She’s been walking this corridor of brown and ash-coloured sand for almost an hour, her walk an easy stride, her body warm with the motion, her head warm too under today’s cloudless blue brilliance – surprising for February, season of winter storms. Eight or nine degrees Celsius, Lillian guesses; perfect. And the beach today nearly deserted.
She needs to reverse her walk before she tires; she knows the distance back is the distance come. She stops; she turns. Turning, she grasps the previous hour as something solid, like a pebble she can pick up and hold. She was looking at the ocean on the one side, the ragged line of driftwood on the other, the sand patterns under her feet. She was mulling over work, her students, the class on calligraphy she’s teaching a women’s group at church.
But not once did she think about Jordan, her son, who died here a decade ago.
So now, an intake of air, hands darting to her face, and then she is trembling. This fact – this neglect – seems a victory. One she hadn’t waited for or imagined.
The waves foam as they sag back from the shore and they sizzle, soft as a hush when the bubbles break, and she too, her breath releasing as a sigh, joy in her stomach rising. Settling again. A sensation of absolute stillness, of awe, like that moment when a wonderful symphony or opera ends, just before the audience goes wild.
Lillian grabs her cellphone out of a pocket. Somewhere nearby, her husband is walking too.
He says hello with a question mark.
“Gord!” she declares. She hears the sea crashing against her ear through the receiver from wherever he is, hears the same crashing beside her, like breakers in stereo.
His voice is barely audible in the midst of it. “Lillian? What’s wrong?”
“Nothing, nothing,” she shouts. “Everything’s fine. That’s why I called. – Everything’s regular. – I wasn’t trying though… It just—”
“Ordinary. The place, I mean. As if—”
“As if you’re local?
“Not local exactly… More like new, without—”
“As if you’re a tourist?”
“No. No.” She wanted to say without connotations but she’s beginning to cry, a sputtering, coughing cry, not because he supplies words for her while she’s speaking – a habit he can’t seem to break – but because of her relief like phlegm that wants dislodging. She’s crying and she can’t talk but he’s repeating her name, soothingly it seems, and behind them both, the Pacific’s endless agitation.
“Regular as in ten years,” she tries again when her sobs calm. “That kind of regular. – If you know what I mean.”
“Lil,” he says, “that’s great.” Then, “You’ll be okay?”
She’s fine. She couldn’t wait to tell him, but it was foolish perhaps. He’s baffled by her call. Again he says it’s great and she’s thinking, Yes, indeed. In spite of their loss, their marriage survived. What were the odds?
She says goodbye, says she’ll meet him soon, in the parking lot.
Not the past hour, but the last ten visits – the annual ritual – clamour round Lillian as she walks back, more slowly than she came. Clamour like the boys when they were small, tired and ready for bed, jostling her with details of their needs and existence. For ten years she and Gord have been coming here, to Long Beach on Vancouver Island. Once a year for sure, to remember him. Jordan, their firstborn. The first of four sons. “Over his depth,” it was said. Sucked under, surfing. Eighteen, and sucked away, his body never recovered. Officially, “presumed drowned.” There were witnesses enough.
Lillian believed they had to keep returning, to face the place, to stand at the only graveside they have for him, to renew their vigil on the shoreline of his being, his disappearing, their grief.
The first year here, she forced herself to imagine, over and over, the sensation of drowning, so she could be with him in his final moments, so he wouldn’t be alone. Timing the length of hymns to how long a death by water might take, how many lines of “It Is Well With My Soul” she could get through before it might be true.
When peace like a river attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say,
“It is well….”
Not even one, as it turned out, before she lost her composure.
Were prayers efficacious backwards in time? She’d found herself pleading that he would see something pretty in the seconds before he died that must have stretched as long as a dream. He’d always hated to fall asleep. “I’m afraid when I close my eyes,” he wailed as a preschooler. Then Lillian would sit beside him and coax, “Just close them and look for some pretty pictures in your head.”
But what did she know about drowning? One year, despairing of her ignorance, she nearly rushed into the ocean herself to let it overcome her, and teach her.
Another year, she and Gord fought during both days at the coast – or she fought, rather, railing at his silence until she cracked it open with, “If you hadn’t encouraged his risk-taking so much with your favourite-Dad-pal routine—”
“And if you weren’t so fearful,” he’d pounded back at her, “he would have learned to do it properly. Not going crazy to get away from his mother! Over his depth.” That phrase had appeared in the newspaper and now it was a hammer in her husband’s mouth and Lillian had screamed, because he used it against her. Both of them were depleted by the time they departed Long Beach that year, but waiting in the line for the ferry to the mainland, they apologized. (She no longer remembers who did so first.) But each had named the guilt the other felt and the naming of it could not be reversed.
It must have been the next year, chastened, that they scarcely spoke at all. It rained the entire time and Lillian wandered the beach for hours under an umbrella, arguing with the ocean instead, mocking its futile attempts at permanence. Each fresh mountainous surge mocked her back, every rising wave a ravenous jaw, lips curled like kale, the entire coast a roar, it seemed, from a massive throat in torment.
There were years – several, weren’t there? – when she sank into contemplation as if she’d entered cathedrals to Jordan’s memory on the beach, repeating tender litanies for who he’d been, wandering through his eighteen years, enacting recollections, throwing onto the water pictures she’d reproduced and poems she’d written, watching them float away or sink. Every encounter of water and shore full of him then, an affectionate kiss.
Four years ago she stepped into a tourist shop in Tofino and saw him, his straw blond hair and the red toque, but of course, after a second startled look, not Jordan at all but someone else. The false, unexpected sighting roused uncertainties Lillian thought she’d conquered, fears that the evidence of his death was a lie, that he’d arranged an elaborate ruse to start over without them and was back to celebrate escape, nostalgic perhaps over the self he’d abandoned at the edge of his world. She was angry those days over a simple case of mistaken identity, angry at the malevolence of a child’s death. As if he’d determined to break their hearts before anyone else could get around to breaking his.
Some years, she gathered mementoes – stones, shells, knots of wood – as if they were messages to her. The only one she’s kept is a creamy white sand dollar she discovered half buried beyond the tide line. When it dried, she emptied the shell’s slender cavity through its top hole. The tiny mound of metal-grey sand crystals sat on a square of paper beside the sand dollar for months. Eventually she threw the sand away and had Jordan’s high school graduation photo and the empty white shell mounted together in a wide black frame.
By afternoon, clouds have appeared and it’s spattering rain. Lillian and Gord have booked a room at the Long Beach Resort Hotel, their most expensive lodgings yet. They pass the hours until dinner reading and resting. Perusing the menu in the dining room that evening, they realize they’re both hungry for the same thing: shrimp appetizer, the beef entrée, raspberry cheesecake. Lillian is still too happy to choose something different than her husband for variety’s sake or mutual sampling. She doesn’t care if the waiter supposes them dull.
Back in their room, they fill the soaker tub and climb in, laughing. Their limbs collide in the water; they feel light. They will soon be making love. It’s a good time, Lillian thinks, to ask about her husband’s morning on the beach.
He mostly sat on a log, he tells her. And it was good to get her call. He’s reached “regular” too, he says, but for him it happened last year. “I didn’t use that word, of course, but I knew what
He pauses. “Recovered.”
“Kind of back to normal, though not to original,” Lillian says. “More like mended.”
“Regular,” she says.
Gord’s speech is generally spare compared to Lillian’s; more precise. She knows this, accepts it. Jordan’s death has made her even less capable, in fact, of speaking to the point. She is wary – uncertain – of words. She can’t forget how others’ questions and comments piled up between her competing anxieties over Jordan’s body and his soul. He wasn’t baptized, not interested either, and some people had asked – directly or by implication – “Do you think he’s in hell?” As for his body, or lack of it, they’d asked questions like “Was he eaten by fish?”
She’d come to think of him as safe and whole, but once she’d said, “There’s nothing you can ask or say we haven’t thought ourselves.” She was disgusted with herself then that she’d given even that much away. Why not just let people stew in their stupid sentences?
But Gord has never lost his faith in words. He reads the dictionary, tests himself with word games on the computer, loves to play Scrabble.
“Regular,” he’s musing now. “It’s a good seven-letter word.”
“But there’s no letter worth more than one, is there?” she teases. “Not many points in that.”
“Well the ‘g’ is two, the rest are one’s, but don’t forget there’s a 50-point premium if you put them all down at once.” He pulls Lillian close. “Enough to win the game,” he says.
The next day, they drive back, east across the Island, stopping, as they always have, for a late lunch in Port Alberni. They listen to music as they travel, CDs that happen to be in the car – Johnny Cash in his best-of album, Fauré’s Requiem. They pick up groceries and office supplies in Nanaimo; they catch the evening ferry.
On the last stretch, from the mainland port through the Fraser Valley to Abbotsford, there’s no music, no conversation, only intermittent rain for their separate reveries. Lillian feels as if she’s coasting, still downhill but nearly finished now, like shushing to rest in the snow after a breakneck toboggan ride.
She decides she won’t tell anyone else that the annual ritual to Long Beach has run its course. She couldn’t bear to hear, “So you’re over it?” Over, under, in, between, at, and through: these are simply prepositions, gestures in space. She inhabits them all and their borders are fluid. Survival is embrace. It’s also indifference.
They reach the turn-off to their city. Lillian thinks of their community, of their church, sometimes consoling and sometimes claustrophobic through a decade’s sorrow, of this place so far from Long Beach once and now so close. The fault line aches, but this is home. Where she and Gord raised their sons, where Jordan lived with them.
And now it’s raining hard. On the windshield are the sounds she loves – rain’s drumming and the swish of the wipers, like echoes of mountain waterfalls.
“Next year,” she suddenly says, “let’s go the other direction.”
Gord’s reply is a murmur, indistinct. Lillian glances at him, sees he’s in his Sunday evening state, already absorbed in the Monday of work. She’ll have to bring it up again, another time.
They could go by her mother’s family home on the arid flats of southern Alberta; by her father’s family farm near the Trans-Canada Highway in Saskatchewan. Then on to Manitoba, to Winnipeg where she grew up.
Gone that far, they might as well go further. To Ontario, where Gord’s family lived until they moved to B.C. For that matter, they might as well drive all the way to the Maritimes, to Halifax, to Pier 21. She’s heard you can look at the records of immigrants who arrived by sea. The names of her grandparents will all be there. What did they feel, Lillian wonders, landing? Once on shore, was the ocean still a danger for them to remember?
This story first appeared in Ruminate, 2008/2009 Winter Issue #10.
Dora Dueck’s novel This Hidden Thing was shortlisted for the Margaret Laurence Award for Fiction and won the McNally Robinson Book of the Year at the Manitoba Book Awards this spring. She served as interim editor of the MB Herald in 2009.