Staying on the wave
When you meet me, I wonder if you notice that I am new. I am something other than I was, someone other than I was in this room before. The last time I was leaving, I was leaving this room and starting again—in a new place with different colors and smells and ocean—even a different ocean.
As a girl I sat on the beach wall above the gray/slate-blue Atlantic. Cold. Enormous expanse of that color. And the jetties… unforgiving.
“Don’t go out on the jetties, Bethy!” my father warned me. “That’s where So-and-so drowned. You can never anticipate the undertow. Not in Boston. Not from the jetties…”
So I sat on that wall: neutral-colored, crumbling, graffiti-covered, “Dana & Dominick 4 eva,” and I watched the jetties, imagining a young person, a kid, like me, going out on a dare and getting sucked under — instantly — without a chance to remember or regret what they might have become had they not made that choice. Walking barefoot over sharp shells and disintegrated sea urchins, before the wave swept them away.
I knew, sitting on that wall, that I had drowned in a past life. I saw images of a boat with sails traveling from somewhere, Eastern Europe maybe, or Africa? I experienced that sensation of drowning, being engulfed by that gray/slate-blue cold Atlantic, quietly, with no one looking or sometimes not quietly, holding on to a piece of driftwood or the remnant of a sail, torn in the going down.
The act of going down:
Not as quick as the undertow of the jetty but quick enough — being engulfed, lungs filling with salt and cold, and of course, water.
That’s what I imagined at eleven or twelve, sitting on my private wall in Winthrop, wondering how long the Atlantic would let me live, would spare me that.
And then I left — to the Pacific — turquoise, aqua, black-and-green sand beaches, or white, not gray. It was rich, vibrant, and even stronger, louder than the Atlantic. No jetties but waves, big waves that can wash me onto the shore, on a boogie board probably meant for someone younger. But I need that ride, that thrill, for ten seconds or thirty, especially now, holding my son’s hand as he instructs me on the art of staying on the wave.
“Mom! Turn around… here it comes, go! Go now, Mom! Don’t miss it!”
I ride in on that wave with my son and his friend Brian or Casey or Andrew. I am the mom on the boogie board, trying to eke out more time, trying to ride over what happened. Trying to stay with my boy before the Hapuna Beach waves — angry in winter, unpredictable — before they pull us apart and I am pushing against the current to get back to my son.
“Sean! You’re too close to the rock!” I call out. But he doesn’t hear me and I am there again. A girl on a wall, imagining going under — salt in the lungs, water, disappearing — although this time it’s my son, not me, whom I can’t save.
But this is my fantasy, my illusion. And there he is, of course, throwing himself on the board as he and Brian or Casey or Andrew try to outdo each other, to get on the wave first, to make it all the way to the sand.
This is where I was going when I was last in this room — to those waters. And I am here now… no ocean today, but again gray/slate/cold. And I am new. Different. Changed. Can you see that when you meet me? Do you know who I was before?
With that journey came new dangers, new falls, a new kind of drowning, but not one that I imagined, not even a little. Not one that my dad could have warned me about as I sat on that wall back then, contemplating my demise.
“Don’t go out on the jetties, Bethy! You’ll get sucked under…”
Not anything I could have imagined.
But here I am. Returned. New wings. My elbows are wings, you said. Yes. I can imagine that. I wear wings on my neck — a phoenix, given to me by Silvia, a survivor. A new Silvia, from this ocean.
“The phoenix rose again,” she said, when she put it in my hand. “I never take mine off,” she said.
Do you see that about me when you meet me? Maybe not. But it’s there. Under my scarf, against my neck. Ready for flight. To rise above the slate-blue gray, the turquoise, black, and green. To start again.
To be new.
Beth Bornstein Dunnington’s essay is included in “An Anthology of Babes: 36 Women Give Motherhood a Voice,” edited by Suzi Banks Baum. Find it on Amazon.com.