November 20th, 2014
When I first wrote this, I was hesitant to share it because it is so deeply personal. However, this past year has proven to be full of sad moments. In July my high school history teacher passed away. Last month, I lost my 22 year old cousin to ARDS. Today, there was a shooting at my university, Florida State, and it has me almost unable to work as I envision the terror of being shot at in Strozier Library—a place that was a sanctuary for me from my noisy college room.
I’m not posting this to try to gain from the death of others, that is the furthest from the truth. What follows is a story of how I tried to deal with the pain and grief of losing someone I care about.
Independence Day at Chattahoochee
I wanted to celebrate July 4th by myself at home. But, I was torn because my parents wanted me to go up the river with them to Chattahoochee and watch the fireworks there over the Apalachicola River. My friend was supposed to call me to hang out, but the phone never rang.
My high school history teacher, Theresa Curl, passed away the Tuesday before July 4th (on a Friday this year). I had several high school friends come into town for the occasion and I went to the funeral, and it was difficult. I felt like I had stepped back in time, to the past, and I was a misfit. The rest of my week was dark, macabre, and full of memento mori. Even roses reminded me of death and the fragility of life.
Mom and Dad wanted me to go down the river so they could get out of the house and cheer me up a bit. I gave them noncommittal answers all day: “I dunno.” “Maybe.” “We’ll see.”
I sat up in my room at 5:50 p.m., 10 minutes before Dad and Mom wanted to leave to go down the river with tears streaming down my cheeks.
I cried at the cruelty of a world that would let Mrs. Curl die so suddenly from some random genetic disease she inherited from her father that caused her kidneys to fail.
I cried because her death was so sudden—her cancer was in remission and she was healing. It’s not fair!
I cried because her mother put her hand on my shoulder at the funeral, shook her head, and said, “Nic, she wasn’t supposed to go. She wasn’t supposed to go. She was getting better.”
I cried because her daughter had to watch her mother die—alone.
I cried at the difficulty of it all—it is true, what the old man said in Cinema Paradiso. The old man is talking to the young man before he leaves the small town for military training.
The old man says, “Living here day by day, you think it’s the center of the world. You believe nothing will ever change. Then you leave: a year, two years. When you come back, everything’s changed. The thread’s broken. What you came to find isn’t there. What was yours is gone. You have to go away for a long time… many years… before you can come back and find your people. The land where you were born. But now, no. It’s not possible. Right now you’re blinder than I am.”
The young boy queries, “Who said that? Gary Cooper? James Stewart? Henry Fonda? Eh?”
The old man replies, “No, Toto. Nobody said it. This time it’s all me. Life isn’t like in the movies. Life… is much harder.”
I sat there, thinking, crying, shoulders shaking, and frozen in thought and time.
Mom and Dad kept yelling from downstairs, “NIICC! We’re leaving! It’s time to go! Come on!” Mom came up and she huffed off, frustrated with my indecisiveness, and then Dad came up and he said, “Why don’t you come with us and we can talk about it later.”
I was torn. I wanted to go—but I didn’t want to go. Why? I didn’t want to go anywhere, I wanted to stay at home and feel sorry for myself, I didn’t want to see people, I didn’t want to be drawn away from the house; it was comfortable here. At the end I decided to go. Why? Because I figured riding down the river would be good for me.
We three got on the boat and starting motoring up towards the dam. As we rode upriver the gentle humming, white noise of the Tohatsu motor blanketed over everything else, the noise canceling all other noises both physical and mental. We sped towards our destination and the river banks and my problems swung by, flashed by. And I was an advancing Zen Buddhist, the pope in a rocketing pope-mobile, a monk in a roving solitary cell—the adventurer as moving meditator.
We stopped at the campground where we stopped the first night of the Apalachicola River expedition. It was warm—but not as hot as it had been the previous week. Warm in a nice May warm sort of sense—not the heat-seeking, earth-searing, air-scorching July sense of warm that we have in Florida. The crickets and cicada were buzzing—it reminded me of summertime in Japan. I stood there and listened. Mom was listening. Dad was listening. We each were doing our own individual thing, just walking, in our own world. I stood there and looked at the shells and rocks on the beach. And Mom looked at the boat, looked at me. Wondering what I was thinking, maybe. Dad waded out into the muddy water and let the current flow over him, his mind. All the while crickets and cicadas hummed, hummed, hummed. Sun over our heads—hum, hum, hum. Vibrations in my mind and the wheels turning in my head, thinking. Hum, hum, hum. All the world working expertly, in good timing. Hum-de-dum-dum.
We loaded back up on the boat and drove up to Chattahoochee Landing. We anchored in the middle of the Apalachicola River on a slippery shoal, held fast by a rusty, spray-painted blue anchor. Once we stopped moving, I cut open the watermelon—cut it in half and put the other half back in the white cooler, with ice and diet cokes and a ginger ale for ailing dad (still somewhat sick from his cold). I cut slices for mom, me, and him. I stood in the water next to the boat and ate the watermelon; sprinkled salt on it and ate, ate, ate. I ate about half of the half. One of my favorite things about summer is eating watermelon. I remember going to the Chipola River the summer of my 10th grade year on my way to hang out with some friends and buying a fresh watermelon from the guys at the watermelon stand in Altha and eating the melon on the river as it floated down with us—cold as the water we floated in. Cold as the water we floated in.
I looked around as I munched on the melon. Canadian geese on the shore to our right. A grey heron’s beakéd head swiveled from time to time, observing the scene around him. Cicadas crickets chirruped around us; a resonating chorus. The faint tinkling and twanging of country music sounded from the shore, where people were sitting on blankets waiting for the fireworks.
I watched the water lap against the edge of our boat, and then turned upward. The evening sky turned all sorts of colors—pink clouds set against a continually darkening sky, daylight fading from view, from our minds. The day died as the night was born. Boats were surrounding us, and I was reminded of George Strait’s song, Stars on the Water.
When it’s midnight down in Mobile
Shining moon beams on the bay
They come from miles around
To dance the jukebox down
To hear the good time sounds they play
And all across the harbor night life shinin’ on
Makes you feel just like stars on the water
As the evening got darker I hopped back on the boat and asked Mom to pour me some wine in my red solo cup; It was Wal-Mart red wine with a masculine logo with a name like “UP DRAFT” or “IRON BREW” or something of its ilk.
A mist lifted up from the depths of the water, and the river cloaked herself in a milky cloth of dew. I screwed my eyes shut in an attempt to more deeply remember the beauty and the feelings and emotions going on around me. I would remember overcoming my sadness by going out on the river, bravery. My parents and the river healed me for that day, for that moment.
Nostalgia. Nostalgia for a moment that hadn’t occurred, nostalgia for the moment that was occurring all around me, but already I knew that it was a memory that I desired to keep forever. There was a simpleness, a loveliness, a sort of slice of heaven in the reality around me: it was my parents and my self, like it was for the first two years of my life before my baby sister was born. I opened my eyes back up again, having forged a deep memory of the event that I would take with me to the grave.
About 100 feet in front of us on the opposite shore, people on a boat lit up bright reddish/orange emergency sticks and were waving them around frenetically. I heard that deep bass *poof* and watched a bright stream of light shoot skyward from the boat. I heard a loud bang and watched as the beam of light exploded into a large circle of color and light, equally bright as the smaller nucleus that had propelled into the sky. Dad, Mom, and I all audibly ooeed and awed at the first one. Mom and Dad took a few pictures of the next couple of fireworks. I sat the whole time, watching the show, with my legs dangling in the water, sipping on red wine from a red Solo cup, and felt the warmth of the water and the wine all over. This was perfection: I was on a boat, on my own island—enjoying the show. Boom! Boom! Boom! Poof. Boom! Poof. Boom! Pauses in between each firework, perfectly timed out. The frenetic waving of the fire-lights still happening, men conducting the orchestra of light and sound. My favorite fireworks are the ones that flash out and fall downward, like the branches of a willow tree.
The grand finale boomed and everyone clapped and hollered in appreciation. After the fireworks were over someone in a pontoon behind us set off a bottle rocket and it fluttered in the air and popped. They snickered and giggled at its smallness compared to the largesse, grandness of the show.
We pulled up the anchor and headed back downriver. There were tons of tiny bugs that came down to the river after the sun set, and all three of us put on glasses to shield our eyes from them flying in our eyes. Mom and I put our sunglasses on, and dad put his eyeglasses on.
As we headed back downriver to the landing I flashed the spotlight from time to time to find the buoys so dad wouldn’t hit them.
A quarter moon was out, and the stars shined bright, as bright as I had seen them in this area.
Later, as we drove, I saw a shooting star, and made a wish. “Please keep her safe.”
I kept spotting the buoys. I enjoyed spotting the green ones because the reflector mark glowed a brilliant green, reflecting a stripe of green on the water. After I turned the spotlight off it would fade, the spotlight’s reflection slightly burning in my eyes.
Mom didn’t like the darkness. It’s too strange and mysterious she said. I spotlighted two gators, eyes glowing orange.
We made it back to the landing, drove the boat back on the trailer, and drove home, windows down, listening to the symphony of night sounds.
July 4th, Independence Day.