She grew up on the ocean, my mother. A Jersey girl, through and through, but not the Laguna Beach kind. She grew up watching France, only fourteen miles away, the floor of the ocean the only obstacle to keep her from walking there. On an island five miles wide and nine miles deep, I guess you really have no choice, but to love the ocean, to grow used to its tides and changes and to succumb to its power. I guess there’s really no other option but to let the ocean become a part of you, to let its waves wash over you and to be baptized in its waters; to take the ocean for what it is- glorious and indifferent, with no thought or inclination toward anything so temporary as a human. To grow up on an island, I imagine, is to be constantly reminded that there are bigger things out there than you.
She’s grown up with the ocean inside her, its saltwater in her veins, so wouldn’t you think I’d have it too? Do those kind of things- those loves and understandings- pass by blood or only by experience? For years now, I’ve never been sure if I love or hate the ocean, undecided as to whether it comforts or haunts me. I cannot make up my mind about it, nor can I be indifferent to it.
I’m five years old and we’re building castles with buckets and spades on the beach. He shows me how to make my mold stay in place, and then points to how far the tide has come in. “A few more minutes, and we’ll be up to our waist”, he says with his gray wisps blowing int he wind. It’s only wisps on top of his head now, where a whole bundle of hair used to be. I adore those wisps. Later tonight, my sister and I will braid them and giggle over how little hair there is to play with. I wonder why we can’t ask the ocean to go around our castle, just like I ask my little brother to please go around my things. We walk back to his house, all of us, and I cannot think of a happier day.
It’s the first time we’ve come back and he’s not been here. It’s also the last time we’ll stay in that house a few blocks from the beach. I want to be sad but my Granny is smiling, so I smile too and we begin with our visit. We eat ice cream and laugh and Jersey is beautiful-even more than I remembered. And the maker of the ocean, Granny says, is holding him too, and so the ocean to me on this sunny day is a blanket big enough to comfort us all.
“Are you coming in?” He says, freckles on his cheeks and sunburn on his lips. I’ve been watching him and my brother jumping the waves of the icy water, skin turning red from the ocean’s chilly snaps. There they go, my family of two nationalities, the English and the American both braving the cold Norfolk coast. I want to join, and can’t tell them why I won’t- can’t tell them it’s not the cold itself, but the liquid that would kill me without a second thought. It’s the fear of losing not the feeling in my toes but the ability to breathe that keeps me planted firmly on the shore. It’s that, given the chance, the ocean could silence me without ever asking my name.
We’re on our honeymoon, and when the sun goes down the breeze stays strong, making temperatures comfortably warm. We walk on the beach and stand at the edge, looking for lights on distant cruise ships. I should be happy, I think, as we stand holding hands on what feels to me like the edge of the world.
But all I can think is that the ocean did not look so scary a year ago, on the banks of North Carolina, maybe because I wasn’t thinking about how much there is that I don’t know or can’t know, maybe because I hadn’t really thought yet about what it’s like for a person to be here one day and gone the next. Maybe a year ago I hadn’t yet wondered what happens to all the memories of a person when they leave us, and if they get dumped into the ocean like our garbage, and that if that’s the case, the ocean is far to big, with too many memories, for me to stand along its edge. The size and depths of its waters remind me that I am small, too small; that anything could happen to me at any time and it is out of my control.
So, like a monster in the closet, the ocean in the dark is too much for me to face head on and stay standing. I make up an excuse about being cold and, hand in hand, we turn away.
I’ve always thought September was the perfect time for the beach. No crowds, sunny skies, and warm temperatures mixed in with the delightful company of a family I’m thrilled to call mine. Walking to the water’s edge, I wait for the terror that’s become the familiar to grip me and shake me, remind me of what I don’t know and can’t see. Only a month ago, what has long been a bad dream became a reality, and since that happened, in my sadness, I’ve waited for the fear to settle in and encompass me like a cold damp blanket. I expect it now, as I stare into the horizon, squinting my eyes to see my mother’s island, though I know it’s too far.
What I hear though, in the waves, is not the the taunt of fear, but the steady work of a redeemer. I am small, yes, fragile and breakable, to be sure. But I am not yet finished. And just as, with these waves, and this great, cold, indifferent ocean he is using to erode and refine the sand, so he is refining me. I cannot defeat the ocean, but was I ever made to do that? I cannot divulge its secrets, but was I ever meant to understand?
Perhaps the ocean and I have more in common than I thought. It is much bigger, much more powerful, much older than I. But it was stitched and thought of and sewn together the same way I was- I have no choice to believe that. The One who holds the hurricanes also holds my trembling fingers,and the waves can do nothing to me that he has not already known.
Maybe I’ll never long for the sea or love to breathe it the way my mother does. And I doubt I’ll ever dream of sailing it, or touching the sand on its floor. But it’s in me, still. The steady waves come in and out, sometimes hard, sometimes soft, reminding me that I was made by one more powerful than this. So, of something like the ocean, I need not fear.