Tell me when the ocean will begin

1 / Rip Tide: A Prelude
Figure 1. “Anatomical figures on a cliff by the sea, their heads illuminated by light. Line engraving and etching by B. Probst.” 1735. Wellcome Museum.

The light in the room is a dim, dark blue. Shadowy people crowd around the bed where I am lying naked on my side, but they are without definition: a busy, blurry hoard.

I don’t feel my skin. I’m not aware that I am crying, though I have been almost continuously since the morning before, when my midwife said that if I went home, my baby would die.

Raising the mask to my mouth, I try hard to fill my lungs even as my body involuntarily compresses and tightens. Then, I have to let the mask fall away since the rubber around its edges only allows air to pass into my body, not out.

Raise to inhale, lower to exhale. Repeat and repeat and repeat. But there’s no change. The pain of the tide rippling through me — electric, uncontrolled — doesn’t recede with the inhalation of the gas. My work becomes still heavier: in addition to the waves engulfing me, I can’t quite catch my breath.

I get my movements mixed up and exhale into the mask and it is as though I am trying to add air to an already full chamber — it goes nowhere, or backwards down my throat. It cannot leave my mouth. In those moments I’m drowning and, though the medium is my own breath, I feel I’m deep in black water.

There are stories so ordinary and widespread that they quietly permeate every human life. They are tales we learn passively, through mention and missive, of water and floods, fire and disaster, of disease and illness and death.

The stories’ cultural commonality makes fear of what they portend rarer than it probably should be, until one or more of their subjects comes into lived life and reinstructs in human smallness.

Wildfire in Northern California is one such teacher, as, every year now, we must live through fire season with bags packed, always ready to evacuate. Flooded streets and subways, buildings that give way in the night — these happenings remind us that we are not in control. That technology and systems fail. That safety is an illusion.

Childbirth, too, can renew this old human awareness of frailty, of our passing nature. I know this from recent experience.

2 / Cyclical Torrent: thirteen months earlier
Figure 2. “The War in Egypt: hoisting invalids on board a hospital ship. Wood engraving.” Date unknown. Wellcome Museum.

In May of 2020, my grandmother — my last living grandparent — died. When my spouse, David, and I showed up at her assisted living complex in Troy, Michigan, there was still snow on the ground. The cold loss I felt came from more than just my grandmother’s absence. The Detroit suburb itself felt bereft — the streets wide and slick, the landscape brown and untended. If I had been from there, I probably would have recognized this as spring, but it was bleaker than any California winter I’d experienced.

Stepping inside her apartment, we found half a cup of coffee, the shower full of cheap shampoos, the fridge still stocked with Tupperware containers of food that no one was going to eat. Our task was to sort through the small mountains of paper and dollar-store jewelry that she had accumulated during her eight decades.

Our work began right away. We sifted through her belongings, placing most things into black garbage bags to be donated, and saving some others — old photos and letters, a notebook containing simple accounting of her monthly bills calculated randomly across its pages, and hand-embroidered handkerchiefs.

Grief and the sorting of her possessions tired us. When we went to prepare for bed that first night, David pulled down the left side of the covers and found that someone — probably my cousin or uncle — had pulled the blanket up over a large brown spot on the sheets. A strong body smell — of perfume, stale laundry, excrement — wafted up from the bed.

This must have been where she had had her stroke and soiled the sheets before falling to the floor. I felt my throat close, and my eyes burn as they filled. She had been alone for hours.

We searched for but couldn’t find replacement sheets. Even if we had found them, the problem would have remained: the stain had soaked through to the mattress. There was nothing to be done, and nowhere else to sleep. David covered the stain back over with the blanket and, pulling me into his side, told me he would sleep there.

That moment conjured the old realization: now she’s gone, my time for knowing her has run out. But the writer and physician Atul Gawande suggests that we ask questions of our dead. That there is more to be discovered, even when the person can no longer physically answer back. Though he means the questions to be asked in the form of autopsy, postmortem inquiry can also be extended to the emotional and ethereal, to things we cannot see.

So, I asked questions of my grandmother’s life there, as we sifted through the remnants of it, and I continued to query after returning home, as I was forced to add others to the group of addressees.

My dead haven’t all died. In the months after my grandmother’s rainy funeral, my birth family fell apart. Fights erupted over differences that had long been there, unconfronted: views on Trump, Black Lives Matter, vaccines, and the pandemic. Siblings blocked other siblings on social media. My mother stopped speaking to me. Though I’m the middle of nine children, and this should mean always being part of a group, I found myself quite suddenly and shockingly alone. It was the final razing of an already shaky structure.

Querying my grandmother and her life brought a still resolve about my future that I hadn’t previously had. Though she had dealt with the alcoholism, abuse, and neglect of family members, worked in a factory for years, and lost my grandfather a decade and a half before her own death, my grandmother had always been ready with a quick, unoffending joke. She regularly drove her friends and grandchildren around town. When she dressed up for her Bingo group’s Halloween party, she chose a cow costume and won the contest. In short, she didn’t wait for others to change before living and loving her life. I didn’t want to wait anymore either. The point, I began to see as the losses accumulated behind me, was to make the choice to take a chance.

So, back home in California, with the awareness of my gutted family life ever present, I made an appointment with my obstetrician to get my IUD removed. Two days after my doctor pulled out the little copper T and set it, still a little bloody, on the blue-papered tray, I got pregnant.

3 / The Present Flood
Figure 3. “Geography: eroded rocks in the sea. Coloured wood engraving.” C. Whymper. Wellcome Collection.

Just after my child was born, I thought that the sadness I was experiencing was due to the way the birth had gone. Low amniotic fluid. Fetal intolerance of labor. Stress and stress and stress. My baby was taken out of my body with a knife and swept to a see-through bassinet for inspection. It was a full ten minutes before I saw my child’s face. When they* were finally placed on my chest, I was too shaky from the drugs flowing into my system through the epidural catheter in my spine to hold on to their tiny body.

I don’t remember being taken back to the room where I would have given birth, and I don’t remember breastfeeding them there for the first time, though there is a photo with a timestamp showing that this happened. This forgetting is a common source of sadness after C-section, and for a while it was mine, too.

At home, my body healed both too quickly and too slowly. My belly was gone and too soon, to the outside world, I must have looked quite like the person I’d been before.

But the line where I was cut open still stood up red and shiny right beneath the place where I zipped my pants. The adhesive from the tape that had held catheters, monitors, and IV in place sat in persistent patches across my body, blackened with lint from my sweats and t-shirts.

Each day in the shower, my grief was Homer’s wine-dark sea, spreading to the limits of the bathroom.

During my first attempts to pick open the knot of my sadness, I thought these quick bodily changes and my absence of memories of our birth were the reasons my heart was broken, despite my healthy baby. But as I gathered up the days between my various presents and the static, murky “then,” my understanding of exactly what I felt I had lost was changed. My child’s difficult birth drew out the many other deaths in my life — the many people and relationships that I couldn’t resurrect. It brought to my awareness the very small amount of control I had over the family I had brought into existence by creating my child. I could not mend my first family with the birth of a second. I had not bought myself safety, but greater than ever vulnerability.

With them napping on my chest, their head close to mine, their tongue working inside their mouth and smiles flashing across their dreaming face, I realize again and again that they will die. That this is the reality of what I have made — that they are something that will live briefly, hopefully beyond the span of my own life, and then die, as we all will.

If I tried to protect my child from all risk, they would grow up fearful, and I knew from experience that fear inhibits love and the ability to engage with the world in joy. We are not safer when we are afraid. The fear itself offers no protection.

4 / Coda: Without Inventing a Life Preserver
Figure 4. “An écorché seal: five figures showing the musculature of the body, with details of the muscles of the face.” Lithograph by C. Berjeau, 1872. Wellcome Collection.

In her poem, “Diving into the Wreck,” Adrienne Rich has her speaker intone: “there is no one / to tell me when the ocean / will begin.” When I first read this poem aloud to myself sometime in 2016 while taking a poetry class just because, I hadn’t yet lost my brother-in-law to overdose, my graduate school mentor to heart attack, my grandmother to stroke. My family, though troublesome to me, still felt like a coherent whole. And so, I didn’t quite understand what “the wreck” might be, or why an experienced diver would need someone else to tell them where their medium of travel — the water — began.

I know now that the water is engulfing sadness. The boat ladder from which the speaker must descend is the bridge between the “normal” world, calm and unaware of that which lies beneath, and the other. The wreck is the thing lost — the source of grief — drawing the mind like a circling explorer, again and again. The equipment is insufficient because you can never, no matter how many times you’ve made the trip, be prepared for what you’ll find below.

I was lucky: My expedition wasn’t doomed from the start as some birth adventurers find theirs to be. But there is still no one to tell me when the next ocean will rise up and swallow me whole. You might call it postpartum depression. But that doesn’t help me understand what this period of life is or means.

Grief is one of the skeletal structures of life, always there but not felt until something breaks. As I labored that late spring night, I wore my grandmother’s earrings. In that dark passage, I met her— myself engaged in birthing and she in dying — both of us knowing that this was the end of life as we had known it.

It is not a hormonal condition to grapple with the glimmering mortality of love and life.

My story is not the one I thought I would tell, of pushing my baby out and pulling them up onto my chest. I never had control over the process. That was taken the moment I learned my baby might not survive. But I know, even before that, I had only the illusion of it. That is one point of the common tales of destruction and loss — to remind of frailty and vulnerability. Another is just to tell of the endings that visit us all. I am grateful to share a beginning, though difficult, with my child.

I birthed my baby as ports birth ships — with the help of a large crew. We don’t know yet the voyage we’ve begun, though that horizon, always, looms.

*My spouse and I refer to our child using they/them pronouns.

SARAH HOENICKE FLORES studied creative writing (BA) at Mills College in Oakland, California, and journalism (MJ) at UC Berkeley. They are now working on their PhD in Comparative Literature at UC Irvine. They write about many different subjects — from inequities in the maternal healthcare system to Jesus Christ’s Instagram account — for a range of publications, including the New York Times, Literary Hub, and many others.