Note: This is a piece of flash fiction I wrote at Campbell Folk School last weekend. I had the opportunity to read it and really bummed some people out. They were much relieved when I told them this is all made up. It didn’t happen. My grandmother is doing well. We have never stood in the surf together. That would be an amazing thing.
I am thinking of the time my grandmother and I stood together at the shoreline, the swirling, salty surf winding between our feet. How the ocean waves rose and fell with the steady, rhythmic tones of a vast, healthy heart. Measureless. We stood there, listening to the entire world breathe, both of us filling our separate lungs with the breath of shared life.
I stared into the waves. The casual press of constant breeze that glides on top. The hushed pulse of unseen lives beneath.
“We tend to ignore those things that crawl from the sea,” she once told me. “We forget that we ourselves once crawled out from that very same sea.”
And now, I am wanting to cry but the nurses come by too often, peaking their clinical noses into the room, forever pressing buttons, turning knobs, muting alarms that find voice when someone begins to die. The nurses won’t look at me. They know what will happen next. But the orderly comes by, pushing his mop across the already clean linoleum. He looks up from his work, pulling his mop handle like an emergency break. He sees me. I see him. We breathe together, he and I. For just that moment, we share a life. He smiles, nods and gets back to work.
He is gone and I am alone with my grandmother, this fantastic refugee from the sea. And I see the ocean’s work in the soft puddles of her wrinkled face. The soft seaweed of her hair. The thin perch of her teeth pulling away from gum line. Everything about her is pulling away, receding.
I take her hand in mine, cold, frail. I feel the bones of her hand slide together under my careful grasp.
I watch her, wondering what thoughts, what memories, might drift inside that inner tide. And then I feel selfish, petty. Wanting to keep her here, like this, with me in this room, a place she never hoped to be. I set her hand down gently, softly. Let her bones drift back into place.
I try hard not to count the breaths. Counting instead the growing space between the breaths, the place where time seeps in. Trying hard not panic as the space widens and the breaths themselves grow more and more shallow.
I am not ready, but I will never be ready. Knowing full well that everything which once escaped must one day return to that sea. Hoping that everything I have learned from watching is true. That same tide which pulls things away soon returns. Life takes. Life gives. And all I can do for now is stand watch and notice.