Just Below The Surface


You are not to blame. Five words which paralyze you with guilt and fill you with unease. Words can hold you captive at the clemency of the all-powerful one who holds the potential to set you free. Five words which isolated appear insignificant, but when strung together can change someone’s life. What if that life is your own? What if the one demanding a ransom is you?

My brother was nineteen when our father died. Prior to the day that forever changed our lives, we were that family, the one others described as close, tight-knit, almost perfect. We danced in our underwear Saturday mornings to the sounds of Celia Cruz as we cleaned the house. The Queen of Salsa’s exuberant enjoyment of life was contagious. Her hit song “La Vida Es Un Carnaval” filled our souls as we filled mop buckets, proving Latin America’s anthem stretched far beyond its borders. Saturday nights were game night. Monopoly, card games, and a bilingual version of Scrabble were always in the rotation. My mom’s Sesame Street English lessons could always being counted on for playing a doozie that had us laughing until we cried. The day my father died, the laughter died with him. It opened a floodgate of tears I thought might drown us all.

Survival came as it often does for those who have lost a loved one, but survival doesn’t always translate to living. Coping with loss is a deeply personal and singular experience. Each of us went through the stages of grief on our own schedule as we traveled from denial to anger to acceptance, sometimes circling back to a prior stage. My brother spent much time in denial even during my father’s four month battle with cancer so it came as no surprise when he settled into that stage of the grieving process. I can’t recall the precise moment he moved out of denial and began to toggle between anger and depression. I do recall when he finally settled on depression.

My brother seems to welcome the peace just below the water’s surface, that space where you can hear the muffled sounds of life above you. He appears content not to break the barrier. The reality that hovers above sea level one he would rather hold his breath for. He’s been treading water for years, allowing himself to come up briefly whether out of curiosity or to take a much needed breath before submerging himself once more.

We used to play a game in the pool when we were kids. We called it Rescue Mission. My brother would pretend to be stranded in the middle of a stormy sea. I would create waves from my position in the pool and wait for the distress cue. Then, I would swim out to him while he pretended to drown, arms flailing, crying for help before his mop of brown hair went under only to resurface a few seconds later. I would stretch my arm out to him, inching ever closer until he placed his hand in mine. Only then could I look away and fix my eyes on the edge of the pool, my only focus the mission of pulling him to safety. As our fingers gripped the pool’s tiled border, we would yell, “Rescue mission complete!”

Through the years, I’ve held out my hand in hopes of rescuing my brother once more. Just when I think I’ve reached him, the presence of his absence leaves me winded.

Hours before my dad died, I watched my brother as he quietly left my parent’s bedroom where our big Cuban family had gathered around my father’s bed. My dad was the youngest of eleven. The tiny room was crowded with relatives, tears, and prayers. I thought my brother just needed some air and went in search of him. I found him sitting in the car and climbed into the passenger seat. I’m not certain how long we sat there in uncomfortable silence before I heard my voice.

“We need to go back in there. He doesn’t have much time left.”

I was stunned when he responded, “I never called work so I need to go in today.”

Maybe my fear of being sucked into his denial made me forge ahead with a litany of reasons why he needed to suck it up and walk back into that house with me. Perhaps, it was the lure of the calm indifference I saw on his face and my longing for it that propelled me out of the enclosed space. I waited for what seemed like an eternity until he finally joined me. I grabbed his hand before entering the house, squeezed it with a reassurance I didn’t possess then or now.

I persuaded him to stay and watch our dad take his final breath when all he wanted was to run from the tragedy unfolding before us. I implored him to consider the regret he might live with if he walked away. Ironically, the weight of my own regret now pulls me under as I consider a different outcome. Every “what if” that holds me hostage is reminiscent of our childhood rescue missions. Except now we both need saving and the water’s edge is nowhere in sight.

I’ve written about this topic in the past, but this particular post was written for the Yeah Write Non-Fiction Super Challenge. Participants had 48 hours to complete a personal essay on “Discomfort” with a 1,000 word limit.

Half of the participants made it to Round 2 . I was selected! Stay tuned for the next entry!



6 thoughts on “Just Below The Surface

  1. Oh friend, this was breathtakingly beautiful. Heartbreaking. Your words paint such a vivid picture of grief and depression and the struggle of loss and the pulling in and stretching toward loved ones in the confines of such a tragedy. I’m SO glad this piece is in the next round. I have confidence it WILL win.

  2. You are so good at creating an environment, a feeling, “the presence of his absence” wow. Such an evocative piece. Loss is permanent, I always think of it like a radioactive material that has a half-life, and never disappears entirely,

  3. Your description of that place where depressed people live, under the surface and *just* out of reach, is phenomenal. For me, though, the sad truths at the end are what really hit. The realizations come in waves. Totally works. A stellar piece.

  4. Oops hit the wrong key!! Darn! Cont’d: to stay below the surface as you so eloquently put it. To me it’s like an alcoholic who doesn’t seek treatment until they want to seek treatment.

    I sincerely hope your brother doesn’t wait as long as I did to get help. All the best to you.

  5. Well done. You have described the feelings of depression very well. I know because I have lived with Major Depressive and Anxiety Disorder for 50 years. Yes, 5-0. I was hospitalized at 15 and have lived with recurring bouts since then. It took me until the age of 65 to realize I needed something other than living through (if you can call it living) another bout. Thanks to a wife who has stuck by me for 46 years, a great Family Physician and the help of a great Psychologist, I’m now better. Those of us who live it, don’t see it and it’s oh so easy to saty belwo the surface as you so eleq

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