Wednesday, Dec. 04, 2002, 2:40 AM

Drowning



You know, it's a terrible feeling, the feeling of not being needed. Especially when you have been laboring under the false impression of being needed, respected and appreciated. I don't think I will be able to find the words. This is how it must have felt to be stoned to death as a witch. In Salem, Massachusetts only one person was killed for being a witch. It was a man, and he was not burned at the stake. He was placed on the ground with a board on top of him (I believe it was a door) and they piled stones on top of the board until the air was crushed from his lungs and he suffocated. I feel as if a giant weight has been thrust upon my chest and labor as I might to breathe I can't seem to find enough room for the air. I can't seem to shake the feeling that the sun has been eclipsed from my life. I'm certain that the cold weather is being brought about by my mood. This is so hard.

What happened to those fall days of college when the sun burst from the azure sky, streamed through the windows and burned against the back of my neck in the first class of the morning? The feeling that I was so full as to be bursting with life, certain that if I pricked my finger life would drip out in golden gobs and erupt into flowers upon hitting the floor. That feeling that inevitably led my feet away from the second class of the day and off the path to my car. Ah, my faithful chariot. What fabulous times we have had, you and I. How many tens of thousands of miles have we traversed together? How fast have we raced through life? Yes, everything is better when I settle behind the wheel. The seat is inviting and accepting. The wheel is solid and responsive. The slightest pressure accelerates us and propels us to whatever destination we have chosen, or have yet to choose. Those golden afternoons with the wind swirling about, dissipating the stagnant dust of cloistered halls and stuffy minds. So many roads. So many possibilities. So much time.

I used to keep a spare set of warm weather and cold weather clothes in my car, as well as a bathing suit, towel, sleeping bag and tent. On many occasions I had come to use one, several, or all.

This seems to be helping. The weight is lifting; the pressure lessening. I best not stop now.

So many adventures and stories that I am certain I have already forgotten some. Most of them started with the keys to my car. Like the time we stole a fifty-pound flour bag full of day-old donuts from behind a Dunkin-Donuts. It seems that pigs like donuts, and the owner had decreed that every night as the new donuts came into being, whatever donuts remained were to be placed out back for pickup by a local pig farmer. I found this out while making love to a girl who worked behind the counter filling coffee cups and enduring the flirtations of old men, most of whom were unemployed steel mill workers. We made love on Easter morning after she pulled a late shift the previous Saturday evening. My roommate at the time had gone off to the college radio station, for which I was a manager, to play music for us to listen to, and to make commentary on our actions for the whole listening audience to hear.

Or the time several of us piled into a friend's four-wheel drive vehicle and he had allowed me to drive. The afternoon was eventful and culminated with us on top of a hill in some back road adjacent to a strip mine. After narrowly avoiding death by a dump truck with tires larger than our vehicle we stood upon the top of a recently mined hill entire devoid of life. Just then the sun set behind the next ridge plunging the sky into a brilliant gold. The gold faded to orange and the bellies of the clouds were painted purple. Subtly the color drained from the clouds until they stood dark against the fiery red that rimmed the hills for half the heavens. Stars pierced the maroon sheet of color left by the dying of the sun's light and we slowly filed back into the car, holding our arms round our bodies to keep the cold at bay. None of talked for the twenty-minute ride home. Tom still has a lump of coal from that hill, sitting on his desk at work, to this day.

And who could forget the yearly trips to a remote cave in the Pennsylvania countryside where a groups of us would go spelunking and disturbing bats who had recently returned to roost for their long winter nap. The spontaneous trips to the beach, seven hours at breakneck speeds from home. My drive around the country where I camped in the Black Hills of South Dakota and saw for the first time the stars of the Milky Way with my naked eyes; in a hollow Redwood stump in Northern California after ordering pizza to the camp site; in the desert outside of Los Vegas after a night of casino hopping; in the painted desert of Arizona with the memory of the Grand Canyon working it's humbling effects upon my sense of size and impermanence; and in the bayou of Louisiana where the mosquitoes were rumored to carry off infants and Volkswagen beetles.

Far too many memories and stories to begin to reiterate. Too many diners where the waitresses call you 'hon' regardless of age or gender. Too many small towns that perpetuated the cliché of America. There is so much to tell that I doubt there will ever be time enough.

I have one more story for you tonight, dear diary. A story from my youth that took place slightly longer than half my life ago.

Our hero was fourteen years old. He had gone with his family to visit his grandfather in North Carolina who was dying of cancer. The grandfather had been in World War II. His grandfather had fought the Germans in the battle of the Bulge. His grandfather had three times had purple hearts pinned to the lapel of his uniform, twice been presented with bronze stars, and twice been pronounced missing and presumed killed in action. When he returned home to his wife he returned to school, began a family, worked his way from the bottom to the top of a large corporation that was eventually purchased and owned by Japanese interests (the irony of war and industry), raised two boys and bought a house along the sound in North Carolina where he retired. His grandfather had endured all the hardships of life and war to ultimately be consumed from within by his own body. His health, his pride and his hope slowly eroded with his body and bones.

It had been told to our hero that his grandfather was sick. It had been explained that the disease was debilitating. It had been presented that he was bed-ridden and was not likely to be able to interact as usual. It wasn't enough. Nothing could have prepared him for the truth of cancer. Two years later it still confounded him as he stood beside the bed and watched his grandfather die. Twelve years after that he was still helpless when he would face the same adversary as he stood beside the bed of his father who was dying the same way. But that is the future, and those are other tales, and the present was his grandfather lying in bed next to a table miraculously supporting the weight of dozens of prescription bottles half full of medications in every color and shape.

North Carolina has a series of islands that run more or less parallel to the coast for the length of the entire state that borders the shore. The waves exhaust themselves upon these islands and the water fills the space between them and the mainland known as the sound. The sound is similar to a bay or lagoon that you might find behind a protective barrier reef. The water is relatively calm and there is an abundance of sea life. Since the sound is essentially a flooded plain the depth at high tide is not usually deeper than that of a man's chest, except for one channel that is regularly dredged for boats that draft low in the water. The grandfather had a house, built on piers like giant stilts, which bordered the sound, and he had boats, nets, fishing equipment, lawn chairs and all the other paraphernalia that accompanies a life adjacent to the ocean. For the seven years prior to this particular trip the boy had vacationed at this house, earning a respect for the ocean, the salt air, the creatures of the coastal region and a quiet life. Many nights had been passed sitting upon the deck or on the sand counting the seconds between the flashes of the lighthouse beacon on the island some three miles across the watery expanse.

His grandfather was dying, and although he could no longer enforce them as such in his present condition, there were still rules that had been set for family and other visitors. One evening when the rest of the family had decided to go out for dinner our hero had volunteered to stay behind to stay with his grandfather. Well his grandfather was in some pain that night and could be heard occasionally to let a moan escape his lips as he moved from one uncomfortable position to another. It was torturous for our hero to sit in the house and listen. It was worse still on the seventh offer to help in some way when his grandfather had told him that there was nothing he could do to help other than bring the rifle from the closet and put him out of his misery. His grandfather's eyes had not wavered behind the truth and sincerity of that comment and it was too much for our young hero to bear. He ran from house as fast as he could. He bolted into the water not sure what to do other than get as far away as possible. He broke the first rule of the house by taking the little rowboat out into the sound alone. Even as he tugged at the knot mooring the small craft to the pier he knew that this was foolish. He broke the second rule by not taking a life jacket.

He rowed until his arms and back and chest burned. He rowed until the large white house was no more than a speck along the green ribbon of the shore. He rowed until the shore and the islands appeared to be the same distance from him in either direction, and then he took the small anchor in his hand and threw it over the side. The boy sat for some time crying until he could no longer be certain if the small vessel was rocking from the swells of the sea or the waves of his sobbing. He was as far away from the world as he could get and still the feeling would not lessen, so he stood up and threw himself over the side of the boat.

There was the immediate shock of the cool water, and then there was silence. His eyes were closed and the noise in his head faded as quickly as the light. He was momentarily surprised when he hadn't immediately struck bottom with his feet, but the thought quickly evaporated with the rest of the world. He was suspended in perfect silence and perfect darkness and perfect weightlessness. It boggles my mind that people will go to expensive shops that offer sensory deprivation chambers, and pay inordinate sums of money for each minute when all they need to do is jump off a ship at sea, or take a long walk off a pier. The only sense he had was that of the subtle variation in water temperature as it caressed his exposed skin suspended below the surface of the world. After what seemed like hours he could hear the bubbles escaping from his nose and slowly rising to the surface. He became aware of the beating of his heart. He became aware of the pressure on his ears and chest. And he finally became aware of the fact that he still had not touched bottom.

It had been a struggle to get back to the surface before all of the air had escaped his lungs. It was even more difficult to tread water while he was coughing and gagging on the liquid he had involuntarily gulped in those first frantic breaths. After regaining a hold on the life-preserving process of breathing normally our hero, his eyes still closed, began to reach in every direction for the boat. After several unsuccessful attempts to lodge upon the hardened hull of the small craft he wiped the water from his eyes. What he saw was water. The swells of the sea, only three feet or so in height that day, seemed much large when viewed from the trough between swells. When he bobbed to the top of one he was afforded a fleeting view of his surroundings. The shore was to his right, the islands to his left, and the boat was nowhere in sight.

The sick realization of his situation crashed upon him and nearly broke him. He was at least a mile from land in every direction, he had unwittingly navigated his vessel into the deep waters of the channel and he suddenly understood that the rope attached to the anchor was too short to reach bottom, leaving it hanging in the water as flaccid and useless as the Pope's penis. Slowly he turned himself around so that the shore was to his left. Through the rise and fall of the water he scanned the horizon, and there, gleaming white in the near distance, was the boat. It's hard to judge distances when you are neck deep in undulating water. The boat may have been as close as forty feet, or it may be a hundred, but one things was certain, it was moving farther away. And the swimming began.

And it was at this point the first of two epiphanies were thrust upon our hero. For his entire life he had heard the saying "water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink." He laughed at the irony of his enlightenment and choked in the process. The boat did not seem to be gaining any distance on him, nor he on it. The swimming continued as the sun cast its final rays upon the tops of the trees. The swimming continued as the sky slowly darkened in the east. The boat continued to drift and his hopes began to flounder. In a resurgence of determination our hero swam harder, kicking and pulling at the water, only to be rewarded by a mouthful of salty water. The coughing fit was particularly hard to recover from after swimming so hard. He had gotten turned around somehow, lost his bearings and lost sight of the boat. He struggled to stay afloat and as his head slipped beneath the water for the second time that day he was granted enlightenment again. The dark sky, the dark water, the inability to see or touch anything, the insignificance of his being. For one brief moment, to the extent that any person can, he understood infinity. Our hero was beginning to meditate upon this as his breath and life ebbed away when he was disturbed by the passing of some creature, a fish perhaps, that chose a course too near his leg. And then the hypnotic spell of nothingness was furiously shattered. Somehow he kicked himself to the surface, forced himself into the world of life, forced himself to look for the boat. He could see lights in the windows of houses along the shore off to his left, and then he caught sight of the craft. It seemed to be swinging around so that the bow was facing him. It almost appeared to be turning and coming back for him. His mind reeled with this impossibility until her realized that they had drifted out of the channel and the anchor had finally taken hold and the current that had propelled them both was steadily dragging him forward still.

He navigated back to the house. None of the adults had yet returned from their excursion. He wandered into his grandfather's bedroom, dripping tears of saltwater from his garments and eyes. The old man looking up from his bed at our hero who stood soaked upon the carpet. The boy walked to the side of the bed, knelt down and placed his head upon the bed next to his grandfather's dying body. The old man put his arm around the boy's shoulders and said, "you're not supposed to leave this Earth before me, and I'm not leaving for a while. I suspect you're old enough to take the boat out on your own again, if you so chose. And I suspect you now understand that you can never really appreciate anything until you believe you've lost everything."

Perhaps I could find the words after all. I suppose I can begin to appreciate everything all over again now.