Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
Sailors

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Intensive Care. Through the double glass doors I see my father lying motionless in cubicle five. His head is like a giant, immobile pumpkin, an unnatural orange color. He is swollen with fluid, unrecognizable but for the lima-bean-shaped birthmark above his eyebrow. I remember when I was a child, trying to peel it off like a puffy sticker. During his two weeks of coma, of touch, of go, of whispering into the swollen curve of his ear, "Daddy. It's Susan. Right here," that fleshy bean had been my landmark, my touchstone, my way in to him. I had pressed it lightly, with my finger, like an elevator button, until one day he blinked and woke up.

Such joy in that first blink. His eyes so tiny, peering out from his waterlogged face. The weak grasping of his fingers. The tubes were removed one by one, from his throat, his nose, until I heard his rough whisper. "Hello, Rascal."

A week of official “ICU psychosis” followed, when he was convinced of his imminent appearance on the Johnny Carson show. "My squirrels," he repeated. "They do tricks. For Johnny." He wept in frustration when his cab did not come in time, when the troupe of rodents missed their curtain call. He thought I was his agent, demanded that I call Johnny back and reschedule. I had sobbed along with him, fearing my father was forever lost in a strange madness, a place where he didn't know me. But now he seems to have found his way back. His body, with his bulging calves, his bowling arm, is too weak to move, but his mind is his own, and he calls me by my name.

My mother comes out of his cubicle and collapses heavily onto the vinyl sofa, which whistles sharply under her weight. She snatches up a limp copy of Field and Stream. "You go in. He's got something to tell you."

"Tell me what?" I twitch my eyebrows.

"How should I know?" She sighs and shrugs, not looking up. "He wouldn't tell me."

I push the square button on the wall and both doors hiss open. The room is a maze of windows, walls made of curtain, beeping signals, and brilliant light. His curtain is half drawn. He looks better today. Still puffy, but less yellow.

"Hey, Daddy." I gingerly pick up his hand, careful of the clear pretzel of tubing taped to his vein.

"Hello, Sus. How's my Rascal?"

We make hospital small talk, the details of his day: first taste of Jell-O, the new neurologist, the man in the next cubicle who had shrieked and moaned all night and then expired at dawn. The sound of his voice brings me to tears. I had thought this voice was gone forever.

On his eleventh day of his coma, I slipped into my parents' house and stole the cassette out of their answering machine. Later, I sat with headphones on, weeping over a pile of photographs, listening to him say, "Hello. You've reached the phone of Mas and Kiku. We're not able to answer right now, but if you leave your name and phone number . . ."

Now he fumbles with the controls on the hospital bed, trying to elevate it into a sitting position. I place my thumb over his, and his head rises until it is level with mine. "What did you want to tell me?"

"Mizu, please." He points at the bedside table, a plastic cup with a straw in it, bent in little accordion folds.

I lift it to his mouth and he sips and coughs as water splatters his snowflake gown. "Easy, Daddy."

“I'm such a mess. Can't even drink a glass of water."

"You're better every day. Remember, two weeks ago I couldn't even talk to you . . ."

"I can't remember."

"Maybe that's good." I look down at the white blanket’s waffle pattern. "So?"

"Well, Rascal.” He picks at the bedcover. “You get a lot of time to think when you're just lying around. It got me thinking about things I wanted to say and never did. First thing I want to say, you know already. You know the story. That the day we brought you home from the agency, the day we went to get you, was the happiest day of my life."

"Aw, Dad." It’s true. I have heard it a million times. How they had brought a pink baby blanket as my first gift, and I'd vomited all over it. How they had asked to adopt a Japanese baby more than ten years before. The waiting list that dragged on and on, and finally how they’d been offered me, half-and-half girl, instead. How he couldn't say no. I had heard the story all throughout my childhood, my favorite bedtime story, the story I asked for when I was sick, when I was dozing off in the back of the car.

"But there's another thing."

I look up. His face is rigid, his thick eyebrows quivering. He is struggling. "I need to ask your forgiveness." His voice croaks.

I’m perplexed. My father is the last person I know who has any reason to ask forgiveness. Improbable stories pass through my mind like ticker tape: Incest. Affairs. Lies. He molested me. Somebody else molested me and he knew about it. He's got a girlfriend. He's got ten girlfriends. He's got another hidden family . . . My mind spins and reels, and I clutch the chrome bed railing.

"Tell me," I whisper. “It’s okay. Just tell me.” I stare at a point above his eyes, at the bean-shaped mark.

He winces. "Do you remember the summer you were in high school, when we went to North Carolina, the beach at Kitty Hawk?"

I nod. And what? And you had an affair with the hotel maid? I try to remember. I had bought a kite to fly over the dunes. We had climbed hundreds of stairs inside a lighthouse with spiraling black and white stripes. There had been sailors. I will never forget those sailors in their round white caps. And with the image of those sailors, memory returns . . .

The beach below the kite-flying dunes was covered with fine hot sand and flat, tight waves that hit the shore and pulled back like lengths of rope. I wandered in up to my waist, then dropped down to my knees, watching my brown hands turn pale under the water. I could see my mother sitting on her bamboo mat on a little rise, her black sunglasses obscuring her face. My father took a running dive from the shore and started side-stroking a parallel line to the beach. He was always reminding me of how my mother taught him to swim after they were married, in the choppy waters off Long Island.

At 15, I was lazier than both of them. I didn't like the resistance of ocean water, the tension of the surf, the unpredictable waves that hit me in the face as I came up for breath. I just wanted to float, to be carried along by the salt water. I turned on my back and drifted, letting my hands make jellyfish motions along my hips. Water filled my ears, and the world disappeared. I sang Bee Gees songs to myself, my voice tiny and far away. "How deep is your love, how deep is your love, I really need to learn . . ."

I rocked up and down on the waves, my eyes shut against the glaring sun. Beneath my lids, I could see its orange starburst shape against the dark sky. I hummed and fluttered my hands and feet, perhaps even dozing off for a minute.

A long time passed before I thought about my burning face, my lips getting salty and swollen. I splashed myself into a vertical position and squinted at the shore, from where I heard a tiny imitation of my mother’s voice. She was standing at the edge of the surf, a tiny stick person with waving arms.

Damn. I’d floated a long way out. It was going to be a real pain, a lot of work getting back. I stretched out and began swimming, breathing hard, pushing back walls of water with my palms. I swam for what felt like a very long time, then raised my head, my legs treading like a bicycle.

It couldn’t be possible, what I saw. Now I was even further away. My mother was a dot on the shore. The water around me was cold, much colder than in the shallows. It felt black, deeper than I could fathom. I imagined the sea going down for miles, nothing below me but endless dark, and the glowing forms of skeletal fish. Suddenly a bubble of panic rose up from my gut and exploded in my chest. I'm going to drown. I'm never, ever going to be able to swim back, and I will die in this water. I started screaming, running on nothing, stumbling in the water, my arms fighting the waves as I panicked and flailed: "Mommm! Help! I can't swim!" I didn’t know if my mother, the dot, could hear me. My voice seemed to float on the surface of the water, then evaporate into nothing.

My legs were burning, heavy, exhausted. I was going to die. There was no way I would be able to swim to shore. I was sobbing, my tears making hot tracks on my shivering skin. Stop, I told myself angrily. Stop it. I forced myself to breathe slowly, to resume the slow bicycling treading in the cold water. I tried to meditate as I floated, but it didn’t work. I was too afraid. I waved, my wrinkled fingers reaching high above the surface. Soon, I thought, I will do the dead man's float. But if I’m flat, how will anybody see me?

A dark head like a seal bobbed up from the surface, just yards away. A shark! A stingray! I wimpered out loud. Then I saw black eyes and the gasping hole of his mouth. "Susan! Sus!" It was my father.

I paddled toward him, sniffling with relief. "Daddy!"

I flung myself against him, his wet brown shoulders. "Daddy, I couldn't swim in, I tried but it was so hard . . ."

He panted, treading water. "Undertow. Very rough. There's a sign, but we didn't see it . . ."

I tightened my arms around his neck, a heavy human necklace. "You’re here."

But he was sinking, a gurgling thrash under the water. "Susan, let go!"

"But Daddy, you have to help me, I can't swim that far, I already tried . . ." My legs began running again, and my breath stabbed me through the gut.

"Sus, I'm not strong enough to pull you all that way."

My eyes were blind, full of tears, sun, the sting of salt. "Then we'll both drown!"

He shut his eyes and I heard a little sob. "I'll get help for you. You float. Take it easy. Don't get too tired. Don't try to swim."

"Daddy. Don't go!" My voice was almost a shriek, pleading.

"Sus. I love you. Please. It's the only way." He leaned in, put his wet lips against my cheek, and flung himself through the water again.

"Daddy!" I lay my face in the water. My face, my eyes, my skin, were all melting into the sea. I cried and coughed, and then I was overcome with such a tiredness that I stretched out onto my stomach and floated like a jellyfish, my eyes closed, my head raising up for air like an ancient dog lifting its head from the floor.

I was as alone as I had ever been.

They came. There was a "Hey!" and then the oddest sight: what looked like a long line of inflated white paper dolls, hinged together at the hands. They were sailors, dozens of them. Their line began on sand and they extended, hand in hand, deep into the ocean where I floated. They were like sailor dolls in white outfits, white bellbottomed trousers and little white caps like something from a cartoon. The last one, the end of the line, galloped toward me in the water. He reached out an enormous dripping hand and I grabbed.

They pulled me in to shore, a limp Raggedy Ann, a watery kite flown by sailor dolls. When I finally felt the grit beneath my knees I stumbled to my feet and blinked at them, the crowd of them white and dripping. They shouted some sort of male victory noise for catching me alive. I was their enormous, flailing fish with tangled, seaweedy hair and a burnt nose. My embarrassment caught up with me and suddenly I wished that I had been swept out to sea.

My mother threw a towel around me, grabbed me harshly. “Susan. Never do that again. Go out so deep by yourself.”

I tried to explain myself. “I didn’t know. I just floated.”

“Can’t you get it through your thick skull, you almost died?” I could tell she didn’t know whether to cry, hug me, or kill me. I looked over her shoulder at my father. He was sitting on the bamboo mat, staring out at the ocean. His face was the color of ash.

His face is the same color today, in the hospital, as he grasps my hand. "Do you remember the trouble you got into? Out there in the water?" my father asks.

"Sure. And I remember those sailors. I was so embarrassed . . ."

His mouth crumples. "When I thought that I might die without asking you to forgive me . . ." He stares down at the blanket, at the knobby hills of his legs.

"For what?"

His voice rasps. "For leaving you out there like that."

"But Dad, it was the only way. You told me that. You went to get help." I smile. "It's me who should apologize for almost strangling you in the water." I try to make it a light thing, a joke, something about sailors, but his face stops me.

He raises his hand slowly and covers his eyes. "Not a week goes by when I don't hear your voice. Daddy don't leave me here. Some days I think . . . I just can't live with myself." His fingers tremble, wet. "When you were that little baby, Sus, I made a promise that I would never leave you. A promise." His voice sounds as if it was dragging through sand, thick and gritty. "You were so small, and had already had enough of that. Of being left."

I think about the long search for my birth mother, how I struggled so hard to find her, like swimming against the tide through the darkest water. How it has been a long slow drowning. I reach out a finger and catch a drop of brine from his chin. “More than forgiven."


Susan Ito has served Literary Mama as a Fiction Editor, CNF editor, and columnist of “Life in the Sandwich.” She edited the literary anthology, A Ghost At Heart’s Edge: Stories & Poems of Adoption. She is the author of the SheBook, The Mouse Room. Her work has appeared in CHOICE, Hip Mama, the Bellevue Literary Review, MSN.com, Making More Waves, Growing Up Asian American, the Kartika Review, and elsewhere. She is a former Fiction Editor, Columnist, and Creative Nonfiction Editor for Literary Mama.


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Powerful, wonderful, pure Ito. Bravo. Loved this.
Oh my goodness, golly, gosh...Thank you for words as gifts!!
Just beautiful. Really beautiful.
Susan, This is so beautiful. You are an amazing memoirist. I am so glad to read another of these.
This made me cry. So beautiful!
A very moving piece! What a wonderful and sweet man! I'm glad you two had each other in your lives.
Congratulations, Susan! It's gorgeous--as I knew it would be.
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