Where Does This Ocean Go?
In Hawai`i, we lived close to the beach and would go daily. Mama would load our bags up, and we’d walk over. It was about a 10 minute walk from our front door to the beach. I was swimming in a one piece bathing suit, bright purple, with goggles, and a doughnut to float on top.
On New Year’s Eve, I got caught in a riptide. My goggles were flung off. I took in a breath and inhaled water. I closed my eyes. I wondered if I was dying.
I was seven years old.
The darkness set in until my father brought me to the shore. After a few whacks and the purging of sea water, I was brought back to life.
Dad laughed, partially in relief. He walked me to where I was caught. The water was shallow. I remember seeing only darkness because I didn’t have my goggles, and I remember the blackened lava rocks, the fish and bright coral, far below the surface.
The body remembers trauma.
Science has shown that some of our phobias can be from genetics, our ancestry reminding us of the dangers of life through blood and DNA. Leaving an imprint, much like how their influence brings out genetic traits in our body. Epigenetics. A relatively new field of research, how scientists look at the next generation of Holocaust survivors and see that they’ve learned stressors that they may not have seen personally. Mice were trained to fear certain foods or scents, and their descendants carry the same anxiety that was trained into their forefather.
I know that my body carries these lessons as I tremble, looking into the ocean, seeing the darkness from safety, high above. I know they ring true, because the ocean is where my family rests, and where I am lured to, despite the destruction it brings.
As a child of the Pacific Rim, we’ve seen everything. Lands succumb to the ocean, eroding into the deep. My grandmother’s farm fell victim to a tsunami. So did the dozens of fish who have the misfortune to land in backyards during a tsunami.
Dad once showed me how the water would recede to levels I thought weren’t possible to warn us. Mother Nature does not show her fury without caution. Fish would be gasping for water to breathe. Seaweed would dry out. Once, I saw a lone puffer inflated, stranded on the exposed shores. The next step is the cross sea, a formation of waves that looked like boxes… that was the sure sign of what was to come.
Anthropologically, our people had always been near the ocean. We sacrificed our belongings to tide over the Gods, prayer for them to not devastate our lands with the surging waters to destroy what we had, yet again.
The strength of humanity is amazing, though; it’s in us to rebuild what has been broken down.
I have three brothers. Had? I’m always confused with how to address the fact that one of my brothers is dead.
His name was the character for healthy. Was it a prayer, a curse, or a cross to bear? My Asian name means sweet night, and I’ve always been a night owl, so in my case it was serendipitous.
He was born too soon. The doctor took the sonar like device and the screen magically depicted him within his haven, floating. This was most of our appointments until the last one. When he was brought to the shores of life, he slipped away shortly afterwards. His birth and death certificates wear the same date.
My childhood dog’s ashes joined his on the family altar within a few months. We would pray, pet, hug their urns.
Their ashes were taken on a car ride throughout Hawai`i. They had a nice journey unto the shores, escorted lovingly within the baby blanket that carried my brother’s physical form for a brief moment. My mother trembled, opening the blanket and the urns, letting the bags of ashes out.
What was once my dog became a union with what was once my little brother, so that my dog could guard my little brother as she did when my mother was pregnant, sleeping gently next to her tummy, and consoling my mother as she went through morning sickness.
That time, as they prepared to lie both of them to rest eternally, I could see it in her eyes that she hoped this would settle her mourning, postpartum depression. Father took the bag, and his surfboard. He was the escort to take them to their final resting place within the deep, dark sea.
After a certain point, the waves died down. There was a calm in the ocean.
That was when he decided to let go. His son’s remains gently fluttered downward, alongside the dog. He murmured an amida (prayer), and gently let go.
A boy and his dog now roam within the depths of the ocean, free as can be.
The last time I was in Hawai`i, I accomplish one of the only things I’ve wanted to do: To see the new dawn, and to purge the last year of my life away. I shower, cleansing myself thoroughly, as I pinch some salt to rub into my back side within the shower; purification through abrasion, and protection for my soul as taught to us by the priestesses.
I catch an Uber to Magic Island and bring incense and offerings, as it is New Year’s Day. I go through the motions of my religion, something I’ve inherited from my family.
The skies turn just a bit brighter, the dark blue that mirrored my hair to dark turquoise and purples that hang in the skies above. I try to find a point to lay my belongings down. I slip and cut my foot on the volcanic rocks that formulate Magic Island.
I carry on with my mission, wincing in pain.
I missed my family. It feels nice, reuniting with the sand between my feet. Some sort of stability, despite the fact that most of the beaches in Hawai`i import their sand to fight the erosion caused by global warming with the rising waters.
The waves crash. The mollusks cling for life as the birds wake up, as the tide comes in. Life continues on whether you like it or not. At this point, you cannot see into the waters. Thalassophobia, I think to myself. Fear of the darkness within the waters.
I wonder if there’s a term for the fear of darkness within me.
I recite some of the childhood prayers that were taught to me at the shrines as a child, when my family would go for blessings to bring in good tidings for the new year. I haven’t gone to the shrines in forever. My connections to my motherland, Japan, wither when I’m not actively participating in it.
The darkest, murky blues with twinkling stars, where there isn’t any light pollution like the mainland, gently give way to the blush of the waking sun.
To the mauka, or mountain side, lies the moon.
To the makai, or ocean side, the sun rises.
I’m caught in the twilight and I’m overwhelmed.
I was ready to jump and succumb to the depth of the ocean, reuniting once more with the people I loved, but this inkling of hope that I’m left with is a sign.
I let my feet rest within the water as I let myself let go of the burdens my body carried, one teardrop at a time.
I look up at the first daylight of this year, and am freed.
A.T. is an Asian-American person raised in Hawai`i. They are a translator, anthropologist, and storyteller. A.T. has been previously published in Pacific Review. This is their second publication.