In honour of the 12th anniversary of Paul's passing, I've decided to publish an excerpt from the book I wrote last year. The memoir is an exploration of grief, overcoming adversity, processing pain and anger, and finding peace in forgiveness. It's how the death of a man ultimately became the re-birth of a woman. 'Daddy Tattoos' will be available soon on line and in print.
'Taken By the Sea'
Gara Rock, Devon, England, September 2004
You can still see the ghosts. But you can’t see the sense.
Why they let the monkey go and blamed the monkey wrench.
Rocking at The Tea Dance, The Rainmakers
Of course when I look back now, I can see things so clearly. The wind and the ocean are natural co conspirators. The unpredictable duo entered our lives, our future and our consciousness by force. It was indeed as they say, a dark and stormy night and what makes dark and stormy nights so scary is precisely what makes them strangely comforting. I do love the sound of the elements raging outside while I am Protector on the inside. Doors locked. Family fed. Children sleeping. Rain being chased by the wind right up to the windows, throwing itself against the glass, banging loudly to be let in, while ParaMama and I are sat by the fire with a glass of red wine.
‘Batten down the hatches’ my father used to say when he was the Protector of our household in Missouri. I have inherited his bedtime habit of locking the doors and testing handles vigorously, much in the slightly paranoid way that one switches off the iron but turns back one more time to check. It’s the double checking that is most important in this ritual. After firmly rattling the doorknob, he would ceremoniously and vigorously rub his hands together, satisfied that his job to keep us all safe had been performed for the night. I find myself doing this once in a while, so I know the glorious feeling of warmth created by the friction in my hands, that spreads up my arms and all the way to my cheeks, a physiological reward for my protective tenacity.
I am not a movie wife. You know, the kind that wakes with a start by a sound somewhere in the house and nudges her husband to go have a look. Helpless. Afraid. When it comes to the possibility of harm to my children, I am Fearless. I am Mama Machine. I am Boudica, but I will never allow my daughters to fight alongside me. They will be tucked up in bed with hot cocoa and a book.
ParaMama is not para-lysed. My faculties, when tested, are capable of loosening their grip on immobilising fear and without further thought, they and I storm into the unknown ready to tear apart anything that may get to my babies.
My ears never sleep. They are high functioning audibility soldiers, ready at my command to march to the threshold of hearing. Upon first alert, I am quick to investigate anything that dares to bump anywhere near my night. I am certain there is a direct correlate between childbirth and increased auditory perception.
That night was different. I say that now, but I knew it then as well. Belle had been born two years earlier and our family was now complete. The six of us were on our last holiday in England, having made the decision to move back to the States. The beauty of the Southern tip of the country had lured us out of London and down the motorway for many years, usually with friends who were heartily dedicated to the overrated art of camping.
I tried, really I did, but the cold, faithful rain of a typical British summer lies many miles outside my comfort zone of civilised relaxation. Nevertheless, due to monetary reasons or peer pressure to not look so ‘American in need of mod cons’, I have woken many mornings inside the damp reality of sleeping on the ground, to face a day of not being able to stand completely upright while going about my daily tasks.
The rugged coastline snakes along the English Channel from Dorset through Devon twisting its way along Cornwall through Penzance, past Land’s End to St. Ives and back up along the Atlantic.
The first time we were there, Paul and I were shocked by the way the farming fields go right up to the cliff’s edge. Lumpy patchwork quilted fields in shades of yellow, green and reddish-brown look like blankets of salad leaves. Dark spinach, bright romaine, neon endive and mahogany brown radicchio, cut into little squares and triangles, laid end to end and stitched together with thick rows of curly parsley.
The farms of Missouri familiarity were flat and earnestly swollen with corn, soybeans and conservatives. Farmland crept up to the side of the highway where enormous outdoor advertising billboards, 100 feet in the air, stood day and night, whistling and winking, trying to get the attention of the motorists.
When we wanted to go the scenic route from London to the coast, we would take the tedious A303, suffering through endless roundabouts, which made driving a bit like trying to have an adult conversation with a small needy child in the room, just as soon as you are about to get somewhere, you are interrupted and then have to start over again. The payoff usually soothed the frustration, with up close glimpses of lovely thatched roof cottages and the fact that it provided one of the most astonishing drive by viewings in all of England:
You come up over the crest along the Salisbury Plain and there it is on the side of the road like some sort of pre-historic Holiday Inn. Oddly out of place, I always felt like it should be hidden at the end of a long, windy, tree-lined drive, in the middle of a clearing. But, we never tired of the giddy flutter-in-the-tummy feeling upon seeing that amazing monument in this way. It was one of our regular Toto-I-have-a-feeling-we-are-not-in-Kansas-anymore moments.
2004 was a very active Atlantic hurricane season affecting the States and islands in the Caribbean. August had already been battered by Hurricane Charley and Hurricane Frances (ironically, the first and middle name of my fifth and youngest child, who would be born four years later). Two days after Paul’s last birthday on earth, Hurricane Ivan was born and began a murderous rampage that resulted in ninety-two deaths.
Tropical storms and hurricanes are to coastal inhabitants as twisters and tornadoes are to us Midwesterners. Confident that we were safe in England, we watched from the bleacher seats, empathetic but grateful. ParaMama fanned the flies away while we concocted a detailed plan on how, if it were us, we would board up the windows and tether the family together with a long piece of rope so that the angry wind couldn’t separate us.
But just like the wind, the sea cannot be contained. The churning hurricane stirred up the Global Ocean sending concentric waves from the Atlantic, west to the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea and east to the Celtic Sea into the English Channel to the shores of Gara Rock, where we were living out our last holiday.
The foreboding, tempest effect of that night didn’t dawn on me for nearly a decade. The beginning of the end of our family unit. The last vacation. The tumultuous night of rough seas and strange distant knocking sounds was like some sort of seaside Blair Witch Project. In the morning we took the twenty-minute trek down the steep coastal path where sheep clung to bushes, blissfully unaware of their not-so-agile counterparts that lay rotting at the bottom.
When we got to the beach we were astounded. The huge boulders that we had seen season after season, quietly reigning, in what we assumed, were the same locations for many, many years, had been rolled off their thrones, rendering our beloved holiday spot unrecognisable. It was disorienting. Confusing. We couldn’t fathom how powerful the surf must have been while tossing these rock monsters around in a bizarre game of marbles.
We wondered if it was only our perspective that was changed? Maybe the tide line had moved and we couldn’t get our bearings. It reminded me of the snow in Missouri winters and how it alters the shape of everyday objects, a car, a garden gate, a fence, making them rounder and less like themselves. Late at night the frozen powder-covered streets fall silent apart from the sprinkling patter of snowy feathers falling from the sky. The next day, the beautiful white of the streets turns to black slush from traffic. The birth. The death.
In southern England, if you were so inclined, you could walk for eight miles east along the south west coast path, past tall fuchsia foxgloves with stacks of tubular bell shaped blossoms that looked like floral percussion instruments on long sticks. Along the route, you would encounter the legendary pirate coves of local folklore, the striking white lighthouse, faithful guard of Start Point and the ruins of the small fishing village of Hallsands, infamously ‘taken by the sea’ nearly a century earlier.
Once a thriving fishing village, it was destroyed in the winter of 1917 by man’s greed. After years of irresponsible shingle dredging undertaken by a company who had the contract to extend the naval shipyard at Plymouth, the village gradually slipped into the sea, its once-fortifying beach slowly eroded by machines. When we were there you could still see remnants of the stone houses and the old road that ran parallel to the beach.
‘Taken by the sea’ is such an ominously powerful statement, one of those phrases that you have to turn over a few times in your mouth before swallowing an understanding of exactly what it means. We became fascinated by the story of this South Devon tragedy, so we made the short trek to the viewing platform to see what was left of the village.
Craning out from the wooden barrier, observers can glimpse the strong lessons meted out by Mother Nature when she is in one of her moods. The buildings and boats and fishing baskets were replaced with a misty unease that settled in among the remaining broken structures. Brittle clumps of betrayal, hardened with time, clung like barnacles to the cliffside. They would never succumb to the sea.
We tried to take it all in, thinking about the families fleeing to higher ground and the ironically perfect view they then had of their lives being washed away.
Strong waves were partnered in crime with a vicious easterly wind that blew the ocean in, extending its reach, encouraging it to commit atrocities that it normally wouldn’t. The rolling sea stretched in on a bungie cord, breaking off a bit of a building each time, before springing backward and taking with it a wall, a roof and the family chattels of an entire village.
ParaMama chatted with me about how best we could protect the children in this instance, bringing them to safety after packing everything we owned, and holding their hands tightly in the wind. Would they be cold? Would they be frightened? Would we make it to the top in time? She looked away when she answered, so I couldn’t quite hear her. I didn’t ask again because something inside me didn’t want to know.
That night, the night of wind and storms and reverberating hurricanes and boulders rolling on the shore playing shuffleboard, we were mercifully tucked away in a little cottage at the top of Gara Rock, comforted by the illusion that since we couldn’t see the problem, we needn’t fear it. Water and air have no real borders. Neither do people. What happens to one of us, can be felt in some way by all of us. We weren’t being spared, we were being deluded.
Years in the future, the lessons of that night would be discovered. Paul didn’t learn them. The children and I did.
Nature taught us that she is not required to give warnings, but she always does. That the placement of things can completely alter overnight, even though they appear to be immovable. That really, we are all linked together in some way, feeling the ripple effect from far off. That the things we are drawn to, which bring us joy and happiness, can also be the cause of pain and destruction.
That there is no holding back the tide.
Even the wind knows that.