“I taste the salt water on my lips, and taking a mouthful, rinse some bitterness from my mouth; but still, some remains. She had kept the cancer a secret from us for a while, I don’t know how long exactly…”


by troy dockins



DRIFT: Definition: 1) to move slowly, especially as a result of outside forces, with no control over direction. 2) something driven, propelled, or urged along or drawn together as if by a natural agency. 3) a helter-skelter accumulation. 4) a general underlying design or tendency. 5) a gradual shift in attitude, opinion, or position. 6) an aimless course. 7) to wander from a set course or point of attention. 8) the gradual departure from an intended course due to external influences. 9) the act or motion of drifting. 10) a force which impels or drives. 11) an overpowering influence or impulse.12) anything driven at random. 13) to stray.

She had died that morning, just before 9am. My wife dropped me off a few miles south of the house, I kissed her. “Have fun”, she said; “Fun?”, I thought. Hard to even fathom after those last few days, but I smiled and said I would. As the sun slowly sinks, I paddle into the water, trying to wash the feeling of sorrow from myself. It had been a relatively short illness, only 11 months or so, but with all the expected intensity of pain that 35 years of 2 plus packs a day smoking will bring to lung cancer. The waves are hip to chest high, but have the power and consistency that requires some effort to work my way through the whitewater. She had been in alot of pain in the last week, her morphine drip helped her separate from the pain, but also pretty much removed all lucidity. The wave in front of me feathers as I paddle towards it, it crests and I break through, it popping out the back and finally outside.

She had said she didn’t want to put us through it. Who would? But when the time came there was no question, she needed us and we came. Staying for longer and longer stretches of time; as time for her grew shorter and shorter. I see the first wave move shoreward and quickly paddle up the beach to get into a better position. Two quick strokes gets me into it and I drop into the chest high left. The speed leaves something behind, a little piece of sadness or anger, I’m not sure which. The wave hits a small backwash off the cliff and pops up, throwing me off balance and off the board. She had had a cough a long time before they found out that the cancer was there, they tried all the meds and chemo, but really there wasn’t much hope. I come up from the water, grab my board and paddle back out, angling north through the peaks.

My wife made her bread pudding just days before she died; her last meal as it turned out. I taste the salt water on my lips, and taking a mouthful, rinse some bitterness from my mouth; but still, some remains. She had kept the cancer a secret from us for a while, I don’t know how long exactly. I see another wave and move towards it; turn, stroke, pop up and drop into another left, cross stepping to the nose and tucking into the wave. It closes out and I pop out the back. She had said she didn’t want to take away from the happiness of the baby that was coming, she said that that was what was important. Who could argue. I paddle back out, long strokes. Pushing through the white wash, I sit up and wait. It was sad knowing she wouldn’t see the baby, we’d hoped she’d make it, but it quickly became clear there was little chance. I look towards shore, the cliffs move to my right as I drift north.

The sea rises and falls under me, pulsing relentlessly. It’s a relaxing feeling sitting in the water alone. The sun drops lower in the sky as I catch wave after wave, always going left. She had gotten progressively weaker as the disease grew ever stronger, more of the tumor, less of her. The waves build as I surf, clean small tubes to start, but now consistently overhead. She had become almost translucent those last few days. Steadily growing smaller, her body gave off heat as it fought against the inevitable end. She would talk in her drugged slumber, all the memories coming to the surface, trying to find a way out. I see a wave coming, I paddle hard and pop to my feet. Arcing into the bottom turn, I do what is by now a habit. Climbing and dropping along the face of the wave, gaining speed with each movement. The wave suddenly walls off and dumps as I kick out over the top, feeling the spray off the lip land on me in a shower of dull needles.

She had put up a brave front those first few months, maybe she really believed she’d get better. Drifting along outside the break, I gaze at the horizon, looking for what’s coming. She was always positive. She never felt sorry for herself; at least, never in front of us. She would apologize and we would shake our heads, protesting. The board below me is hard and smooth, floating on the soft and equally smooth water. She had used up her body by the end, there was nothing left. I watch the waves rise and fall, catching the ones I want, I head further north with every left. Sometimes I would sit and watch her sleep, watch the breath leave her body, see the pause and wonder if that was it. Paddling for a feathering peak, I ride it section after section into the shallows, jumping off into knee deep water. I look up the beach, I have a ways to go yet. Getting a running start, I lunge forward onto the board and skim through the shallows and start my paddle back out.

She sometimes would wince from sudden pain and we’d try to comfort her with words. But she wasn’t even there really. The only comfort was the drip of morphine, she’d smile when it hit. The waves are being held up nicely by a steady offshore evening breeze that lets you slide ever further back, flirting with the seething, grasping foam ball just behind, always trying to stay just a step ahead of it. Those morphine smiles of hers always made me happy, she had been dosing pretty hard those last weeks, I’m sure she died a full-blown junkie. I smile at the thought of it, the absurdity of how it ended. I drop into another perfectly pitching left. Crouching down, I pick my line, jamming my arm deep into the face of the wave to slow me down. I see the curtain start to pass, covering me. I pull my arm out and race the falling sheet of water. A junkie, a mother; an addict, a sister; a victim, a daughter…she was a lot of things to a lot of people. The wave passes me as I drift deeper, I know I won’t make it out. But it doesn’t really matter, trying to make it is what counts I guess.

When the end did come, we all cried. It wasn’t really a surprise though, so there wasn’t that hard grief that comes with something sudden. It was more of a relief really, we were all ready for her to go. The waves are consistently barreling now, every wave holding the promise of a tube, a place to look out from in a fading light. I have come a long way up the beach from where I started, almost two miles of surfing only lefts, it beats walking. Her sister had handled all the calls, we just sat with her awhile until they came for the body. We cleaned up the room, our routine suddenly disrupted. We didn’t really have a plan for what came next. I can see the end of the cliffs now to the north, it’s within reach. A peak rears up before me, feathering in a now stiff offshore wind. I turn quickly, sink the board and pop into the wave with a single stroke. I’m too late, and the wave throws out powerfully, taking me with it in a liquid explosion of light and dark, a wet fury. I relax, letting my body sense which way is up. When I surface…the board floats beside me, surprisingly placid after its recent turbulent experience.

The room felt strangely empty, the bed was made; the paraphrenalia of her illness sat somehow out of place now on her bedstand. The morning light slid between the slits of the drawn curtains, bright shafts of light beaming in. Waves pass beneath me now, tempting me; but I wait, drifting and looking for the right one. I see it now, a sliver darkening on the horizon off to my right. A wave breaks beside me and I paddle to the tip of the slowly dissipating pyramid of foam that rests on the surface. I’d had no expectation of how I would feel once it was over, I still don’t know if I was feeling or just acting. I rose and opened the drapes, and let the light fall through the tree leaves outside, dappling the long-darkened room. I sit straight on my board and look, the wave is closer now…I turn towards shore and stroke slowly, looking back at the swell that rises behind me. Paddling faster now, I feel the wave lift me and propel me towards shore. I stand, the wave holding up in the face of the wind, I turn and slide silently to the left, leaving the still unbroken peak behind…listening, listening. I hear the crash and thunder of the wave collapsing on itself.

I sat in her room later that day, the final tasks and chores are over and done. Everyone is tired, my wife sleeps in the room next door. The telephone rings a bit less often now, thankfully. I lay down on my mother’s empty bed; I don’t remember falling asleep. Racing along the wave’s face, it grows steeper and faster as the end of my ride nears. Crouching down, I grasp the edge of the board as the wave covers me. Finally, I break through the thin sheet of the lip and drift into the shallows. I’m almost home now. I paddle out for one more wave. When I woke, the light had changed, I’d slept almost fours hours. Hearing voices downstairs, I sat up, I looked out the window. The sun hung in the sky and the view across the lagoon showed lines of waves breaking in the distance. I thought to myself, “I think I’ll go surfing”.


Originally published:
Issue Thirty-One
June 2004


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