The Salt In Our Veins
In second grade our teacher taught us that more than 50 percent of the human body was made out of water. I stared down with widened eyes at my tiny hands, my nail bitten fingers, and the beauty mark on my wrist with wonder. After school, I went home and watched from the back porch window as the hungry tide broke onto the Sound’s shore.
The next day, our teacher taught us that our blood was laced with salt. I crossed my ankles beneath my desk and bit the inside of my lip as hard as I could until I felt the salty iron upon my rolling tongue. That night, I opened my bedroom window, closed my eyes, and took a deep breath.
Day after day, year after year, the water pulled me in closer. But it wasn’t until I was much older that I realized we were born with an aquatic attraction, a deep-rooted desire to dive beneath the waves and forever walk along the shoreline. We were born with salt in our veins.
Three-hundred-and-twenty-eight years earlier, Isaac Newton introduced the first evolutionary theory to rationalize why humans were spellbound to the water. Since then, others have grappled with the Darwinian theory of oceanic beauty, but it wasn’t until 27 years before I was born that President John F. Kennedy was able to harness the words others had failed to articulate.
“We are tied to the ocean,” he said. “And when we go back to the sea—whether it is to sail or to watch it—we are going back from whence we came.”
Like dock-tethered boats, each member of my family was born and raised on Long Island, from walkups in Queens and cul-de-sacs in Melville to finally settling on Cedar Beach’s shore. It was there I took my first steps, survived swimming lessons, and began an endless seashell collection. Summers were spent with my grandmother and little brother in tow. We walked the muddy clay banks in search of hermit crab homes, fed greedy seagulls stale bread, and braved August’s storms together.
It was after I finished my first semester of college when the doctors diagnosed her with ALS. Each time I came home for Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Spring Break, I watched her sit for a little longer, eat a little less, and squeeze my hand a little weaker. When the day came to say goodbye, her eyes would shine with the gray-green of the ocean, growing wetter every time. She was a silent fighter, the kind of woman who hid worry behind smiles and laughed through fear.
I was 20 years old, having just finished my second year of school, when I pulled into the rocky driveway on that fateful afternoon. May’s breeze was blowing from the beach-side porch to greet me. I remember with sharp clarity by the way the air smelt I knew it was low tide, but there was also something else in the air. At first I thought it was a clean scent, but as I slowly walked towards the house with my sunglasses dropped to the bottom of my nose, a suitcase in one hand and a bag of laundry in the other, I realized the sterility in the air was not the welcome-home perfume I had longed for.
I dropped my bags at the foot of the stairs and watched the white curtains dance in the opened window. It’s happening, I realized. I smoothed my hair back and began my ascent up the longest flight of stairs I’ve ever climbed. She’s dying. I bit my lip and pushed the glass door open and stared down the hall at the door on the left.
I need to get out of here, I thought. I was suffocating in the inevitability of death, drowning in it.
A breeze went through me, and with a narrowed gaze I looked past it all and walked quietly to the glass door. Reality clicked inside of me and I frantically grabbed the handle, opening it just enough for me to slip out. That’s when I ran.
I ran so wildly down the old wooden steps onto the shoreline, stumbling over rocks and forlorn driftwood along the way—the warm wind playing with my hair, tugging at my body, carrying me away. All I could see was the darkness of the water in front of me, bathed in light. I was so empty of lung from the anticipation built up inside I began to cry. Tears forcefully burst from me and a pain shot up from my chest as I whispered, “Why?”
I stood very still, the water lapping at my ankles. My eyes widened as I reached my hands above my head, ripping my shirt and shorts off with a sad and zealous desperation. My body tightened and my knees collided into the wet sand and rocks.
Bent over with hands buried in the water, I yelled at the horizon through tears that mixed with the sea and I called the world a thief. “You told me I could keep her!” I screamed until my throat was raw.
It was then I realized I had no control left as every piece of me lived in those moments of pain. I threw my crumbling body into the enveloping white caps. Cries could be heard from all echoes of the waves as they crashed and drowned me. I searched in the water for something. To this day I still don’t know what answers I thought I could find.
“Why?” I cried again. The question shook my insides and I submerged myself to muffle my screams.
Bubbles of white water filled my lungs as I sucked in the sweet liquid salt, letting myself sink deeper into the water and ripping myself out again. Cries turned into laughs that turned crazy, nervous and delirious. I could feel my salt slicked body move through the water both free and burdened by the gravity of the situation. I held my head under, drowning myself again and again.
It was madness.
When I finally dragged my tired body from the water, the sun had transformed the colors of the sky into evening. I left my clothes and let the wind carry me back to our tiny beach house where she lay.
Inside, everything was still and silent save for the breaking tide and the aching of old floorboards. I stopped to look down at my mother who was asleep on the dark green couch. In those years as caretaker, her life was strung together with stealing half hour naps, carrying one-sided conversations, and tying loose ends, all done with a kind and patient hand. She was her mother’s keeper.
Naked and dripping, I walked into the bedroom soaked and shivering to the bone. I stood at the foot of her hospital bed until she opened her eyes. Blinking, she stared. I looked at her the way I had a thousand times before. She nodded slightly and began to spill her muted tears. I went to her. “You can’t leave me,” I cried quietly. “You can’t. Promise me, Grandma. Promise me you won’t leave.”
Her eyebrows came together in a hopeless expression of pain—whether it was physical or emotional, I will never know. I grabbed her hand and kissed it, searching her eyes for the answers I begged from the water. I knelt there as my long dark hair dripped over my shoulders, wetting the top of her crisp, white cotton blanket. I need to get her into the water. I looked over her broken body. She needs to remember where she came from. She was born with salt in her veins.