Grief Is an Undertow

Image: Undertow, by Richard Binhammer, cc.

Until a few weeks ago, I was, with relative success, dodging the grief. Apparently, you can’t do that, no matter how many books about bike touring you take out from the library or evening obligations you stack up or even Lynda.com courses you start watching about portrait photography because you’ve convinced yourself that will be some component of your trip as well.

Nope, none of that will quite bury it. At least not for long. So grief overtook me. And it felt like swimming as a kid, your small body understanding for the first time the meaning of the word “undertow.” Sweep went your feet, and down went your middle, and thrash-twist-grasp went your arms. Bob went your head, and you were back up, flailing toward the shore.

Only I didn’t thrash-twist-grab with my arms or try to surface or move shoreward with this sadness. I submerged and looked up through water toward a sky I didn’t know how to reach. And I just floated there. Not that I wished death or anything so dramatic, but simply that I understood I might have to accept a little oxygen deprivation, a little horizontal suspension, as part of this process. My dancer’s feet wouldn’t be on the ground, my legs not in control, my arms useless, for a bit.

I’ve turned down hangs with friends, neglected calling family, taken a morning off of work once just to make a little more space for this demanding new force in my life. Because if I don’t, it will make space for itself some way or another, puddling around my ankles or flooding around my waist as I try to plaster on a smile and ignore the suck at my barely maintained uprightness in front of coworkers or just buying a coffee.

“How are you today?” the barista asks.

“Must you?” I think.

Instead: “I’m well, thanks, how are you?”, in a voice I don’t recognize.

On my best days—rather, in my best hours, since it seems to change as quickly—I sense this is some unavoidable visitor to whom I temporarily must be gracious and by whom I might even grow in strength and wisdom. In my worst hours, I wallow and wither, swim deeper even, toward the undertow, toward the thing robbing me of my accustomed gravity and balance. It is colder there, and sometimes nice to just curl up and fall asleep near a thing like that, so large and foreboding and indifferent to your presence.

One Reply to “Grief Is an Undertow”

  1. Like reading a beautiful, if sometimes heartbreaking poem, Serena. Thank you for sharing your gift of expression with such personal honesty. The image of an undertow is so fitting. Its faceless and conscienceless power; its coming in waves; its twists and turns of one’s body. Yet, as you’ve said, sometimes the best way to fight it is to temporarily curl up within it . . . . Until the wave provides some release and a next chapter is begun. Kick to the surface, kiddo. There is light and fresh air above.

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