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Friday, April 15, 2016

Out to Sea

“To date we have only explored less than five percent of the ocean.”
--National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
United States Department of Commerce


***
Once in college, after midnight a boy I loved, and one who loved me in wild way that couldn’t be caged, drove a half hour south from our cheap college apartments to a mountain reservoir.


In the warmcool air of July we stripped to skinny dip in the water. Kicking our feet below the surface, rippling waves radiating from the slow motions of our arms, he whispered a poem written by William Butler Yeats to me, his voice bouncing off the surface of the lake between us:


A mermaid found a swimming lad,
Picked him for her own,
Pressed her body to his body,
Laughed; and plunging down
Forgot in cruel happiness
That even lovers drown.


Wrapping his arms around me he told me I was his mermaid and we let the weight of our bodies pull us under the water where we kissed until our lungs burned with the need for new air and we burst back above the surface, laughing and drifting away from each other.


We drifted away even more in the next few weeks, with the excuses of  fall classes and out-of-town marathons and new roommates and new people. We said we’d find each other again next summer….and we did, crossing paths three weeks before I married another man--My Trevor.


***
On the day you get married you never imagine you will bury your spouse.

But sometimes when you plan one life you are still given another.


And grief is the biggest of oceans.
***
You can never really say, where one ocean stops and another begins.

The Atlantic, Pacific, Indian, Southern and Arctic are all connected, covering 70% of the earth’s surface as 92% of the earth’s water resources roll in waves around the globe from one sea to the next.


The waves carry things--empty plastic bottles, lost fishing lures, floating bits of kelp, driftwood, shells, memories, burdens, hopes, losses.


In April of 2013 a small Japanese skiff washed ashore near Crescent City, California. 25 months earlier it had been swept out to sea during the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan, sweeping an estimated 5 million pounds of debris, and too many lives, into the sea.

The skiff was the first piece of debris to drift across the Pacific Ocean and land on the coast of California.

But more would come, landing on the shores of Oregon, Washington, Hawaii, Alaska and British Columbia.

A soccer ball, a fridge, a sealed boat compartment full of live striped beak fish from Japan's coral reefs. 

Even now, five years following that monster storm, the ocean brings bits of loss to the shores to be recovered.


***
In the days, the weeks, the months following Trevor’s death, and even now, I search for the right metaphor to help others understand my journey with grieving the death of my husband.  I look for the words of others to articulate the storm of intensity inside me--intensity that I cannot sort out or label, that comes and goes in waves.


In an online group made up of widows and widowers, I first saw the following account. My mother sent the same bit to me a few days later. And perhaps this is it--perhaps the metaphor I can never quite hold, the one that runs through my hands and leaves them empty, reaching for more words is, most aptly, an ocean.


“As for grief, you'll find it comes in waves. When the ship is first wrecked, you're drowning, with wreckage all around you. Everything floating around you reminds you of the beauty and the magnificence of the ship that was, and is no more. And all you can do is float. You find some piece of the wreckage and you hang on for a while. Maybe it's some physical thing. Maybe it's a happy memory or a photograph. Maybe it's a person who is also floating. For a while, all you can do is float. Stay alive.


In the beginning, the waves are 100 feet tall and crash over you without mercy. They come 10 seconds apart and don't even give you time to catch your breath. All you can do is hang on and float. After a while, maybe weeks, maybe months, you'll find the waves are still 100 feet tall, but they come further apart. When they come, they still crash all over you and wipe you out. But in between, you can breathe, you can function. You never know what's going to trigger the grief. It might be a song, a picture, a street intersection, the smell of a cup of coffee. It can be just about anything...and the wave comes crashing. But in between waves, there is life.


Somewhere down the line, and it's different for everybody, you find that the waves are only 80 feet tall. Or 50 feet tall. And while they still come, they come further apart. You can see them coming. An anniversary, a birthday, or Christmas, or landing at O'Hare. You can see it coming, for the most part, and prepare yourself. And when it washes over you, you know that somehow you will, again, come out the other side. Soaking wet, sputtering, still hanging on to some tiny piece of the wreckage, but you'll come out.


The waves never stop coming, and somehow you don't really want them to. But you learn that you'll survive them. And other waves will come. And you'll survive them too.


If you're lucky, you'll have lots of scars from lots of loves. And lots of shipwrecks.
***
It is the wind that causes the waves in the oceans.

Wind that moves whatever the water carries.  


I used to think it was just the movement of the water--but it’s the wind that drives the ocean and continually propels each swell to kiss and then pull away from the shore.

It’s the wind that can’t hold still.
***
A few months after my husband’s death that boy from that lake and that summer ---
that one I will always love, who will always love me in the strangest of ways that is not the stuff of marriage or white fences or children or dinner-plates with a main and two sides--but is the sort of love that is best kept in gossamer connections over decades, celebrations for each other’s evolutions and new relationships, an appreciation for one another’s beauty from a distance---
connects with me on Facebook.


And via the messenger app of The Book of Faces, he and I talk late one night. He says he wishes there were more words than just “I’m sorry.”


I tell him I feel lost, that Trevor was my anchor and that now I am drifting.


He says to me, “I don’t know how you did it in the first place, how you settled down, how you let someone hold and keep a girl who moves like water....you and I were never the sort to have anchors.”


When I tell him I’m going to try and sleep he says again, “Goodnight my mermaid.”


***


Anchoring a boat properly is complicated.


At least it is according a blog I found, The Sailor Mentor, authored by a smiling guy named Chris who is wearing a black Arcteryx jacket (just like the one My Trevor had) in his author picture.  


Chris says that most boats in the harbor have inferior anchors in the first place. They won’t be strong enough to endure the sorts of furious winds that blow boats to beaches.


But Trevor was a strong anchor and we endured so many bouts of the winds of his cancer before it claimed his life.

He held and kept me, my free spirit settling into his solidness.

But maybe what I didn't see was that as our bodies pressed together we were plunging down...so much lost in happiness that we didn't realize lovers sometimes drown.  


***


Five months after my husband died his grandmother passed away.
I put our two small children in the car to drive three hours north to the funeral.
And because mothers are sometimes wiser than their daughters, my mother met me there.


When you are a young widow, you are somehow more tragic….or more compelling…..or more intriguing….or more frightening….or more…..something. I am not sure what.


But people know, and in small groups, or crowds especially, you sometimes catch whispers:


“That’s Trevor’s wife.”
“It’s so sad with those little kids.”
“She looks like she’s doing well.”
“I’ve heard she’s really struggling.”
“She looks like she has lost too much weight.”
“She’s gained weight hasn’t she?”
“So young. Such a pity.”


The whispers don’t really bother you. You know that we all become part of other people’s stories and experiences in ways that we don’t control.


But you still appreciate the woman who bravely marches across the cemetery at the graveside to introduce herself to you and say:


“My daughter's husband died when he was thirty too. Plane crash. I'm so sorry.”


And you say the things you have become so practiced at saying, because you don’t know what else to do. 

And because her sincerity, her connection, her witness, DOES mean something to you. Even if you have been treading water, anchorless for so long in a cold ocean with 100 foot waves that you are too numb to feel exactly what it is.


But you hear her say to your mother, something that sticks in your mind. Something your mother later tells you helps her understand you a bit better:


“I used to feel like my daughter was out to sea. She’d be gone for awhile. And then she’d come back to the shore. And then she’d be gone again. Sometimes to different shores I didn’t know, ones I couldn’t see from the beach I stood on.”


***
In the online widow and widower support group I witness other people’s driftings. 

I hear about the shores they find on purpose, or the beaches they are pushed to. I hear about the waves, the shipwrecks, the winds.


Like a beachcomber in California, I pick up the pieces of loss from more than 2,400 other people like me from all over the globe--the story of how a soccer ball made someone cry, the triumph a widow feels when she can fix her own fridge, the way someone talks about the bittersweetness of that first solo diving trip to see striped beak fish.
And then today, from a man I so deeply respect, though I've never met, a post attempting to explain how the evolution of his life, his new passions and pursuits after the death of his wife inadvertently hurts his family and friends who feel a sense of disconnection and neglect from him, who don’t understand why he turns elsewhere to cope with this ache and loneliness.

I sat down to write him a personal note. To tell him I know what he means, that I too hear so often from my friends and my family:

"I feel like I never talk to you anymore."
"You are really bad at texting me back."
"I don't know how to be here for you if you don't tell me."
"We are grieving too. We need you."

I want to tell him that while I need the shore I stood on before, that I also find new meaning in new shores, in things separate from the life I had before a tsunami of grief pulled me across the ocean.

I want to tell him that sometimes when we lose our anchors we just start to drift, and we don't know where the winds and the waves take us. We find different shores, we move through different oceans and the people of our familiar beaches sometimes can't see or understand when our sails disappear beyond the horizon...but I start to drown in the metaphor, and I never write him the letter, writing this lyrical essay instead.
***
People often drown together in rescue attempts gone awry.

If an "active" drowner who is panicky is approached by a swimmer trying to help them, the person in distress has a tendency to grab a hold of the other one, pulling them under the water as well.

B. Chris Brewster, the President of the U.S. Lifesaving Association in 2010, told a journalist writing about the drowning of four grown men in an Idaho lake not far from where I grew up, that you should never reach for a drowning person:

"What you want to do is avoid contact," he said, "that contact is what results in death."

Sometimes when you are lost in your ocean of grief you cannot save others from their own oceans...and sometimes no one can save you.

You have to learn to swim by yourself.
***
The first summer I was old enough to take swimming lessons, Disney's The Little Mermaid had come to theaters.

Along with every other five-year-old who saw the film, I desperately wished to be Ariel.

So much so, that I would argue for hours with my eight-year-old cousin, who was my favorite playmate and lived down the street, about who was more like The Little Mermaid.

She knew all the words to every one of the film's songs and could sing them perfectly, twirling in a circle, her arms stretched out, belting the lyrics to "Under the Sea."

But I had red hair down past my waist.

Or at least I did until in the heat of one of our arguments she grabbed a pair of scissors, held the blades an inch from my scalp and cut off one of my pigtails.

Being a mermaid has its costs.
***
In British folklore mermaids are usually unlucky omens, associated with, or fortelling, storms and disaster.

If you type the words "Mermaid" and "Tsunami" into Google, the entire first page of results will list videos, articles, and forums discussing how the remains of a supposed mermaid were found after the 2011 tsunami in Japan.
***
Tsunami waves are not caused by wind, or mermaids.

A tsunami is a series of waves traveling across the ocean due to a sudden displacement of a large body of water. This displacement can be caused by events such as undersea earthquakes, undersea landslides, land sliding into the ocean, volcanic eruptions or even asteroid impacts.
***
Widowhood is a sudden displacement.
Widowhood is a tsunami.
Widowhood is a shipwreck.
Grief is an ocean.
Grief is a wind that moves you on its own will.
Grief is wreckage floating across waters--a world obliterated.
Grief is simply trying to swim, without drowning, without letting others expectations of grief drown you.


And if you swim long enough, tread water until you are numb, maybe you morph into a mermaid…..half woman, half fish…….who sometimes comes to shore, but who is most often still out at sea.
***
Trevor and I took our family to the ocean every year, spending a week at NewPort beach.

I was always a bit afraid of the ocean.

I could never understand the timing of the waves, never could learn how to dive beneath  them in order to not be battered about by the salty water and lose my bikini top.

But he could.

He was smooth, his timing flawless, and I would hold my breath until he popped up beyond the breakline, his head of blonde hair bobbing in the water.   

He always wanted me to come further out with him...but the depth, the waves...they scared me.

And not just when we were at the beach...

On our first cruise, he took me up to the highest open air balcony in the middle of the night to see the stars. There were no lights from the shoreline, clouds covered the stars and it was simply a deep black that stretched everywhere around the ship. I was scared of how endless the ocean was. How very small it made me feel.
***
If grief is an ocean, it is just as endless, just as deep.
But so is the perspective it offers.
When you swim so long in the waves you learn not to be so afraid anymore.

And, if you are a mermaid, there are so many depths---more than 95% of the ocean, after all--to be explored.

And if you explore long enough you start to realize that maybe Ariel had it all wrong in the first place--that maybe once you have rolled in the deep there really is never a way to walk on the shore again, never a way to enjoy shallow living.
***
The November after Trevor’s passing, while floating on a boat somewhere in the Caribbean my phone chimed with a message from my friend who quotes Yeats.
“Are you still out at sea?” he asked.


My answer was, and still is, “Yes.”


But I don’t quote Yeats.
I swim to Cummings instead:
“For whatever we lose (like a you or a me),

It's always our self we find in the sea.”

***
I will always see Trevor in the waves off the coast of California.
I will reclaim some of the pieces of my old life that wash up on various shores.
I will walk on new beaches.
I will sometimes come home.
I will stay out at sea.

I will be a mermaid….or a sailor...or a beachcomber...or a tsunami….or a shipwreck...or skiff that washes ashore...and maybe in finding a deeper sense of self amidst this grief I will someday be the Pacific, Atlantic, Indian, Arctic and Southern oceans---all connected to life and to loss and to depths that I have yet to see.