Emily

The sun casts a river of amber glitter atop the slow-moving waves lapping the side of my kayak, nudging me gradually out from shore. A large white sea lion eyes me from atop the rectangular dock a handful of yards away. I glance to my left and see your mother grinning while your son paddles their kayak from between her legs. To my right, near a leaning madrone on the water’s edge, I sense your presence. Not more than a dozen feet away is your daughter, the one I held just days after she was born, the same days during which you passed to the other side. She is accompanied by your best friend and her daughters, and they are wading into the sound, shrieking and laughing as the cold water shocks their bare calves.

Earlier that day we visited a bridge tucked into the woods beneath old growth doug firs, a place I understand you held dear and your children truly love. I watched them explore their surroundings, finding rocks, tossing sticks into the creek and gathering fern fronds to build with. I remember doing the same things with my sisters when I was a little girl.

It’s been five years since I saw your family, and since you left us. As I drove up the 101 North toward your yellow beach house by the sound, I had an overwhelming feeling that you were near. It was strange and magical, and I cried my way to the driveway before gathering myself to knock on the door. The weekend that followed was filled with stories and laughter and porch sitting; I even taught the kids how to hula hoop on the lawn. Your children carry your features on their faces, and the glimpses I caught of you made my heart ache and soar all at once. I miss you all over again and yet, I am comforted by spending time with your loved ones and learning about the corners of earth you treasured most.

At dusk, I sat in a white lounge chair gazing out at the two islands on the horizon, and as I scanned the water, drawing my eyes closer to the shoreline, I had to close and open them again, disbelieving what I saw. It was you – a faint outline of a woman’s profile with her hair down, the cool saltwater cupping her shoulders as she gazed out to sea. And then minutes later, a flicker of light danced across the water beneath the sinking sun, and it was an orange buoy bobbing on the waves. But I’ll never forget that image of you skinny dipping at sunset in the place where I’ve been told you felt free and comforted all your life by nature, family, friends and traditions.

I want to think of you now like this poem reads – resting ashore where you are surrounded by the salt, soil, air and trees of your childhood; safe, at peace, having arrived at last.

On this wondrous sea
Sailing silently,
Ho! Pilot, ho!
Knowest thou the shore
Where no breakers roar—
Where the storm is o’er?

In the peaceful west
Many the sails at rest—
The anchors fast—
Thither I pilot thee—
Land Ho! Eternity!
Ashore at last!

-Emily Dickensen

 

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I’m Still Alive

Seattle was wet like it usually is. Despite the rain, we were smiling. It was Valentine’s Day after all, and we were together.

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We’d wandered into a cozy bar and took turns feeding the jukebox. Sipping on drinks, we sang along to Van Morrison and Al Green, nodding and humming. The jukebox shuffled – a pause – and then my song, Pearl Jam’s “Alive” clicked on.

Eddie Vedder belted out his infamous line “Oh, I, Oh I’m Still Alive,” and the man at the bar began swaying side to side. He looked as if he was made of stiff limbs rather than muscles that bend and flex. We watched him with sideways glances from our tiny red vinyl booth. A guttural yell escaped from his mouth and filled the tiny tavern, pushing against the walls. It occurred to me that he was trying to sing along. The word “Alive” was momentarily audible but the syllables were drawn out and muffled as if he had a cotton ball under his tongue. 

The bartender kindly told him it was time to leave. His behavior was beginning to interfere with the other patrons. One too many drinks; and perhaps, one too many heartbreaks.

Although it was a painful sight to watch – a grown man in his late 50’s three sheets to the wind, mumbling and stumbling, unaware of the impact he was making on those around him – there was something about it that stuck with me weeks later.

It’s the brokenness that was so clear, and the humanity I saw beneath this man’s moment of rawness. Although his actions were jarring, they were also somehow comforting. As two friends guided him to the sidewalk to take a cab ride home, I saw a man who was lost. And I also saw a man fighting something – or maybe for something. For what, I don’t know, and I’ll never know. But I imagine it to be love. The love we all crave so deeply. Not just from others, but from ourselves. And with that comes acceptance – knowing that you are okay just the way you are.

I recently turned 28, and birthdays have a way of making me take stock of things. I’ve had a lot of gains, and also a lot of losses in my time here thus far. And in the depth of my grief, I’ve even felt as if I’m at risk of losing myself. But tonight, as I feel the sharp edges of wounded places in me, I remember this man and Eddie Vedder and the words, and even though I feel swallowed whole by emotion sometimes – I’m still alive. You could even say they’re proof of it.

Inch by inch, I get a little closer to something that resembles love; maybe even acceptance.

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The Sauna

It’s my birthday. Well actually I slept through it, she said. I was born in the middle of the night. I tried to relive it in my mind, but who remembers their birth anyways? That’s what I want to know.

Dark brown ringlets cascade from a haphazard pony tail stacked atop her head. She uses the towel to dry her feet, and then lets it drape loosely beneath two teacup breasts.

I try to picture her coming into the world; this woman in her mid-forties once a baby. And then I picture myself: the  darkness before the first breath of air and light. The rush of awareness, the instinct to push. The newness of understanding. The determination to be a part of all this out here.

Last night, my legs were pendulums. I let them swing from the bar stool. Thinking, thinking. Thinking. When did I start thinking about death? Must have been a long time ago. A day rarely goes by now without that hard realization of the temporariness of everything. All the people I love.

In the shower room at the sauna, I’m alone for an instant. The warm water soothes my skin, pouring down, melting over the contours, removing the layers of thought until it is just me, at home in a body, barefooted on the slate tile. Suddenly surrounded by three women. Large women. Ovals and folds, spherical shapes draping over organs. A fading tattoo of a red heart on her left buttock with the words “Fag Hag”.

I feel comforted by these large bodies; their presence make me feel like I am allowed to take up space. I think, how beautiful.

The tile is cool beneath my toes, and it is a relief to not have to talk to anyone. I can just be, water pouring overhead, soft voices drifting in and out of earshot. The women nearby gossip amongst themselves, occasionally laughing at one another’s wit. The earthy smell of Palo Santo wood drifts into the room and I breathe it in deeply.

As I dry off in the dressing room, I think about the last time I wrote a long story; it was about a woman who lost someone to suicide. I haven’t been able to go back to the story since my childhood friend died this year. The closest I came to it was in writing group when I imagined the world from the perspective of a cobweb, which then became a speck of golden dust, a product of some great force that eventually returned to the earth beneath wooden floorboards; home.

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Meanwhile, an elderly woman with a badly hunched back readies herself to walk to the sauna. She leans on a walker and takes baby steps, shuffling one foot after the other out of the dressing room. Her arced spine is the shape of a rainbow, leaving her head dangling beneath her chest. Sallow skin, aged and loosened by time tenses, then carries her weight gradually forward. It looks like she’s in pain, and I feel an aching sadness in my body as if her bones were my own.

I dress and head back out into the cold night. A tan pitbull eyes me from behind the legs of its owner. Zipping up my jacket, I look up – a thumbnail of moon smiles across the wide shoulders of an illuminated sky. Light fans out around it, then fades into dark indigo clouds.

I put my key in the ignition, and flick on the headlights. A pause. I breathe out. I stop wrestling. There’s just this moment. In it, everything feels both wrong and right. I’m so grateful, and so sorry, and so lost for why.

I get to be here, yet she’s taken her own life.