“I am littoraly fucked,” I think, standing ankle deep in the Atlantic at low tide in a thick fog, not knowing which way shore lies. Not a time for word play perhaps, but I am not yet aware of the gravity of my plight. I am maybe a half a mile from… from what? From the beach? I’d like to think I’m still on the beach and I’m surfcasting—my line out to the ocean hoping to catch striped bass—but right now I’m ankle deep in seawater. There’s no surf really, just tiny gentle waves, and I don’t know which way is shore and which way is open ocean. So where am I? Am I on the beach or at sea? It literally doesn’t matter, what matters is knowing which way is which. Which I don’t. It was misty early when I left the house and walked down the narrow, sandy path through the fragrant rosa rugosa to the wide beach and through the pungent seaweed at the high tide line. Now it’s foggy, and I can’t see more than ten feet in any direction. It’s still early and the sun is rising, but the light from the sun is so diffuse as to not be helpful in direction-finding.
At this hour there will not be many people out walking the beach on this cool September morning, after Labor Day, the summer crowds gone. The tide on this beach in Maine is not Bay of Fundy-esque, but not far from it, and my walk across the rippled sand to the low tide waterline took at least five minutes. I am not an experienced angler—I borrowed the fishing rod from my brother-in-law—but I knew enough to check the tide chart before heading out, and I know the tide has turned and is coming in, and I realize this knowledge is of limited utility now. Like a blindfolded kid hitting a piñata on his birthday, I got turned around a couple of times, and I don’t know which way is shore. Several times I tried to follow a path perpendicular to the direction of the waves to find the water, to my relief, becoming shallower and then suddenly, to my consternation, deeper. A sand bar no doubt, and perhaps it was the right direction, but how deep into the water do I go before I decide it’s the wrong way? I stop for a moment, take a breath, scan the horizon, or lack thereof—it’s ok, I’ll figure this out.
My kingdom for an iPhone. I left it at the Airbnb, wanting to disconnect from the world, even for a brief time. Yes, my kingdom, my vast suburban kingdom, a 50-year-old ranch with vinyl siding and a moldy basement. My Queen Amelia moonlights as a Marketing Director, and the prince and princess of the realm are 5 and 3, Emilio and Sara. It is not a kingdom from fairytales, but it is my kingdom, and I would trade it, at least the parts with resale value, for my goddamn iPhone right now. I left it at home so I could be the kind of person who knows when to leave their phone at home, which now feels like a stupid affectation since I would have had it as a tool, not a luxury—the map, the compass app, or to call the police if it got really bad, and then to take a picture of the fog and post an LOL shot on Facebook about how “littorally fucked” I would have been if I didn’t have my phone. If there is not an emoji for that exact situation there should be. My hand involuntarily reaches to feel for my back pocket where I normally keep my phone but feels just the damp rubber of my waders. A slight twinge of worry washes through my body but quickly passes like the small waves that brush against my legs.
The water is up to my knees now. I’ve been making some desultory casts, as if doing so will normalize the situation. I’m starting to get a little scared, but I’m not ready to yell for help yet. That would be emasculating. I’ve never considered myself to be a tough guy, but I’m outdoorsy at least. I was an English literature major in college, and if I had to choose between Hemingway and Fitzgerald, I’d consider myself a Hemingway guy. What would Ernest do? I look at the ridges in the sand under my feet and it occurs to me that these will likely be parallel with the shore. I’m briefly heartened by my ability to troubleshoot the problem, but the ridges don’t have arrows pointing to shore, a serious oversight I’d say. So which way? Maybe I should just pick a direction and go. So I do, and it gets deep. I go the other way, and it gets shallow. Then it gets deep again. I stop. The waves around me are still tiny but the fear that is starting to grow inside my chest has the feel of a wave far out at sea, an undulation still invisible to the eye, but cresting as it nears the beach.
I came up here to Maine because after my friend Carl died of cancer, my wife insisted I get away to grieve in a way I wouldn’t allow myself to do with a eulogy that needed to be written and delivered, a memorial celebration that needed to be planned, and later with everything that needs to get done to keep a household running, to keep a career moving, to keep a marriage functioning. Maine was a place Carl and I had spent time together since our teens, drinking beers at bonfires on the beach, painting houses high on hash in the summer, body surfing in the frigid waters. Years later when Carl was in mid-battle with his cancer, we’d sit on the striated rocks at night watching bioluminescent waves roll up into a stony cove. These sessions were like Master Classes for Carl, taught by the sea. Carl was majoring in the philosophy of his cancer diagnosis. He would see metaphors for his illness in the phenomena around us—the complex interactions of the waves flowing into each other were lessons in interference, chaos, and chance, and helped him grapple with the “why.” Why did he get this incredibly rare cancer when the odds were so low? The sounds of the smooth, round stones rolling to the rhythm of the sea that sounded like a giant breathing, reminded him that even though he only had one lung left, he could still breathe, just as this damaged earth was breathing too. As we sat, he’d relay these thoughts to me, and I would nod along and try to offer an insightful comment, but I could never fully go to that place he did. It was as if he were a PhD physicist explaining quantum theory to a kindergartner. I could understand on an intellectual level how when bad things happen, it isn’t always evil intent, but just random chance. But it is one thing to understand it, and another to have to come to peace with it. It’s the difference between me as a parent understanding that my child could be on a walk in the woods and a strong wind could rise up, knock down a tree branch, landing on them and killing them. But not the understanding of a parent who in reality has had to pull a branch off their child, the course of their lives changed in an instant. These nighttime conversations on the rocky cove made me feel somehow inadequate and privileged at the same time. Carl’s proximity to death imbued him with a wisdom that was comforting to be near. During the last few days of Carl’s life, he lay in a hospital bed in Portland in a fugue state. It wasn’t clear if he knew where he was, or what was going on. He was on a BIPAP machine that covered his whole face with clear plastic, even his eyes, and me and his brothers made jokes about Bane, the bad guy from Batman, because he would have. He kept reaching up with shaky hands to pull the mask off, and seemed as if he was trying to speak, but the nurses wouldn’t let him. They told us he would keep trying to take the mask off. They all do it. But he can’t live without oxygen. He needs to keep it on. So every time he reached up to pull his mask off, his wife or his brother would gently pull his hand down. As I watched this over and over, I wondered if the nurses were wrong, and if we should let him take his mask off and speak. I began to ascribe nefarious intentions to these nurses, as if they were Nurse Ratchet, and their way to lobotomize Carl was through morphine and BIPAP. I began to formulate a Chief Bromden-like plan, but instead of smothering him with a pillow (which I mean, c’mon, wouldn’t go over well) I’d switch off the morphine drip, rip off his BIPAP, and let him speak his last words and die clear-eyed and free. But I deferred to the nurses, deferred to his family, and guiltily buried those thoughts. On my drive up to Maine, I began to wonder if my inability to fully mourn was in part due to my uncertainty about the choice I made to do nothing.
I had another unspoken reason for wanting some time to myself. Amelia and I hadn’t planned on a third in the royal line of succession, but before I made it to the appointment that would have guaranteed this decision, she got pregnant. From the get-go, it was a high-risk pregnancy due to both our ages. Although it wasn’t what we had planned, after a brief few days of shock we rallied and got excited. Then one night, Amelia woke up with horrible cramps and bleeding. We rushed to the emergency room, and they told us to come back the next day. The results of the testing took an excruciating 48 hours.
“I’m so sorry to have to tell you this, but based on the results of the prenatal testing, there is a high likelihood that your child has a condition that is considered incompatible with life,” the OB told us.
“We will need to do confirmatory testing, and there are sometimes false positives. I’m so sorry,” she said, and the look in her eyes told me a false positive wasn’t likely.
Were we lucky that it turned out to be a false positive? Or unlucky that we received a false positive? In the weeks it took to do the confirmatory testing, my psyche constructed a protective wall that sealed me off from embracing the possibility of our third child. With our first child I came up with nicknames. With our second child I did Tuvan harmonic singing into my wife’s belly. I imagined our future together. Now I found it difficult to muster any enthusiasm, and my inability to do so filled me with guilt. I wondered if the same wall of guilt that was keeping my child out was the same wall trapping Carl in.
The cold Atlantic water is up to my wader-covered thighs now and the wave of fear is cresting, rising up through my chest to crash into my brain. Oh, hello, welcome panic. Welcome. I haven’t felt you often in my life. Real panic. Real “I could fucking die” panic. Not when a tree fell in front of my old three-quarter ton Ford pick-up truck doing 50 mph on a two-lane country highway in a windstorm. No, no time for panic, just react, jerk the wheel to the left, miss the tree, jerk it back to the right, look at Carl and we both emit a laugh/scream hybrid sound louder than the Sonic Youth that is playing on the CD player and feel lucky the car coming in the other direction hadn’t left home three seconds earlier. No, no time for panic then.
Once, yes, once ice climbing way over my ability, Carl belaying from above, out of sight and out of earshot, me with hands too cold to function with a move ahead too hard to do. I survived that time through pure will and some luck. Carl and I practically ran back to the car when we got down, not wanting to give the mountain time for another shot at us. Panic. I’m ready to yell for help. If I survive, I will gladly visit Hemingway’s grave and lay the things on there that pass as my tokens of manhood—my climbing gear, my wallet, my wedding ring. I don’t give a shit, I’ll trade every trapping of manliness to get out of this predicament, and I yell.
“HELP! HELLO! HELP!”
My voice feels utterly pathetic as it is swallowed by the fog. There is a reason there is such a thing as a foghorn—a normal fucking horn ain’t gonna cut it. But I don’t move anymore, and I keep shouting. This is it. I’m going to either live or drown by the ability of my voice to reach another human through the fog.
In his last hours, people took turns at the chair next to Carl’s bed, the place of honor, to stroke his arm and talk to him reassuringly. When it was my turn, I sat next to him and touched his arm. He rallied and opened his eyes wide, too wide, like he had to overcompensate to overcome the overwhelming heaviness of his eyelids induced by the morphine drip. He looked up and did something he hadn’t done in days—he smiled. Seeing your friend smile makes you feel good, and I did, I felt happy to see him smile and so did everyone else, his sizable family gathered around in the small room.
But standing in the water and the fog, I am struck with dread—my brain, in an instant, rewrites this memory like a sadistic revisionist history professor living in my head, and changes the narrative. Of course he smiled, of course he was happy to see his friend, he thought I was there to help! Finally, the one person who understands him, who will take that damned BIPAP off, to let him speak, to hear him, to lead him out of this fugue fog back to shore! But I pulled his hand down like everyone else did so that he couldn’t take his mask off and said to him,
“Rest, just rest.”
A gentle gesture now transmuted into a betrayal, the act of a traitor, the subtle cruelty of Nurse Ratchet. How would I feel if, at this moment if Carl’s voice came through the fog, and instead of calling out to me to show me the way back to shore he simply told me, “It’s ok, it’s ok, just rest.”
As the water climbs up to my knees, “just rest,” to my waist, “just rest,” and now to my chest… “it’s ok, don’t fight it, you’ve fought hard, just rest my friend, let the water take you.”
“The smile was his way of telling us he was at peace,” I told the gathered mourners at his funeral, and now I feel like a liar, worse than a liar, a liar that would lie to the family of the dead.
My cry now has desperation in it, a certain rise in pitch and pubescent cracking, like a scared child who has no understanding nor care of social niceties, no care of dignity, nor pride.
The water is up to my waist now. The sun will eventually burn this fog off. Can I tread water until it does? Do I start to strip off clothing now to be able to float better? It is cold, quite cold. The morning air in Maine in September already has the promise of winter. How quickly would hypothermia set in? Would it hinder my ability to tread water? I’m already starting to shiver, and I don’t know if it is the cold or fear. I’m not feeling optimistic now, and I have a feeling there is swimming in my near future. I decide to strip off the waders. I’m afraid they’ll fill with water and weigh me down. To do this I have to let go of the fishing rod. This is a big decision. It means even if I get out of this, I’m not going to be able to keep it a secret. I’m going to have to tell my brother-in-law, tell him why he’s not getting his waders and fishing pole back. It’s no easy task getting the waders off but I do, and for a while I hold on to them and the rod—they don’t seem in a big rush to float away anyway. Under the water I am in my underwear. In the morning I pulled the waders on, over my boxers, not seeing much point in putting pants on. The boxers are pink with lobsters, a birthday gift from my kids (read: wife) to be used specifically on this trip to Maine. My shivering gets worse and my mind struggles to accept that this is really happening. It seems like just minutes before I was traipsing down the sandy path inhaling the fragrant rosa rugosa. Now I am lost at sea.
When water transforms, it does so sometimes slowly, sometimes quickly, but always utterly—a stream carves a gorge, a brook becomes a raging river after a storm, a sunny beach is submerged by the tide. I was on this same beach about a year ago, a family vacation, and I walked with my son on the beach one morning while the girls lay in bed. It was a bright, clear morning, the tide was coming in, and because of a storm offshore, the normally calm beach had big surf rolling in. We walked down to where a river comes into the sea, a complicated area of sand bars and conflicting currents in constant flux. As the sea came in, it created a sand bar on which dozens of juvenile fish had been washed up by the churning surf. They flipped and their silver sides glinted in the sun, wide-eyed and oxygen starved. My boy, raised not on the TV of my youth that featured different animals assaulting each other with ACME products, but fare that often included animal rescues, wanted to save each one with his little net and throw them back into the water. He paid no heed to the incoming tide, which was transforming the sand bar from the beach to the sea with each successive wave. I watched him carefully while I let this happen. I wanted him to understand how quickly water, almost more than any other element, can utterly change everything in a moment, can turn a sandbar into someplace that is incompatible with life. You need only ask anyone who lives in hurricane country—any suddenly homeless person in San Juan, or any widow in New Orleans. Ask any corpse floating in a channel in Key West.
When the channel cutting off the sand bar from the beach started looking like Class 1 rapids, I called to him. “Are you paying attention to what’s going on around you? Come on, let’s go.”
He takes two steps into the current and screams. “It’s too deep, help!”
“You can do it.”
“No, I can’t!” he yells, with panic in his voice.
I begin to wade across to him and feel a twinge of empathetic fear and some shame when I feel the current. It would have been too much for his tiny legs. I pick him up and smell his hair like I always do when I lift up my children. His dark hair is warm, he’s had no bath while on vacation, no Burt’s Bees shampoo perfume scent—if you could smell summer, it would be that, and I don’t want to ever put him down. I carry him down the beach, but he sees shells and seaweed, squirms out of my arms to the sand, and starts his exploration again.
“You understand now the sea is powerful and changes fast, so pay attention.”
“Okay, daddy.” He gets back to exploring. I observe him. He pays no attention to the sea.
The water is up to my chest now and I question my decision to stay put. I’m feeling despondent now, about my inability to love my unborn child, my betrayal of my best friend, and the water that is creeping upwards. Ah, but wait, wait one second. I remember something else… When my wife sat next to Carl in the chair of honor and said our children send their love, he looked up at her and said “melon.”
We didn’t so much hear it as read his lips, but the word was unmistakable, melon. We didn’t understand what he meant at the time. But now I understand why he chose that word. Melon, the word he used to teasingly describe our little one’s tiny head every time he saw her.
“You have the cutest little melon.”
She would laugh and say, “No silly, it’s not a melon Uncle Carl, it’s my head!”
The script was the same every time and none of us ever tired of it. Her little melon head contrasted with his big one, full of dark curly hair, big even when bald from chemo, even bigger sometimes when swollen from steroids, smaller as his body diminished, but still big, still a big melon. Yes, he said “melon.” And it hits me – no one says melon when they are afraid to die. Melon – so absurd, so nonsensical, so perfect and beautiful, a code word that only we would understand, a code word that said, “it’s ok, I’m not scared, and because I’m not scared, you shouldn’t be either.” Nonsensical out of context, but nonsense to one person is beauty to another.
Revisionist brain professor is cowed now, and I am emboldened. I briefly consider yelling “MELON!” but I don’t want to send mixed messages. I want to get home to my kids, to my pregnant wife. I want to get home, and I want to name our coming child Melon! Or maybe John Cougar, and his nickname will be John Cougar Melon-head, or it will be a girl named Melony and I want to survive this so I can go to her wedding, a big wedding—why will Melony have a big wedding? Because her father said she cantaloupe. If there is one thing revisionist brain professor hates, it’s dad jokes, and he slinks off to his Victorian at the edge of the cortex campus to pour himself a stiff drink.
Water up to my chin. “HELPPPPPPPP!” My feet lift off the ocean floor, touch sand briefly again, then lift off and I am floating. I float on my back, close my eyes, and all is black. Now fully submerged, I realize it isn’t the water that is cold, it is the air. In fact a warm current furls around me. If I were in a pool, I’d probably suspect the kid swimming next to me. My shivering subsides. My ears are under the water, I take a deep breath and I can hear my own pulse. The gentle undulations of the ocean carry me, I succumb and drift. I feel something bump my leg. I open my eyes quickly, but don’t see anything. I notice the fog is starting to lift. I tread water and scan around me.
“Hello! Can you hear me?”
The words are so faint, and I can’t tell exactly what direction they are coming from, but I know what direction they are not coming from and with each iteration of “hellos!” and “over heres!” and “this ways!” I triangulate and home in on the direction of the voice, now voices, and then the bark of a dog, which cuts through the fog like a spell. I begin to swim toward the sounds, and with each stroke, the outline of the beach comes into focus. The sulfur odor of seaweed on the beach never smelled so good. My feet touch sand and I propel myself forward with my feet and arms, then I’m wading. As the fog continues to lift, I see blue and white beach houses take shape, and soon I’m not wading anymore, I’m walking, and I see figures through the fog, a man with a beard in a hat, a woman in a pink sweatshirt with a towel over her shoulder, the dog, a Portuguese water dog, its black fur sandy and wet. The dog runs at me excited by the tension he senses.
“Thank you, thank you so much,” I say.
I collapse to my knees and something inside of me releases. I cry, great heaving sobs, and I know they think it is from fear and relief, and it is, it is that, but it is for Carl too, it’s for Melony, it’s for all of those things and I start to explain to them… but I don’t. I resist the urge to define it, to call it this or that, either/or, sea or shore. I just let it flow. The woman puts the towel around my shoulders and rubs my back, while the dog licks my face. The man starts to pull the dog away, but I say it’s ok, and I reach up to pat it. His licking tickles. What can I tell you, it just tickles and now I laugh as I cry.
Another couple approaches out of the thinning fog. Into their vision comes a soaking wet man kneeling on the sand wearing nothing but pink lobster-patterned boxers, sobbing and laughing. Circling the scene, kicking up sand, making the seagulls and the plovers very nervous, a barking, happy, curly-haired dog.
In memory of Brian Wright
Dan. I enjoyed reading this. I was immediately pulled in to where your head was at minute by minute and could totally envision having similar thoughts feelings and fears in that situation. So sad about the loss of Carl. I hope you keep doing a lot of writing!!!
Dan you are AMAZING!!!!
Brian would love this.
What a tribute to your beautiful friendship.
I lost my best friend in 08. Also to a rare aggressive cancer.
Thank you for this very brave of you to share
Awesome tribute to Brian. He is looking at your now with that same smile on his face.
Danny what a beautiful tribute to your friend ❤️