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Who Is Su


In the center of the soaring rotunda it stood frozen, lurching: the enormous skeleton of a Barosaurus rearing up to protect its young from an Allosaurus. The dinosaurs, a man in fitted khaki pants was explaining to a visiting child, died 65 million years ago, most likely in a mass extinction sparked by a collision with a giant asteroid. The boy wanted to know how he knew this, since “you were not alive,” and as the guide was simplifying the process of fossilization, I looked up to see Su and Kassidy coming through the revolving doors of the American Museum of Natural History, wheeling suitcases.

Su happened to be in the city visiting Kassidy, who was baby-sitting for a family she’d worked with all through college. It was a hot, bright Saturday, and Su was sweating. As we stood in the coat-check room, Kassidy wiped above her mother’s lip. Kassidy knew the museum well and led us on an unofficial tour. We turned a corner, and Su gasped: “Holy cow!” Suspended from the ceiling of the Hall of Ocean Life was the 94-foot-long fiberglass blue whale, which, Kassidy informed her mother, despite being the largest animal alive, survives entirely off one of the smallest: krill. Su didn’t know “krill”; Kassidy explained. We descended the stairs to take in a giant squid entwined with a giant sperm whale.

The hall was dark and cool and children’s screams echoed in the background. Dressed in a loose-fitting purple tank top and jeans, her face tan and youthful, her thick salt-and-pepper hair down below her shoulders, Su looked like what she was: the mother of the 22-year-old beside her whose hand she was holding and swinging playfully. In the Hall of Minerals, as Kassidy explained the periodic table, they fell into the familiar groove of a daughter sharing some of what she’s learned with her proud, if unusually receptive, parent.

Once her children had begun school, Su would ask them each afternoon what they’d learned. She peppered them with questions—why were they called Indians? Who was Abraham Lincoln? What are cells? What is Iraq?—as each jockeyed to answer. When they brought home permission slips for a field trip to the Holocaust Museum, she wanted to know about the Holocaust. What they told her left her literally incredulous. She read with them, until finally she could read to them, in the children’s bunk beds all together, picturebook and storybooks and eventually each of the Harry Potters consumed in late-night binges, with one of them always manning a dictionary, learning the words together.

As the children got older, Su pursued aerobics religiously, reveling in the routine, until one day she was invited to begin teaching. Though she read poorly, she somehow became certified nationally, and her classes were well attended, even if in the early days they were perfect reruns.

But Su was happiest when she was alone with her children, watching Sesame Street and listening to music and playing games like Brain Quest. They visited the library almost every day. And, on the rare occasions when Jim was home and they were alone, husband and wife engaged in light conversation geared around their children, which made them, at least in that way, not terribly unusual.

We were taking our seats in the Hayden Planetarium. Su had told me that until recently she hadn’t understood spatial concepts well. There was always a globe in their house, and she knew about geographical boundaries from watching Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego? with Benjamin and Patrick, but she had not understood that she lives on a particular spot on a particular planet orbiting in outer space. Jim would sometimes call on the road while he was traveling “internationally” to say good-night when she and the kids were just waking up, which she found odd. When Jim briefly relocated the family to Egypt, she had no idea she was living in a “foreign” country. Until just before our visit here, she hadn’t known what the narrator was now explaining, as the room fell black and the ceiling lit up with stars: that there are at least 100 billion galaxies, containing within them some 70 billion trillion stars, many of which died long ago but whose last light has yet to reach us.

Su suffered her lightning strikes often when she first began driving; some of the children’s earliest memories involve her pulling over on the sides of highways and reclining her seat, telling them she had to “go to sleep.” A few minutes earlier, in the Hall of Saurischian Dinosaurs, she’d felt one coming on—the massive, menacing bones of a Tyrannosaurus rex charging toward us, an Apatosaurus whipping its tail, foreigners snapping pictures. Kassidy had led her discreetly to a far corner, where flying dinosaur skeletons soared lifelessly overhead, to gather herself. She’d told me that flashing lights were a strong trigger, and now, in the planetarium, as we were careering backward in time, the galaxies and stars on the ceiling falling onto us like a billion raindrops, Su grabbed her daughter’s hand, closing her eyes just in time, when out of a point of impossibly dense matter the whole of everything was suddenly reborn for us, exploding with light.


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