Part IV: The Waters That Divide Us
When I was five, my father—no doubt exhausted from days of dragging a small child around over-stimulating amusement parks—introduced what he called “hotel days,” in which we would only do activities connected to our hotel. Paramount amongst the itinerary was swimming in the hotel pool. I’ve loved swimming since I was a toddler, so an entire uninterrupted day of swimming in a pool covered in tile Mickey Mouse glyphs was tantamount to heaven.
I never knew when hotel days were coming, but I was always delighted by the announcement the night before. As he was putting me to bed, my father would rub his neck, no doubt sore from hoisting me onto his shoulders so I could see parades the day before. “Kiddo, I think tomorrow’s a hotel day.” And I would squeal, because it meant swimming, and because it meant a full day with my dad.
On hotel days, we would wake up, eat the definitely-not-complimentary hotel breakfast, change into bathing suits, and sprint through the hotel to the pool. Once poolside, my father would read dime-store science fiction novels on a lounge chair while I swam. I would frantically call out to him every few minutes.
“Daddy! Look! I can do a flip!”
I bobbed in the water, frog-kicking, desperately trying to do something flip-like.
My dad lowered his book slightly. I could only see his eyes, and the upper half of the frames of his glasses. “Looks great, kiddo!”
I never swam competitively, but I swam often. Every chance I got. After my father died, and after the shock of the loss gave way to the metronomic rhythms of grief, I joined a gym to get access to the pool. Though the facility was old, and the pool itself was only wide enough for 3 lap lanes, forcing myself into the water—into the weightlessness, into the muscle-memory of keeping myself afloat—was how I began to re-root myself. But more than re-rooting, it was how I fought to retain a sense of personhood, of here-ness. Bereft of my nuclear family at the age of 23, my edges blurred; that I was still a human being physically in the world seemed impossible without my parents. But being in the water, feeling the crisp chlorine blue push against every muscle reminded me that I was here, whether I liked it or not.
This connection is not mine alone. Humans understand the importance of water both physically and cognitively, and that understanding reveals itself in human belief systems. Every major religious and mythological tradition has a pivotal connection to water. Water is often both the vehicle of purification and sanctification, while also archetypal of the abyss, the deep navy of drowning, the color we see when we close our eyes to fall asleep.
In Mesopotamian mythology, the primordial goddess Tiamat, a vast and chaotic ocean who threatened the other gods with her power, symbolized this duality. It is only after she is slain—cleaved in two by blessed spear—that order emerges. The gash in her body becomes land. Humans inhabit the wound.
During the months of planning leading to the trip, Kristi and I agreed going to a water park was non-negotiable. Disney World has two water parks: Blizzard Beach and Typhoon Lagoon. Blizzard Beach—which is modeled after a posh ski resort—was built after the annual trips with my father had ended. However, Typhoon Lagoon—with its kitschy pirate theme—had been a shared destination for both Kristi and me on our childhood trips. Though we flirted briefly with the idea of trying Blizzard Beach for about two minutes, we both confessed we wanted to go back to Typhoon Lagoon, to the azure playground we remembered from our childhoods.
“They have *awesome* bars there!” Krsiti assured me on the shuttle bus to the park.
“It’s 9:30 in the morning,” I reminded her.
Kristi laughed. “Your point being?”
Typhoon Lagoon is centered around an artificial wave pool, which oscillates between small choppy waves and large tsunami-like waves that come crashing down onto eager patrons every 3 minutes. A pirate ship sits marooned atop a jutting rock at one edge of the pool. Waterslides, small pools, concession stands, gift shops, changing rooms, and other ways to spend all your money absentmindedly orbit the main wave pool. A lazy river encircles the entire park. Riders can hop onto available inner tubes and float from one section of the park to another.
My dad was extremely protective of me, but he also loved anything resembling a thrill ride, which meant we often snuck onto rides that were “not suitable for children.” While he was bored by the choppy waves in the park’s flagship pool, he was enthralled by the immense waves that would knock him down, drag him under, and toss him back up.
When I was six—having completed a series of swim classes at my mother’s health club—he decided I was more than qualified to get knocked down by 8 foot tall waves. He led me into the water, and held my hand until the foghorn sounded, signaling the next wave was about to strike. We watched as the wall of water rose and curled towards us, as the crest frothed and roared. When it hit us, we were tossed forward, then pulled back. We lost our grip on each other’s hands. When I surfaced, I strained to find my father’s face in the sea of water-logged bodies.
Though I couldn’t see him, I heard him, and I swam in the direction of his laughter.
Early sailors charted their courses by stars and stories. Chart-makers would compile detailed information about the oceans: Currents and whirlpools. Rocks and reefs. But the oceans could never be fully mapped. In the places where no one had sailed, they drew monsters: Gilded serpents arcing in and out of the blue.
These charts strike me as the most authentic representations of grief, of the process by which we mark ourselves as directionless in the aftermath of loss. Though I knew where I was in an immediate sense, I felt those unknown oceans at the periphery, the uncertainty of what grief had waiting beneath the waves.
If ritual marks a kind of temporal here-ness, so too must it mark what is still other, what unknowns churn in dark waters. Both Kristi and I had affirmed a kind of directionlessness in the aftermath of our own losses, but that affirmation doesn’t ensure continual stasis.
Our day at Typhoon Lagoon marked the beginning of the end of our trip. More than half-way done with the vacation we’d used as a beacon in the opaque aftermath of grief, we both knew that in 48 hours, we were going home, going back to the task that awaits after the ritual: Holding “is” and “ought” in conscious tension, and learning to live with the impossibility of the latter.
Styx and Lethe
In Greek mythology, rivers mark both the entry and exit from life. Many are familiar with Styx, the river the dead were ferried across to reach the underworld. Charon, the ferryman, poled his craft across the water, moving souls from one side to the other, from life to death.
But there is also the River Lethe, another division dark and deep between the living and the dead. Before being born, souls would drink from its waters, making them forget everything they knew about their previous lives. It made them forget the experience of being consciousness unmoored from a body.
Though Lethe is the barrier between a kind of spiritual stasis and bodily life, there is something heartbreaking about crossing its threshold, about taking the water into your throat. What so often goes unacknowledged in grief is that recovery necessitates a kind of abandonment, both of what was lost, and of the self that existed before the loss. As we re-enter the world of the living, its rhythms and repetitions do, in time, become metronomic. The patterns of the every-day do not eliminate grief, but they do mitigate the amount of time we spend consciously in it. Though the loss never disappears, we might realize we’ve forgotten that it occurred, even if only for an instant, even if only lost in a moment of rushing to catch a train or being distracted by thunder.
But rarely do we talk about the space where forgetting seems synonymous with betrayal, when not actively engaging in the work of grief feels unnatural and fraught. And it feels this way not only because there a desire to retain our loved ones in conscious memory as a method of keeping them rooted in the world of the living, but also because moving on means leaving something sizable of the self behind.
Water, Water Everywhere
Kristi treated our arrival at Typhoon Lagoon like a military operation. Our goal was to get from the bus to the changing rooms, change into our swimsuits as quickly as possible, shove our things into a locker, and then run—literally—to the only cabana in the park that allowed smoking at the bar.
The bus pulled into the park. We positioned ourselves by the back door. As soon as it opened, we bolted out of the bus, breezed through the ticket window, and dashed into the park. By 10:15 am, we were seated at a thatched cabana bar. By 10:17, Kristi had ordered a Pina Colada and ordered me something called a Typhoon Tilly” When the drinks arrived, mine was the same blue as the chlorinated water around me.
“Trust me,” Kristi said, sipping her drink, “This is the only way to do Typhoon Lagoon.”
The foghorn blew, signaling the beginning of the giant waves. I looked down at my drink, and stirred the slushy mixture with the park’s token surfboard swizzle stick. “If I drown, I’m blaming you.”
About 3 cocktails in, Kristi and I decided we should actually do something at the water park besides drink. We stood up, and immediately realized that careening down water slides would be an extremely bad idea. Kristi motioned towards a small opening in the palm trees. “Let’s do the lazy river! Then, we’ll hit the slides.”
We giggled all the way to the lazy river, hoping the ennui-laden adolescent lifeguards didn’t care that we were obviously tipsy. We stepped into the water, and grabbed the first free inner tubes we could. Kristi got onto hers immediately. I managed to flip myself over twice before hoisting myself onto the tube. Safe and secure, the tubes floated down the river, past tropical flowers and man-made waterfalls. We put our heads back, and let the sun wash over us.
We stayed silent on the river, occasionally running our hands through the cool waters, occasionally dripping handfuls of water over our legs.
As the tubes carried us through caves and lush gardens, I thought about the return, about the divisions we draw during grief. Though ritual is significant and vital, the territory between the culminations of the ritual we’d made and the “spontaneous end” of mourning loomed on the other side of our return flight. Like those old sea charts, we would have to wade into the waters with the monsters. Like the Greeks, we would have to traverse our rivers: Styx to confront the realities of the loss; Lethe to re-enter the world of the living.
And it was in a yellow tube on a lazy river that I realized Lethe scared me the most.
Miraculously, Kristi and I sobered up enough to move onto the waterslides. We spent the day hopping from slide to slide, alternating between thrill rides and return trips to the cabana, where our lovely waitress began giving us free drinks we definitely didn’t need but happily took.
Around 4, a thunderstorm began to roll in, and Kristi suggested we head back to the hotel. I stared at the wave pool, downed the last of my 8th Typhoon Tilly, and told her that I had to do one last thing.
She glanced at the wave pool as the foghorn sounded. “That’s all you.”
I walked into the wave pool as almost everyone else was exiting. Indigo clouds swarmed above the cerulean waters. I waded in up to my shoulders and faced the far end of the lagoon. The wave began to rise and roll forward, a familiar swell of water walls and white crests. And I remembered what my father had taught me about jumping into the waves, that if you time it right, the wall of water will carry you with it.
The remaining brave souls around me laughed and squealed. I instinctively clutched my right hand, expecting to meet my father’s left.
When the wave was just a few feet from me, I jumped up, and slammed into the water-wall. I hit the timing perfectly, and stayed—suspended—in the wave for the next few seconds, flying and drowning simultaneously. It crashed, tossing me down into the lagoon before the undertow pulled me back towards the deep.
It’s easy to inject symbolism into water. It’s life-sustaining, and at times life-saving. It’s also the constant, undeniable abyss, the darkness of drowning, the color we see before we fall asleep. Every religious and mythological tradition draws upon this duality because we know its truth in the very chemical make-up of our bodies.
I returned to the cabana soaking wet. My hair hung in strings down my back. Kristi had ordered us another round of drinks. We sat and sipped as the thunderstorm churned, as lightning arced like serpents in the sky above.
Maybe this is the incarnation of the monsters in the deep we encounter in the aftermath of loss: The serpents we confront aren’t external monsters, but the guilt-laden moments when we confront our own instances of feeling alive, the first glimmers that somewhere, on the other side of the map, we will feel something other than the lung-crush of drowning. That Styx and Lethe are, perhaps, the same body of water.
Meghan Guidry (Harvard University) Meghan is a Masters of Divinity candidate at Harvard Divinity School, where she studies bioethics, humanist philosophy, end-of-life care, and health policy. Her research focuses on the disconnection between ethics and technologies, assisted suicide, and other cheery subjects. Her interests include creative writing, swimming, language philosophy, medical sociology, and coffee. You can check out her books at Empty City Press, find her on Facebook, and follow her on Twitter @MeghanGuidry1.