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I sit on the dock alone, my legs hanging off the edge. The water laps at my feet like a hungry dog, like it is trying to pull me into its gaping black mouth. I am strong though I always was the stubborn one, like a piece too big to swallow refusing to go down. It’s the first time I’ve come back home since my mother’s death. I figured it would be too painful. I was right. I half expected my mother to be here, sitting on the dock, staring into the glossy water. Everything is empty though, lonely and badly in need of repair. I feel isolated, but safe, here on the dock. Maybe that’s how she was feeling all those years. I realize I never knew my mother and as I gaze into the silvery water, my childhood stares back. I taste salt in my mouth. I am crying. I realize how many holes there were in my mother’s heart. I realize how much she needed my love and how I could never give it. I realize today, years later, when I returned home, and everything is flooding back to me. I’m drowning in my grief like she was, without me even noticing.
My father was like a train. You always heard him coming long before he arrived – felt the ground tremble, felt the excitement. My father was a large man. He wasn’t fat, but he was tall. Standing at 6’ 5”, I never had trouble finding him in a crowd. I’ll never forget my father’s smell. It was a mixture of soil, the dark brown, rich kind, sweat, and Juicyfruit gum. I never did know what he did for work, all I remember is his coming home. The doorway was smaller than him, so he would always duck his head into the hallway, like he was peeking into a doll house. He’d sit in the green plaid armchair and I’d curl up in his lap, my arms around his neck and I’d listen to his chest rumble as he spoke. My mother would come prancing in, with coffee and the newspaper. She’d sit on the leg opposite me and kiss him passionately until, giggling, I’d push them apart. My parents were in love, and they were equals in the game of marriage. On Friday nights we’d have company, little parties, and I’d sneak out when I was supposed to be in bed. I would be lightly scolded but I always ended up entertaining the guests, reciting a poem or singing “The Sailor and the Sea,” my father’s favorite song. Then I’d fall asleep on the couch and would be carried to bed. They worked in the garden on Saturdays or did projects trying to make my mother’s dreamhouse, they said. On Sundays we took trips, zipping through the country in my father’s periwinkle Studebaker.
I loved the routine of things, the comfort and security. One day my father didn’t came home. I waited for his voice at the front door and I waited on the porch swing staring down the empty road until dusk settled in. I waited in the kitchen where I sat and watched my normally disorganized mother fold and refold our napkins. I watched her dust the seashells we had collected on the beach, lining them up from largest to smallest. The phone rang at last, piercing the awkward silence that hung between us. Silence that pushed on my ears and made me want to scream. She dashed to the phone. “Ed?” she practically screamed. She grasped the receiver with painfully hopeful hands. I could hear the mumbling of a man’s voice on the other end. For a moment I thought it was my father, delayed at work, but my mother’s face fell. She dropped the phone and sank to the floor. The day my father died my life turned black and white. It has never returned to color.
I always thought therapy was a waste of money and time. When I was 17, right after my mother died, the children’s house I was living in sent me to a therapist. They said it would be good for me to have someone to talk to after such a traumatic experience. I tried to tell her my mother died ten years ago, along with my father. She didn’t understand. Instead, two times a week I sat in her air-conditioned room and listened to her tell me about my grief. The woman whose words were as fake as her plastic, red nails. When I got older, I went through one rocky relationship after another and my friends referred me to their therapists whom they claimed to have turned their lives around.
“Just give them a try,” they whined, and I did. They were all the same. They pretended to know too much about you without you telling. They hid behind their diplomas and big words.
My mother died when I was seventeen, I watched her go. Drowned, the police said, no
questions asked. I knew better. I had walked to the beach that morning. She was there just as she had been every day since my father’s funeral. It was as if she had given up on me, stopped caring. I was afraid of her. The children at my school called her crazy. She was. At night she would run up and down the stairway calling “ED, ED, ED,” as if she expected him to answer. Then she would fall sobbing on one of the steps, tearing her nightgown with trembling fingers. I would stand on the balcony watching her for hours. During the day she would stomp around the house, wailing or moaning. She covered the windows with blankets so no light could enter. She smashed all the mirrors, each time shrieking, “Here is to seven more years.” Actually it was really, “Here is to f—king seven more years.”
It was a month after my father’s death that she started going down to the dock. My father built it on a Saturday. He’d sanded it for hours, “Until it was smooth as a baby’s bottom,” he’d said, and laughed his deep, throaty laugh. I helped him stain it, a deep mahogany. When it was dry, the two of us sat on the end. He held me and I felt as if nothing would ever hurt me. You know that safe, perfect feeling you get when you’re in your father’s arms. My mother joined us and we watched the sun set. I remember the colors were vibrant that evening, reflected in the water, like the sky was a canvas and the colors were painted in long, sweeping brushstrokes. My mother claimed the dock as her own. Each day in the morning she would do yoga on a blanket spread over the boards. Salute to the sun, she called it, and she was beautiful. But when my father was gone, the yoga stopped. Instead she sat staring blandly into the distance. I would call her name but she never heard me. I would have to walk down and touch her shoulder. The nanny we hired was paid for with social security checks; she took care of me. She made me meals and tucked me in at night but there was no love there. I began to call my mother by her first name. She wasn’t Mommy anymore. Just a woman who slept in my house at night, and sat on dock in the day. There was no anger in her, no sadness. Her face was blank and unfeeling – dead. Soon her existence became part of my daily routine, like brushing my teeth. There, but automatic.
Ten years after my father’s death, I was seventeen. I went to school, got good grades, and had a few friends. One day at lunch I went down to the dock to call her up. She turned to me and I saw a light in her face I hadn’t seen for years. She took my hands and smiled.
“I’ll tell your father you said hello,” she breathed. Taking off her nightgown, she slipped into the water. Confused, I waited for her to come up, but all I could make out in the murky depths was my own reflection. I waited by the water for two days, long after emergency crews had left, expecting her to surface. I waited until a social worker came and led me away.
My toes are getting numb, and it’s getting dark. My past I had tried so hard to forget has engulfed me completely. “Good-bye, Mommy,” I say and walk up the path to my childhood home. I never realized how many holes my mother had in her heart, and how many she passed on to me.