What we might have said, if we had known in time

Chernobyl exclusion zone (Nicole Evatt/AP)

I’m worried, I said to my sister, half a country away.

I am too, she said.

I remember a news item, little commented upon, a little more than a month ago – in January the scientists in charge of the Doomsday Clock kept the time at one hundred seconds to midnight for the third year in a row. It was not a reflection of a stabilized world, but rather the persistence of an extremely dangerous moment, was the consensus. Ukraine was specifically mentioned as a potential flashpoint. Barely more than a month later, a forty mile-long line of tanks is surrounding Kyev. The news is full of ordinary people crouching in subway stations holding their crying children as air raid sirens blast and missiles rain down.

My husband is on a trip a few states away. We’ve already discussed what would happen if nuclear war broke out while he was there, me here – where would we meet, how would we communicate. I brought it up jokingly, or so I thought, but when he said very seriously that it was a question worth asking, I cried with real fear. The world has suddenly become dangerous in a specific way, and the situation changes for the worse, for everyone, from moment to moment.

I’m not a nervous nelly, in general. Members of my family are practitioners of some of the world’s most dangerous sports – ice climbing, off piste skiing, helicopter piloting, extreme downhill mountain biking, motorcycling. I’ve learned there is nothing illusory about the dangers of being in nature; one rigorously learns and manages risk, and accepts that this is not always enough. Human nature, by comparison, seems infinitely less knowable and infinitely more dangerous – nothing that can be safely prepared for. Nuclear energy is nature bent to man’s will, unforgiving when the rules are violated. Like all battlegrounds of man’s hubris and nature, nature inevitably wins.

I watch the news. On the first night of the invasion, a young woman is interviewed in Kyev. She is in shock, flurried. “It’s hard to know how to act or what to do,” she says, and we the viewers can feel her truth. Behind her a missile-struck apartment highrise fumes with smoke. We were all hoping this invasion would last for a day or three at most, but on day four Macron after a 90 minute conversation with Putin expresses his bleak fear that the worst is yet to come. There are videos of families crowding into train stations. Babies cry, children clutch stuffed animals, pets are carried in backpacks and arms, their eyes eloquent. Miss Ukraine arms herself with an automatic weapon. A soldier in his 20s, voice trembling, tells a reporter that in Ukraine women and children are trying to stop tanks with their bare hands.

Russian forces are destroying Ukrainian cities. The death toll rises. In the latest updates Russians have captured Europe’s largest nuclear power station, which initially caught fire but we are being told by nuclear watchdogs that it continues to be able to cool properly.

Such a failure of global leadership, such a failure of modernity to have the moods of one man dictate the likelihood of nuclear World War III.

It got me thinking about what we’d say in this moment if we knew that nukes would really be thrown, changing life for everyone and everything on the planet.

We would say I love you to the people that already know it, and some of us would say it to people who maybe didn’t know it, not for sure, and still others would say it for the first time, because nothing is forbidden when the endless now we all live in ends all at once, taking with it the future.

Maybe we would say, I’m sorry, and you were right and I miss you. We would say, I should have told you how wonderful you are, how wonderful you made me feel.

Or we would say, I don’t care about any of that anymore.

We would say, If only.

Of all the things we could say, “we didn’t know” isn’t one of them. A movie in the early 80s, The Day After, depicted what a modern nuclear war might look like. It drew a hundred million viewers and was screened by President Reagan and his cabinet which seemed silly to me – why would a TV show have any more impact than the historical reality of Hiroshima and Nagasaki?

What struck me most about The Day After, what really stuck with me were not the scenes of annihilation – an instant death seems preferable to living with massive radiation exposure and third degree burns amid a destroyed landscape with no medical help – but the scenes leading up to the detonations, when we catch snippets of military chatter including one guy repeating into a telephone “300 ICBMs inbound verified”. I read a speculation by a retired State Department official that when World War III comes it won’t be a nuke or two dropped by a big power and thus ending the war, but eight or nine countries throwing them, levelling the playing field by destroying it altogether. From one minute to the next, two thousand years of civilization lost.

If a nuclear weapon was on its way to the United States we’d have 15 to 20 minutes to respond. I looked it up, that’s the estimate by a radiation safety specialist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. Fifteen minutes to find a place to shelter for 48 hours as we wait for the radiation fallout to decay and clear…that is, if you’re lucky enough to not have a collapsed building on top of you. And then there’s all the days after, survivors in a doomed struggle to eke out an existence on a poisoned planet.

Many miles from this invasion I sit in my dining room, listening to music on a smart home device, the dog sleeping at my feet. On the table, a vase of yellow tulips. A book about bees. Stickers from a conference in Denver. If I tilt my head to the left I get a sightline through our living room window all the way to the Golden Gate bridge, in the bright clear sunshine glowing crisp orange against a blue sky.

Like the woman in Kyev, it’s hard to know how to act. Should we – all of us, I mean – take to the streets in a last ditch effort to save ourselves? Should we turn quietly to each other and say “Thank you for sharing your life with me”? Should we call each other and talk of all we will miss out on and when we couldn’t say anymore we could listen to each other breathe, we would not break the connection.


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even in the face of annihilation a girl hasta eat


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