I never went to summer camp as a kid.
Instead, my siblings and I would pack our life’s belongings into an old, two-tone brown Suburban (back before the dawn of the minivan, when cars that size were still considered embarrassing ) and headed to the tiny, seaside village an hour away that would eventually become my parents’ year-round home.
Our house was “rustic.” We would open the doors at the start of June, to a stale, dampish smell and a variety of critters that had made the unheated building their home for the winter.
The house was walking distance to a beach where my mom would parade us each morning to play in the water with kids who are now lifelong friends. At midday, it was a sandy, barefoot walk home for lunch and naps for littlest siblings.
In the afternoon we rode bikes to swimming or sailing lessons taught by teens who were also our evening babysitters. For three months we’d keep a small footprint, largely allowed to roam as far as our bikes could take us as long as we checked in for dinner.
My family kept a fourteen-foot wooden skiff under the deck for the winter. Before it could be sailed it needed to be hauled out, put up on blocks, stripped, sanded, repainted and varnished. The process took a few days and everybody was expected, and mostly liked to help.
I want to tell you I love these memories. My dad singing along to the small, camp radio, which he did. My siblings wrapping small blocks of wood with sandpaper, scratching along to the beat of the music.
But I found it terrifying.
The boat, which had a name (though I can’t remember it now, oddly) felt like an old friend. An old friend that was literally being stripped down to its base layers, no protection, diminished in size, no hope of floating — right before my eyes.
I can’t tell you how often I find myself thinking about that boat these days.
Its been over seven months since my mom died. I’m seven months up on the blocks, not sure if I should expect a varnish layer anytime soon.
I’ve had all the therapy, I’ve been exercising, avoiding alcohol, meditating, journaling, and eating mostly healthy (sometimes Oreos are the only relief a girl has left) and I still regularly reach out to the wall to steady myself from the earthquaking sensation of the loss of her.
There is one stretch of road on the carpool run, where I almost always pull over into the waves of grief until they pass and it’s safe to drive again.
It happens every single day.
And I’m not writing this for sympathy, empathy or compassion — though those are all so loving and welcome. I’m writing it because it’s true, and you wouldn’t know it to look at me.
I’m writing because I am not the only one. There is a woman right now, covering her sobs in the bathroom. She wakes up at 3 am without fail every night and can’t fall back to sleep. This is the only time she can cry in private and she is reading this right now.
Hello honey, I see you.
For the longest time, my phrase was, “I just don’t know how to BE anymore.” How to navigate life without my protective layers. How to navigate the world without the safe harbor that was my mom.
These days my phrase is “this is what’s happening.”
I’ve found some handrails. I’m still a wife, a mother, a sister, a therapist. I still love Ben Platt with something akin to a mental illness, and BBC cop shows with a shocking level of violence. But apparently, I write now (which is odd since I barely recall the rules of grammar). Apparently, unvarnished, this is part of how I am learning to be.
I’m also part of a subset of the population, that is actually not a subset at all. People navigating life, in active grief. Actively, stripping down life as we knew it because there is no life as we knew it anymore. We are actually just mostly everyone.
I quit sailing at age eleven. I never made it to the skiff class. Some kids loved the sensation of harnessing the wind with intention and speed. To me, it felt wildly out of control — more terror, less adventure.
Same is still true, but I’m in the water anyhow. And I’m not sure the varnish is even there, never mind dry.
But where I come from, sailors are rarely ever truly alone. They are surrounded by fishing boats, kayakers, gleaming day cruisers with big masts, but mostly use their motors, swimmers, and friends waving on the shoreline. We haul each other’s boats to high ground in a hurricane and aren’t afraid to call the coast guard if need be.
And for now, this is me, in the 4 am boat waving to you in the 3 am boat, and you on the shoreline.
The water is still heartbreakingly beautiful, isn’t it?