, perhaps due to an emergency cesarean section, a lack of oxygen, or surgery soon after birth
  5. Postnatal circumstances, including:
    • environmental pollutants
    • excessive stimulation, such as child abuse or warfare
    • insufficient stimulation and limited opportunities to move, play, and interact with others
    • lengthy hospitalization
    • institutionalization in an orphanage, such as in Romania or another Eastern European country
  6. Unknown reasons

• • •

Back when I worked for the state, the most challenging sites in my caseload were those that had multiple releases from different sources. An industrial park with several different companies, for instance, each using proprietary blends of chemicals to manufacture their products. You might have a recent release from one facility migrate offsite and merge into an older plume from another. Add to that the temporal and geologic complexities of contaminant fate and transport— you can imagine how difficult the detective work becomes.

It can take years to untangle the threads of responsibility when you’re dealing with a co-mingled plume. Millions of dollars to illuminate the primary source of contamination.

I think finding the cause of M’s condition is like that. This condition is a co-mingled plume.

• • •

The occupational therapist is a woman about my age—a warm, welcoming person whom I could imagine as a friend. At the first appointment, she hands me a parent questionnaire to complete while she conducts an evaluation. She bends down to introduce herself to M, and M looks away. But this woman’s office is a child’s dream of colorful balls and squishy toys, stuffed animals and hanging swings, and tumbling mats covering the floor—so her invitation to come in and explore actually works.

First, she asks M to walk along a line of tape adhered to the floor. She asks her to stand on one foot and balance. She asks her to march in place and touch her elbows to the opposite knees. She instructs M to walk down the hall with her toes pointed out, like a duck. Then pigeon-toed.

Even with these simple initial tasks, I can see my daughter struggle. Her arms flail to maintain her balance, and her tongue sticks out in concentration. She still won’t make eye contact with the therapist, and in between each activity she reaches under her shirt to find a silky tag to stroke.

 I duck around the corner to begin the questionnaire. As I skim down the list of symptoms, it’s like reading a character profile of my child:

  • appears fearful of, or avoids standing in close proximity to, other people or peers (especially in lines)
  • only eats foods with certain tastes and textures, resists trying new foods
  • repeatedly touches surfaces or objects that are soothing

The validation spreads over my body—it’s like a high-pitched ambient buzzing has finally ceased, and I can let my shoulders relax. See? I knew there was an explanation. I’m not crazy after all.

As I make my way through the many pages of the list, I begin to recognize someone else:

  • bothered/distracted by background environmental sounds
  • frequently asks people to be quiet; i.e., stop making noise, talking, or singing
  • easily distracted by other visual stimuli in the room; i.e., movement, decorations, toys, windows, doorways, etc.
  • resists friendly or affectionate touch from anyone besides parents or siblings (and sometimes them too!)
  • has a hard time interpreting other people’s cues, needs or emotions
  • prefers playing by self with objects or toys rather than with people
  • gets easily frustrated
  • variable and quickly changing moods; prone to outbursts

• • •

My father is the type of person who keeps all the food on his plate separate and eats the items in a particular order. He is the type of person who requires absolute silence, impenetrable darkness, and a hefty pile of blankets for sleep. The sort of person who grinds his teeth at night and keeps his bedroom windows shut in the summer because the crickets are too loud.

For the most part, these are embarrassing eccentricities. Quirks. Like the way he required us to cover the computer monitor with its original bag when we were done using it, and return the keyboard to its plastic sleeve. Or the way he always parked the car way out to “avoid getting dinged.” We’d trudge through rain or snow from the farthest reaches of asphalt to keep that goddamn Buick looking new. We were never allowed to eat in the family car, even though he vacuumed it regularly, and in the winter he would make all occupants wipe their feet with paper towels because he feared that the road salt and water would rust the floor from the inside out.

My father could be socially awkward in mixed company, either terse with one-word responses to conversational niceties or delivering long-winded dissertations if someone happened upon a subject of his interest. Conversations, for him, were intellectual exchanges, and since he knew more than most people, he required a willing student. Even as a kid, I could see in other people’s body language what my father did not seem to recognize—when they were losing interest and trying to disengage.

But it wasn’t the awkwardness that made our home unpleasant; it was the silence, the uncompromising rigidity, the loss of temper without any warning. It was the intolerance of childhood blunders, the disinterest in our activities if they didn’t converge with his own. It was the absence of affection, the insensitive things he did and said just to control his immediate surroundings. Living with my father required an elasticity, a kind of heightened adaptability that would make it possible for one to thrive under unpredictable and contrasting extremes. Like a tide pool with an irregular current. A desert, or outer space.

My mother and I did not thrive under these conditions.

Now I’m thinking of the time my brother got up from the dinner table to use the bathroom without being excused, and my father sprang from his chair and spanked him without warning. I’m thinking of the time I accidentally put my feet on the seat of our brand-new car, and my father yanked me from the back seat to deliver a half-dozen strikes to my behind. I’m thinking of the times I looked up and saw my father coming at me—his long, determined strides serving as my only warning to sitdownrightnow and cover my bottom with my hands while the words fell out of my mouth, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.

• • •

How do I explain? On the one hand, I have never felt more compassion for my father than I do in this very moment. He couldn’t help the way he was. His reactions to us were involuntary, and he didn’t have many skills. On the other, I was part of the surroundings he always needed to control. And I’m not done with my anger yet.

What does this mean for M? I have spent my entire adult life running from my childhood home, and now, standing next to me, is a daily reminder of that place.

• • •

I can’t run away from my child.


We begin therapy, treatments that don’t seem like treatments at all, but rather odd snake-oil prescriptions to desensitize M to the world. We wake up early to brush her back, her arms, her legs with a little brush made with soft plastic bristles, like the kind they give you in the maternity ward to brush a newborn baby’s hair.

Strangely, it makes a difference. Instead of dragging and shoveling her out of bed, we watch her wake gently to the sensation, eyes fluttering, smiling around the fingers in her mouth. The seams in her socks don’t seem to bother her as much, and she’s downstairs and dressed early enough to eat breakfast.

At the occupational therapist’s office the next month, she dives into the ball pit, feeling around the bottom for objects we have hidden. She is learning to trust her body, pay attention to sensation, use it as a means to solve a problem instead of the other way around. In the mat room, she stands on a padded cylinder, arms outstretched, toes grasping, body swaying as her therapist wiggles it back and forth. This kind of challenge to her balance used to fill her with fear and completely shut her down.

A year into her treatment, she laughs and falls, then stands to get back on. The therapist’s office is a safe space for her to fail. We spin her on a spin board, in rhythm with music that offers pulsing galactic sound. She learns to love the motion, all kinds of motion, and comes alive when she goes outside.

“M just seems more awake now,” her teacher observes. Her personality emerges through diminishing layers of fog.

• • •

Setbacks happen, though. The dentist. Her awkward transactions with other children. One day, she finds two little girls on the playground, and I relax into my magazine. The next time I look up, though, I see M standing all alone. I glance down and wait for a while, a long while, before looking up again, and when I do, she’s still standing in the same place, absently singing to herself and bobbing around like a tethered balloon.

“M,” I say, “what are you doing?”


“Where did the other girls go?”

“They told me to stay and watch the store.”

I feel a hardening in my pit. She can be so naïve and literal. These are the days I fret that this mess may be too big to clean up.

• • •

“What was school like for you?” I ask my father during a rare telephone conversation. I already know the answer to my question from the way he used to coach me as a kid. If someone hits you, you can slug them back—but do it harder, he used to say. Advice as specific as this was likely grounded in experience.

This has become my biggest worry: that it will be exactly the same for M. Except worse, because bullying’s more caustic with girls.

“I never liked school,” my father admits.

His response makes me think of when my grandmother died, and our family went through the sorted papers in her den. We had excavated photo albums, baby books, and other artifacts from my father’s childhood, even his elementary school report cards. I remember being stunned by the Cs and Ds he had earned in reading and writing—which seemed impossible to me back then, because even as an adult, I’ve never met anyone who is smarter than my father.

But now, when I watch M struggle with a pencil and a pair of scissors during her occupational therapy sessions, it all starts to make sense.

• • •

I begin to revisit scenes from my childhood, confirm my recollections with my mother. She is no longer married to my father, but she stayed with him for more than twenty-five years. For eleven of those years they slept in separate bedrooms.

She seems both relieved and reluctant to talk, admits her depression during most of that time. “I didn’t protect you and your brother very well,” she says.

We remember the little things, like how my father didn’t like artwork on the walls, or background music in the house. His awkwardness. His difficulty with eye contact, how she relied on the cat to give her affection. I wonder out loud how they got together in the first place.

“It was a double date,” she says. “I didn’t have the heart to turn him down.”

It strikes me how she says this, as if he were Adam and she were Eve and neither of them had any choice.

“It wasn’t all bad, though,” she says. “I wanted it to work.”

• • •

Today at gymnastics, for the first time, I watch M walk across the balance beam without holding her teacher’s hand. She still leads with her toes, tentatively bending and lifting her legs like a colt, but she does it all by herself. At the end of the beam, she claps her hands and high-fives the teacher before taking her place at the wall. She’s leaning into the girl sitting beside her when she catches me watching through the window and waves.

Sometimes in the afternoons, I walk our dog past the playground at school so I can sneak peeks at her during her recess. When I see her laughing and running around with the other kids, a thick lump takes hold of my throat—and I can’t say if it’s because I think we may have changed her direction, or because I know that my father never had this chance.

• • •

Still, I can’t find the courage to talk to him about it. I want to tell him about my discovery, bring him the scientific evidence for why I think he behaves the way he does. Don’t you see, Dad? There might be something wrong with you. Isn’t that wonderful?

• • •

I make pathetic attempts to broach the subject. I send him emails recommending books written by authors with Asperger’s Syndrome and sensory issues, like John Elder Robison and David Finch, hoping he will read their stories and see some of the parallels for himself. I mention all the work we’re doing to address M’s needs, hinting that she kind of reminds me of him, and maybe others in our family, too.

My father is unreceptive. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with M, he responds. She is just a little different.


You know there are differences between “dog” people and “cat” people, he writes. Some people crave physical contact, others perceive it as a threat.

I wonder: Why would receiving affection from your spouse ever be seen as a threat? But I say nothing. In order for my father to acknowledge that M needs help, he’d have to admit that he could have used some, too.

• • •

Finally, the opportunity falls right into my lap. It’s Father’s Day, one of the few occasions when we talk on the phone. We’ve already exhausted chit-chat about the weather and my girls when he says, “So. What are you writing about?”

The words echo in my head, and the room suddenly feels hot. Instead of welcoming his interest in my creative work, I panic. He doesn’t know that I’ve been writing about the toxicity in our family and wrestling with this issue of whether to tell him what I think. All I have is a hunch. But somehow in this moment, it feels like enough.

I take a deep breath and tell my father that learning about M’s sensory condition has made me look at our family differently. From a different angle, through a different lens. I tell him that I’m trying to understand why things were the way they were.

“Oh,” he says, “so you’re writing about your abusive childhood.”

“No,” I quickly answer. “I don’t consider my childhood abusive.”

My father is quiet for a minute. Then he asks: “Are you writing about this because it’s therapeutic or because that’s the most interesting thing that has happened to you?”

I draw my breath in sharp response. I’m injured but unsurprised. My father’s bluntness bruises me in an old familiar place. “Both,” I finally admit.

We exchange more words, none unkind. He tells me he admires my devotion to putting my inner truth on the page. “But introspection is a bitch,” he says. “You should focus on the present and the future.”

I wish he could see that this is what I’m trying to do.

• • •

I don’t know how to do this. How do we look critically at our pasts and learn from the wake we’ve left behind? How do we overcome the urge to run away? And how do we acknowledge our own responsibility in perpetuating a problem?

For decades, I said nothing. I left at eighteen and let the quiet tension fester, shrugging off occasional bouts of guilt for the loved ones I left behind. Let someone else deal with this mess, I thought. I pretended I wasn’t responsible for at least some of what I’d left, that the stain beneath our house was their problem, his fault, and all I would remember.

For a while, it was. I forgot about the good—the peaceful sailing on summer days, the long, quiet walks and autumn bike rides with my father and my brother. I forgot about the corridors of tenacious nature along abandoned railroad tracks—the staghorn sumac, skinny ash trees, and maple saplings all clustered along the edge. I blocked out the bird and cicada song from the canopy overhead. I ignored the humble beauty of gravel berms trimmed with goldenrod and wild blue aster, and chicory weed so tough that it grew right up on the tracks, next to broken glass and the black, gooey sheen of creosote on wood. I forgot the smell of tar and wildflowers. I forgot about unconditional love.

I did what so many of us do with contaminated places: I closed my eyes and turned away, withheld my affection. I cast it off as ruined, thinking I would find a new, clean place to start my new, perfect family.

Then M came along.

• • •

When Z is nine and M is six, I take them to Detroit for my cousin’s wedding. It has been nearly three years since we’ve seen my father, and this is the first time the girls have met my relatives on his side of the family. But they seem comfortable, darting around in their bright spring dresses, smiling politely at the compliments from old ladies.

In the receiving line, though, M suddenly turns pale. This happens to her in crowds sometimes. Z and I rush her outside the church, where she leans over and spits into the bushes. Then we take a little walk.

My high heels sink into the soft earth as we make our way around the building to the church playground. I watch M come back to life as she follows Z to the monkey bars and the swings. I sit on a bench and soak up the sun while they swing high in the air, past the pink branches of flowering dogwood trees. That girl, I think, finally. A bird.

• • •

Later, my father comes over to visit in our hotel room. The dance between us is predictably awkward, but he is pleasant with the girls. Z remembers him from the few times he visited us in Oregon. M has only seen him once before that she can remember, but she doesn’t seem to care.

My father lifts M onto his lap, so she can show him a picture she has drawn. She seems at ease with him in a way she just isn’t with other adults, and it strikes me as something magical. I wonder: Is it because he asks her questions about things instead of questions about herself? Is it because he’s acting silly? Or maybe it’s because he’s so similar to her and doesn’t even attempt to look her in the eye?

We have plans to visit the Greenfield Village Museum, so my father tells the girls about Henry Ford and the birth of mass production. Z, always a pleaser, listens intently. M stares off into space, wiggling her loose front tooth as my father talks, but I know she is absorbing. I notice the way she rests her hand on his leg is the same way I used to when I sat on his lap as a kid.

There will be moments the next day, too—when my father wants to linger at a museum exhibit about steam locomotives and M’s pace mirrors his—that will make me wish I could have remembered more of those pleasant times between us. I will wish the tenderness had eclipsed the harsh, and that the memories I’ve committed to paper weren’t so complicated.

I don’t know it yet, but this weekend is the last time I will see my father.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. What I want to remember is this.    


The way it’s supposed to work: Contamination is remediated, and exposure pathways are removed. Impermeable caps are put into place, cover vegetation is planted and grown. Confirmation sampling is completed, post-closure monitoring is proposed. Final approval from the authorities for closure is obtained.

• • •

I guess that’s what I forgot. I failed to get approval. My tiptoeing around the topic over the past year and a half never provoked a candid talk. But what did I expect? I knew from a lifetime of experience how the conversation would go.

Instead, my father belittled my interest in writing about our family, and I, in turn, ignored him. I wrote and released personal essays into the world—pieces recreating visceral moments from our home and illustrating how the tension in a family can do as much damage on a cellular level as a chronic chemical exposure.

The truth is, I did it so I could be present for my husband and kids. I wrote and shared my work as a beacon to others who might be burdened with the same invisible toxicity. And I told myself—based on his detached dismissal of my interest in examining our past—that my father didn’t care if I continued to unpack. In other words, I lied.

• • •

Valentine’s Day, ten months after our visit in Michigan. An unexpected card arrives in the mail. It’s addressed to “Mary H. Noble” in my father’s handwriting. My father has never called me “Mary” and has always addressed me as “Heather,” my middle name. I will remember that detail later: the handwriting, the detachment.

• • •

The last Valentine’s Day gift I remember receiving from my father was a heart-shaped necklace when I was five or six years old—a gift I’d always suspected my mother had bought and just told me was from him. But this is undoubtedly from my father, a petite card with a picture of an embroidered heart, the kind of card you might buy in a multi-pack and slip into a decorated shoe box at a Valentine party at school.

Inside, next to the printed caption about hearts and love and joy, is a handwritten note— lamenting how I’ve been cordial all these years but have depicted him as a monster in my work. How I must distance myself now. The words are practiced and permanent. Then, in red Sharpie, a hand-drawn picture of a broken heart.

I slam the card shut, think of the essay he must have read, the one about our dinner table. The jolt I feel surging through my body is the same as the one I remember feeling as a child in those moments before being spanked.

No, worse.

• • •

Anatomy of an Unaccepted Apology: Daughter writes father an email because she knows father won’t accept her calls. Daughter acknowledges responsibility for blind-siding father with the content of her work. Daughter should have warned him about the depths to which she’d dug. Daughter should have made more explicit effort to have a candid conversation. Daughter attempts to explain her interest in what happens to us when we are exposed to contamination. Do we carry toxicity with us? Pass it on to our kids? Daughter tries to explain that she is not writing to accuse, but to understand the nature of their household and why it continues to affect her to this very day. Daughter admits to being a coward. Daughter invites father to talk when he is ready.

• • •

A month later, after returning from a writing conference, I find a package on the kitchen counter. Inside, a few bulging file folders with a brief note that says, simply, “Heather—It’s time you had these.”

My artifacts. Childhood artwork, newspaper articles, old cards, notes, and handcrafted books I made in the second grade, along with a few things from the girls that I had sent him in the last few years. It is a swift and decisive gesture, a tearing of the shirt. I know this package is meant to say: I loved you. See how much I cared? Now you are gone.

• • •

I worked as an environmental scientist for a little more than six years, but I did the work long enough to know that sometimes the environmental damage done to a site is beyond repair. Like mountain-top removal and large-scale contamination from impoundments of industrial waste—impact that is truly geologic in scale.

I always had difficulty with those kinds of cases. No matter how hard you try, you cannot find the right combination of a technology effective enough, a budget large enough, and a community passionate enough to bring the place back to its original state.

Instead, you manage the exposures and keep an eye out for the impact on the people who live nearby. You pump and treat what you reasonably can, and let the rest of the contamination naturally attenuate, as if there were anything natural about it. You grieve for what used to be.

• • •

Months pass before I can summon the will to sort through the folders, before I can revisit the drawings I made as a child and reread the stories I wrote. My father saved so much, dated many of the pages, even made little annotations about how quickly I’d drawn that portrait of my little brother, or when I’d written a particular note.

At the very bottom of the file, I find his own scratchings of song lyrics and poems on yellow graph paper, and lists of baby girl names. He had favored Heather, the name of the flowering evergreen shrub that graces the rocky highlands of Scotland, because, as he wrote, it “springs back after being stepped on . . . is tough . . . does not wilt or lose its blossom. You won’t find her in the garden sitting still to be pruned, but rather hiding among the rocks, her blossoms rippling like laughter in the wind.”

This is a glimpse of a father I seldom saw. A poetic man. A beautiful, loving father who somehow knew even before I arrived that I would need thick skin to survive.


You keep tabs on your daughter’s progress, make sure to advocate for the accommodations she needs to succeed at school. You brace yourself for the next time her needs will require your close attention. You rehearse what you will say to the girls when they ask what happened with your father.

• • •

You watch the calendar. Another birthday, Christmas, Father’s Day—tick off the years you haven’t talked. You send him your new address after you’ve moved again, tell him he is always welcome in your home. Eventually, you learn to stop hoping for any greetings in the mail.

Sometimes you catch a glimpse of him on your sister-in-law’s holiday Facebook posts. It never fails to startle you; seeing your father in her photos is a bit like seeing a ghost.

The pain gives you peace, though. Brings you unexpected comfort. He looks okay. He looks happy. It is best to leave him alone.

• • •

Years ago, back before this blight, when your husband’s father died, you tried to call your own father to deliver the terrible news. You left an emotional message on his voicemail, telling him that you loved him and were thinking about him, and that you hoped the two of you would talk soon.

He called back, but in the fog surrounding your grieving household and the chaos of memorial service decisions, you missed his call. He left a message that you still keep on your phone because now you know it’s the closest you’ll ever be to him again.

It’s a lengthy message, with lots of um’s and ah’s and the usual references to the weather. He expresses his condolences in his ungainly formal way. But within the message, there’s a softening—a rare moment in which he reciprocates the affection you had expressed, and this is what you hold onto: I love you, uh . . . I know you love me, and uh . . . I’m still your dad . . . and you’re still my daughter. I don’t know what else to say.

[1] Kranowitz, Carol, and Lucy Jane Miller, The Out-of-Sync Child: Recognizing and Coping with Sensory Processing Disorder (New York, NY: Penguin Publishing, 1998).

[2] Kranowitz, Carol, and Lucy Jane Miller, The Out-of-Sync Child: Recognizing and Coping with Sensory Processing Disorder (New York, NY: Penguin Publishing, 1998).

About the Author

Mary Heather Noble

Mary Heather Noble’s writing is influenced by environmental issues and informed by her former career as an environmental regulator. Her work has appeared in Fourth Genre, Minerva Rising, The FEM, Quartz, and Utne Reader, among others, and has been honored with the 2014 Siskiyou Prize for New Environmental Literature, sponsored by Ashland Creek Press.

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