Grief, ocean waves pummeling you against the shore, pounding you into the sand until you are spun upside down, around and around, directionless with a broken compass, and you no longer know up from down. Salt stings your eyes, burns your throat and nose until you are choking. Sometimes grief is like that, tumultuous, but more often it appears to be a placid deep blue ocean with a deadly undercurrent that grabs hold of your limbs and slowly pulls you further and further away from land.
The current lurks quietly and silently just below the surface. If you are pushed in its quiet strength is unrelenting. Immediately you start to paddle with your arms, kick with your legs, try to gain control in any way possible, but you are only swept further and further away. It dawns on you that you are helpless to its hidden power. These placid waters that over centuries have cut ledges into the earth, carved out valleys and canyons, crashed to form mountains, and hollowed out caves. This ocean is more powerful than we are ourselves. This ocean is not new, it is as old as the dinosaurs and at some point everyone on earth will be thrown into it. You realize that your only hope is to relax, so you don’t lose your strength. Maybe the tide will change, or maybe you’ll be forced to grab the life vests, arms, and bouys thrown to you. You may need help. Only a small few can handle the current on their own, the majority of us need to open ourselves up to grabbing hold of whatever we can and let ourselves be rescued.
I am four maybe five and I’m on the beach in Cape Cod. It is a hot day and there is a gaggle of children, playing in the sand and splashing in the shallow water. Our parents are stretched out on towels drinking beers and sodas, their laughter and chatter carry in the breeze.
I see a rowboat and a pair of oars. I am thrilled because I just learned to paddle at summer camp and can’t wait to show everyone my new skills. I push the boat into the water and climb in, grabbing the oars. I’m nervous because this goes completely against my nature, as a twin I don’t typically choose to do things on my own. My dad calls me “fearful” but today I am brave.
I begin to paddle. The sun is beating down on my face and I watch the oars cut the glassy surface. I focus on their rhythm. Suddenly I look up and my family and friends are now only spots on the shore. I look around me and there are large boats, sailboats and motorboats, anchored to my left and right. I am alone and no one has noticed my escape. I try to move the oars to turn myself around, but I don’t remember how and every move I make pulls me further away. I feel the lump rising in my throat.
My family’s voices are blown away in the wind. The current carried me away. Will anyone notice that I’m gone? “Help,” I scream at the top of my lungs, over and over again. “Help!” I wait, panic setting in, no one hears me. My skin is roasting, salty and dry, and the glare of the sun is blinding my eyes.
Suddenly, I see my dad drop his beer. He points out to me and I see the adults panic. He runs and dives in the water. His tan and sinewy body cutting through the current, the dark blue ocean. As he gets closer, I hear him call, “Peep, paddle towards me.”
“I can’t, I don’t know how,” I cry as the tears fall from my eyes. Is he angry? Am I in trouble? Eventually he makes it to my boat, he stretches his torso across the bow, catching his breath as best he can.
“What the hell were you thinking?” he yells. “You scared the shit out of me.” I see terror in his eyes. He is scared. He didn’t know if he would make it. His anger is a mask for his fear. “You’re lucky I’m a good swimmer, this current is really strong,” he barks.
“I learned to row in camp,” I whisper, “but I forgot how to turn around.”
“An important part,” he mutters, “that was so dangerous.” He grabs hold of the raft with one arm and he sidestrokes back to the beach pulling the raft behind him. I am safe.
A story, one of our shared stories, the story of a father and daughter and a scary day on the beach – “Do you remember when I rowed into the middle of the ocean and you rescued me?” I ask as a young adult.
“Of course, I was terrified,” he answers.
A story that now has only one narrator, and one interpretation.
This is what kills me about death – the lost stories. Defining moments, snap shots in time, which define the essence of each individual. We each live these moments and feel them so differently. The stories my grandparents told repeatedly through a lifetime of family dinners, which captivated me watching them relive them with tears in their eyes. Lost moments that defined their lives that will never be listed in history books, resumes, or obituaries, these are the stories I crave and wish to relive in their minds.
The stories that were the essence of my father from childhood and beyond, some that I know and some that I will never know, this is the part of death I detest. They are his stories that I want to dig for, his defining moments that I long for… A quest to find more, but more will never be enough.