I have asked her where she wants to go on our next vacation; back to Disney World and a cruise, perhaps, or maybe Ireland this time?
When she texts back a few days later I am both bemused and perplexed, as it shows what a complicated creature my child truly is.
“Chernobyl,” she texts. “I think we should go to Chernobyl.”
Chernobyl? The site of a massive nuclear accident, a name forever etched in my brain as I recall watching the coverage on television as the dire fears of a nuclear meltdown were realized and thousands fled their homes due to the radioactivity they could not see but that was truly lethal in the most horrific of ways.
Yes, that Chernobyl.
She is in first year Engineering now, and has discovered a fascination with nuclear science. She is in fact considering a trajectory change, switching her focus from mechanical to nuclear and I suspect this has spurred the sudden interest in visiting the scene of a nuclear plant gone terribly wrong.
She sends text after text showing that it is now safe, at least for small segments of time, using terms like millisieverts and other words beyond my simple comprehension. And while she does so, I begin to browse Chernobyl on the internet, quickly finding photos of the perhaps-forgotten part of the disaster: the city of Pripyat, evacuated in the first 48 hours following the disaster and uninhabited since.
Here is the merry-go-round in the amusement park, forever stilled. Here are the houses, the schools, the hospitals, the playgrounds, gradually decaying into dust and nature (of the sort that has been left behind after being irradiated) beginning to take over.
An entire city of 50,000 people gone in two days, never to return.
And as I view the photos I find myself beginning to feel ever so slightly ill, as this seems eerily familiar to me, far too similar to a city emptied of over 80,000 people in a matter of hours just under two years ago.
“You can tour the hospital,” she texts. They do guided tours through the city, and you can see where the firefighters who initially responded to the crisis eventually dropped their heavily irradiated fire equipment before finally fleeing (but not likely before they acquired a massive dose of radiation, and the ensuing health consequences). You can tour the streets and the school, look inside the houses and see an entire community that was abandoned.
It sets me into a long train of thought, as fundamentally it feels like this is a sort of “disaster tourism”, although in this case one heavily endorsed and promoted by the country in which it occurred. The tours are perfectly legal and popular; there are entire packages available.
For me, though, there is another layer of complexity as it feels so close to what we experienced in my community in May of 2016. When we fled we had no idea if we would be able to return; were it not for the fact that our water treatment plant, hospital and other basic infrastructure were spared, we may have found ourselves the residents of an abandoned city to which we would never return.
Both my head and my heart hurt as I ponder it.
“You could write about it,” she texts.
And in that she is right, there is no doubt there are powerful things to be written about Chernobyl and Pripyat, and even about the similarities to my own experience in a community that was ravaged not by radiation but wildfire. There is a lure in that, but there is something else that tips the scales.
There is the desire to feel myself challenged, to bring myself to that pit of sadness and back out again, to immerse myself in that abandoned city and realize that for the people who were forced to abandon it life went on, even if it was very different and very likely very difficult.
Just as life would have gone on had I never been able to return to my own city if a wildfire had not just singed it, but destroyed it entirely.
Chernobyl and Pripyat are perhaps examples of human error, maybe even hubris. But so too they are examples of resiliency, like turning this site of disaster into a way to generate revenue in a country desperate for it.
“Okay,” I text. “Maybe not this year, but yes. Chernobyl.”
And so I will one day stand in an empty city and reflect on their experience and ours. There will be a mix of emotions I am sure, some of them relating to the fact that I was able to return home to my community after a disaster while they had not; but I also know I will feel there what I feel here in Fort McMurray: a sense of the courage, resiliency and indomitable nature of the human spirit, even when the worst happens.
Even in the midst of an empty city.