By Lisa Werhan
I wear the mottled flesh of a person too long submerged in the agitated waters of tribulation, fingertips colorless and puckered, my lips the unmistakable blue-gray of a corpse. No, no, I exaggerate. My lips are naturally pale except for my blanched-white scar, lower lip, y-shaped, the one spot that I keep biting, compulsively; this feels like the slap and sting of the surf that erodes and eats away the ash-gray sand. I can’t not nibble at it, gently, gingerly, the faint tang of blood washed away by salty saliva.
I linger over the dinner dishes a bit too long, scrubbing the tiniest bits of detritus from the supper skillet, scratching away metallic flakes with my too-short nails. Yes, yes, I obsess. I am too long at the sink, all that water having gone to my head; my brain swirls with foamy thoughts, my-child-is-suffering, that slosh haphazardly, forming angry eddies which drain away into the abyss of my broken heart. All things lead to my broken heart these days.
I dry my hands and slump onto the sofa, landing in an awkward position. One bare foot rests on the floor and the other dangles, suspended between cushion and carpet, surrender and tension, neither here nor there. I am too tired to rearrange myself. I crave a catnap, a respite from my thoughts, a breather from my child’s incurable brain disorder. But the jagged shards of my heart poke at me, keep me from falling into that beautiful place of unconsciousness, unknowingness, blissful unawareness. Instead, I plunge into my compulsive habit of picking at my bleeding scabs, examining my excruciating wound called motherhood, also called in-over-my-head, and often, summed up as that’s-life. Whatever I call it, this gash remains open, angry and inflamed, the pain relentless and piercing.
I chase sleep. I am desperate for a temporary amnesty from my heartache, from mother-of-suffering-child, for a momentary slide into that glorious space of emotional reprieve before the evening routine is required of me, before my family needs me and my puckered hands. But my mind flirts with a tide of bad tidings. I gnaw at my lip; abrade my scar. I can’t not confront this sea-sized tribulation. I wade out a little farther with each successive strike and crash. I leave behind the shores of useless self-help affirmations, the engulfing dunes littered with empty encouragements and mindless meditations that predictably evaporate and stink of dead fish rotting in the noontime sun. My distraught mind and mottled flesh are again fully submerged in the waters, struggling, in-over-my-head, alone; I fear I will grow gills and forget how to breathe on land, how to take a breath and laugh over tea with my friends.
The marine energy of this tempest, that’s-life, smashes up against me, a human barrier of delicate flesh and scarred pale lips and a gaping fractured heart. My body is a seawall, a breakwater against the turbulence. I do not cower before this show of aquatic power; I do not allow these destructive tides to saturate my soul. My body deflects this negative energy while my mind focuses on possibility to help me withstand today’s tides. I imagine someday: when I will no longer have to navigate the rough waters of my child’s medical needs, when the sea playground will loll smooth before me; someday I will picnic with my healthy child and happy family on the sunshiny beach. And we will laugh and laugh and my agony will no longer swallow me up.
I do not daydream for long because I know what follows the vain exhibition of the tribulation-tempest; I know because I swim in these waters daily now, now that I am mother-of-suffering-child, now that my heart is ripped wide open. I forsake the ease of denial and dive into this sea to deepen my soul-strength. I am the mother-anchor for my family, a stubborn bulwark, and I want to parent by example. Not just please-and-thank-you, and this is how you do the supper dishes, but life lessons in how to tear down terror and feel joy despite the sea-weather. So I swim towards what comes next – the storm surge, a crushing series of waves, and it comes without mercy.
The first massive wave breaks over my head, across my shoulders, drenching me. I am wrenched off my feet and hauled beneath the beguiling silky surface, dragged under between hypnotizing undulations. Beneath the water, my ears fill with the thunder of the undercurrent, my nose stings, my sinuses are assaulted by salt. Another wrathful wave rocks me. I am pitched and pummeled, my eyes screwed tight, strands of seaweed shackle my legs. I do not hand over my dream of mother-of-healthy-child to the storm; I battle. I refuse to flail in the tide pools of anguish forever, so I will fight to my death for this dream. My lungs sear, and I thrash my way to the surface of this ordeal for a blessed breath. I steal two. Again the waves wrestle me to the ice-cold sea floor, all things lead to my broken heart, the inky insipid domain of foolishness, the dream graveyard.
I surface. I bob erratically to and fro, disoriented but still buoyant. The slashed flesh of my heart leaks blood and I am aware of my wounded condition. I spy another wave approaching: a huge swell, a soul-crusher. As I tread water, I hear well wishers call from the shore: the familiar caress of my family, my lifeline. My husband and two children throw kisses, a lifejacket that the waves toss out of reach. My family calls again, insistent that I return to them. My puckered hands are needed; it’s close to bedtime, that’s-life. For now, for them, I acquiesce. I stop struggling against the tribulation-tempest and somersault into the shallow surf. My family pulls me onto the beach as I wrestle my thoughts away from the sea, the dream-devourer. I am overcome with love, salve for my heart scabs, as my children tug on my leg still dangling from the sofa.
I return to the sandy shores of home and the gritty evening routine of motherhood, of homework, medicines, and bedtime. I mop up my child’s tears spilled over another harrowing day, and then, out over the waves and towards the hazy horizon, I fling fervent prayers for our sunshiny picnic dream, for a healthy tomorrow. Finally, I sink into bed; this watery trial exhausts me. I climb into the abyss of my pain and wring out my waterlogged lungs; I nibble my lip-scar and wait for sleep. It won’t be long. And I will get my fleeting break from the tribulation-breakers and the constant heart-swell of my-child-is-suffering. I will spend my temporary amnesty dreaming of whole-heartedness.
Lisa Marie Werhan lives and writes in western Massachusetts. She is a 2016 grad from Bay Path University’s Creative Nonfiction MFA program. Her writing has appeared in Meat For Tea:The Valley Review and online at Santa Fe Writers Project. lisamariewerhan.com