A story of how my dad died in the ocean
My dad died in the ocean. He liked to swim in it most when it hit, crashed fast onto the beach and gave no calm between the waves. I think he liked it because the ocean could beat him, but it didn't because he wouldn't let it. He would fight his way in and dive through the waves to duck the blows or rise up above a crest and hang there in the foam, just for an instant, before diving back into the fight.
Sometimes, when there was a storm or when the ocean was particularly violent, he would even swim it at night. He would disappear into the black waters, gone for moments and already surely dead, and emerge from further along the beach, from where the currents had dragged him.
He wanted me to swim with him, to teach me to fight the waves and not be scared. I believe that at first I liked it, being with him in the waters, protected by his strength and his arms. But he needed his strength for himself, needed his arms to fight back and so I breathed saltwater, once and then twice and then more. And I was rolled by the waves as I tried to escape, again and again and again. Then an inflatable boat flipped over me and I was stuck underneath being pulled out to sea so far that I could not be saved.
My uncle came for me, brought me to the beach, likely saved my life. I might have died, I didn't, but it wouldn't happen again. I would not go in if I couldn't touch bottom, if the waves were too fast, if it was low tide and the drop was sudden. Still, sometimes I went with my sister. She would carry me like a dolphin with its baby on its back. But I would have to go in and back out on my own, break through the waves crashing and rolling on the rough shell shards. So I stopped swimming.
My father kept swimming, kept beating the violent night times waves and swimming out to the distant sand bar, where he would stand and beckon me across an impossible divide. So, I stopped watching him. If he died or disappeared or did not return, I would not have to go after him, it would be too late by the time I would have been told. I wouldn't have to go into the ocean.
Then he found another ocean, not quite as big but surely as deep. It was an ocean in which he couldn’t swim, but from which he could drink. It came in bottles, had a cork or a cap, and apparently gave a fight as good as the waves. He could fight it everyday whereas he could only fight the saltwater ocean during vacation at the beach.
Bottle after bottle he dove into waves and then suddenly rose to the top like a glittering angel of salvation, just for a moment, before diving back under. At first I watched, tried to help, helped him pee into a jar from his bed, until I couldn't. He broke his jaw falling down the stairs, lost jobs, lost his wife, lost his family.
I knew he would die, I was waiting for him to die. Perhaps I had started to when I watched him dive into the dark waves of the night. They crashed so loud that when I called to him he could not hear me, and if he had called to me I would not have heard him. Perhaps it was then that I accepted his death, that I could do nothing to save him.
So I stopped visiting him, as much as I could. When he had plans he would cancel because he had drunk, when I showed up he chased me away because he had drunk. His voicemail was always full, expired bills and his mother’s unanswered calls. She was not worried, not outwardly, because his was normal behaviour in the time from which she came, or so she said.
Every few weeks I would call repeatedly, day after day, until he picked up. He was alive. When he didn't answer I would ride my bike to his home. The door was unlocked. He would be asleep on his couch, strewn bottles and bowls in which to piss. Or he would be awake, drunk or dazed or repentful or too weak to walk.
I knew that one day he would be dead. And one day he was.
He lay as usual, a book at hand, some old blood from his mouth on his whitish beard. I called my uncle, the one that had saved me from the boat. I’m not sure why I called him first. He was busy and I said that it was about my dad and he asked me “Is he alive?”, I said no. I called the emergency hotline, she really wanted me to administer c.p.r., I said no. I knew that it had been a few days since he’d died. I think it’s the kind of thing people don’t have to teach you about.
When the paramedics came, I smiled uncontrollably, which made them suspicious. They left us with the body. We waited outside until the coroner came. He declared my father had died from alcoholism. He left us with the body.
Before the coroner left he told us we had to choose a funeral parlour immediately and decide what would happen to the corpse. He also told us that the way alcohol had killed him was by making his oesophagus bleed down into his stomach. So, the alcohol hadn’t been enough. He’d had to start drinking the ocean in his body, until he had no waves left to fight, no crashing at his beach.
There was a funeral. He had been cremated. I spoke first and stopped, and the silence was so long that I said “Alright, well if no one else has anything to say -” and was interrupted by an uproar of protest. Others spoke but left less silence between each other.
It was over until we returned to the beach to throw his ashes to the ocean. Everyone threw some. The wind wasn’t favorable. The waves were fast, splashy, agitated. It was dark. It was confusing. Everything he had worn and had in his pockets had been turned into ash in the oven, except for a pocketful of change. We threw it into the ocean as well. It was easier to throw than a handful of sticky dust.
Only my love & I were left at the foot of the dunes. I looked at the stars and thought that he would never see them again, even though I had never known him to look at the stars. I cried, yelled, pulled at the sand, was held by my love. I was ashamed to cry. I’d only ever seen him cry when he had begun to be a drunk.
Finally, my dad was dead. In my eyes he had begun to die a long time ago, as he fought the ocean, the waves, the depths. In the end, maybe he swam too far, lost sight of the beach, couldn't hear us calling over the crash of his waves.
He couldn't die in the saltwater ocean because he could win that fight. He couldn't die in the liquor ocean because he could drink it all. And so, he died in his own ocean, slowly, over time. He consumed his mind, his spirit, his body. He drank himself, from within, one sip at a time.
I stand with him on the beach. I’m small, well clothed, cold and dark and it’s windy. We’re barefoot because that is how you have to be on the beach. He has only a short-sleeved shirt and shorts, he isn’t cold. He’s looking towards the waves, passed the waves, passed the sandbar and into the darkest part of the ocean. I don’t think he sees the stars. He wants to stand close to the water, I want to stay close to the dunes. He keeps getting closer to the water, I know he wants to swim. I don’t want him to but there’s nothing I can do. He doesn’t look at me when he says it.
“Let’s go swim” is what he says.
I say “no”
“come on, let’s go swim”
“I’m gonna go swim”
“I’m going back” I don’t think he heard me, his shirt was passing over his ears, and the waves are crashing really hard and we’re pretty close to them now, and maybe I didn’t say it that loud.
I don’t really look as he runs to the water, as he jumps over the first wave, through the second, under the third. I don’t see him when I turn around one last time, look at the ocean where my dad might be dead one more time. I don’t look out from the blankets when he comes back into the house. It might be him or it might be his ghost, but I can’t care too much, can’t love him too much or the next time I might have to go after him, might have to follow him into the waves, break into the ocean, try to save him and maybe die. So I look at the stars and the void in between, and I lose myself to the one thing in which there is no fight.
I’m a drop in the ocean. The ocean is my dad.