Mom and I are on our way, driving in my dad’s ’68 cherry red Mustang. We’re heading south toward Ocean Shores, a small beach town on the coast of Washington. It’s our first trip to the ocean without my dad. As we zip along the highway, I stare out my window and watch as the bigleaf maples, dogwoods, and fir trees flash by. We drive along in silence for the first 40 miles. A heavy void is wedged between us, the silence so thick, not even the rays of this hot summer sun can penetrate it. Six months have passed since we’ve spoken to each other in that comfortable chatter that once consumed us.
"Annie, don’t do that!" Mom says, finally breaking the stiffness in the air. I’d stuck my arm out the window, wanting to feel summer on my fingertips. I ignore her and I let my hand linger leisurely in the breeze. I want her to know what it feels like to go unnoticed. The warm air rushes through the Mustang, swirling Mom’s frustration like a tumbleweed.
"Get your arm inside before the next semi whizzes by and takes you with it! You never know what can happen. . . ."
I know she’s talking about my father.
We arrive at the Crow’s Nest Diner in Montesano, a place we used to frequent with my dad. We sit and eat deluxe-size burgers that are dripping with grease and sauce, each of us lost in our own thoughts. Mom sips sweet tea and I dip my fries into a thick chocolate milkshake.
"Your dad used to do that," she says, watching as I dip another fry.
I smile. My dad used to oversalt his fries and he would shake them carefully, watching as the excess granules fell off the greasy potato skins. He would then submerge the fries into his milkshake. This is what we call a milk bath, he often joked.
I plunge another fry into my shake and grin. "I remember."
Mom’s light eyes warm with nostalgia. "And sometimes he would take his burger and dunk it into the shake like it was soup. He sure loved milkshakes and french fries, didn’t he?"
Mom and I laugh. There is a lightness in her laugh, one that I haven’t heard in months. "Oh Sweetie, that father of yours was something else."
Sweetie. My eyes well up with tears. The word had rolled off of her tongue so easily, as if these past six months never existed. The last time she called me that, my dad was still alive.
In early winter we learned of my dad’s death. From the kitchen window Mom and I could see the army chaplain walking up our driveway, his head low, tapping a Bible against his thigh in a solemn reverie. The air around us had become thick and warm. Mom turned and made her way up the stairs to her bedroom. As soon as she closed the door, I felt what it was like to be alone for the first time in my 14 years of life.
"Ready?" Mom says, breaking the memory. She begins gathering our discarded burger wrappers and empty cups. I want to be defiant and tell her no. I want us to sit and talk about dad some more. I want to release all the words that have been avoided, forbidden all these months. But before I can, Mom is up from her seat and heading out the door.
In the car, I think about when Dad was deployed. Mom and I used to celebrate my birthday by having an evening picnic in our backyard. Mom would make some of my favorite foods: cucumber and tomato sandwiches with slices of herbed cheese, sweet tea, and fresh strawberries from the garden. For dessert she’d make a lemon chiffon cake because it reminded her of the one we ate in San Francisco a few years back. Later, we’d curl up on the couch with lots of fluffy blankets and pillows and watch While You Were Sleeping, my favorite movie. I miss those moments with Mom the most. I wish we still did that.
When we reach Ocean Shores, we marvel at the old colonial cottage we’re staying in and how the white sand lightly dusts the roads like snow. Our room is comfortable and cool, despite the afternoon heat. The entrance opens out into a large sitting area with cream and cranberry‑striped armchairs, and a dark leather sofa gleams from a recent polish. Framed beach scenes are spaced precisely along the walls and the windows face south toward the beach. The waves roll softly across the shoreline, the indigo water reflecting the sunlight back into the sky. This had been my father’s favorite room.
I wonder how this weekend will go. For months Mom hasn’t been in the same room with me any longer than is needed—only enough time that it took to feed me, to pick me up from school, to place snacks out for me and my friends. Not too long after my dad passed away, I asked Mom if we could talk about his death. She said now wasn’t a good time. Her answer upset me and I wanted to tell this new version of my mom that my real Mom would’ve comforted me, she would’ve run a warm bath for me, and brought me a cup of hot cocoa, and she would’ve listened as I talked about my dad.
"I’m going to the concession stand for sodas, do you want anything?" Mom says, after we place our beach bags on the warm sand.
"How about a Shirley Temple with extra cherries?" I say, as I tuck my dad’s dog tags into my shirt, the cool metal touching my chest.
Mom chuckles. "Ah, you’re just like your father. I’d forgotten that’s one of his favorites. I think I’ll get one too."
Mom smiles at me, but there’s a sorrowfulness to it. And it’s because of that sorrow that I remember something I had buried deep within me: how my parents had argued late into the night over the news of my father’s upcoming deployment. It would be his fourth deployment in five years. My father, his voice calm, explained that he had made a promise to our country. He said he and his men were defending everything we believed in, everything our country believed in. But that wasn’t good enough for my mother. "You’re gone so much," she had shouted, "you have no idea what I believe in!" As I lay in bed that night, listening, I understood my mother’s frustration. There’s this feeling of unsettlement that hovers over us when Dad is deployed. Our lives are on hold. Sometimes weeks will go by before we hear from him. We’re unable to plan, unable to move forward because we’re always waiting for an email, a phone call, or news from the battlefront. That night I could hear my mom sobbing in the living room; a sense of defeat permeated the house. Instead of succumbing to my mother’s tears and comforting her, my father got up from his recliner and left the house, slamming the door behind him.
I bury the memory and spread out the blanket, sit, and turn my face toward the sun. The heat penetrates my skin and beads of sweat collect on my forehead. I soon drift into a weightless sleep. I see a couple dancing gracefully like youthful lovers. My dad is wearing his dress blues, medals and ribbons adorn his chest, his dark hair slicked back like a movie star. Mom is beautiful as always with her light strands swept up in a fashionable bun and her silvery satin gown tailored to fit her willowy figure. My dad twirls her as they dance across the room, the two of them moving rhythmically with each step. Mom looks up and smiles at my father and he kisses her cheek. I walk toward my parents, but soon find that I’m walking along what appears to be the sea, but there is no sea, just vast land filled with the pungent smell of decaying sea animals and seaweed. All around me the seagulls squawk in chorus, gorging themselves on the dead. In the far distance I see a mirage of Mom and I walk toward her. The further I walk, the further away she appears. I can never reach her. I turn around and around, circles upon circles, unable to stop.
I hear seagulls squawking above me and I bolt up, awake. I look in the direction where Mom has gone, searching for her. I glance at my watch and see that an hour has passed. My heart is pounding and it feels as if it’ll burst at any moment. She has abandoned me yet again.
I wander along the beach. As I search for my mother, I recall her saying once that there’s so much focus on the soldiers and the war—unnoticed are those left behind who are also fighting a battle. The wives are fighting to raise their children single-handedly, fighting to keep their families and marriages together, fighting to keep life normal under not-so-normal circumstances, so the children and soldiers can find comfort in the familiar and unchanged.
After some time I come upon a frail woman with disheveled hair sitting along the shore. I know it’s Mom by the way her shoulders curve slightly forward when she sits. I see drinks at her side, the ice has long melted, a bag of shelled peanuts sit near her feet. I record every detail of my mother as she is now: her face is stained with tears and she appears anxious, afraid. Her eyes are bleak and her face is sallow. The brightness and warmth that had flooded her spirit for years is no longer there. I think the five years of unrest and the news of dad’s death broke her.
She hesitates and then closes her eyes. She takes a deep breath and holds it.
"Mom!" I say. She slowly exhales and begins crying. Her shoulders shake and her breath starts to catch as if she’s taken in too much air. I take one of the drinks and hand it to her. "Drink, you’ll feel better." Like an obedient child, she sips the soda.
We sit quietly for a long time and listen to the waves slosh upon the shore. A cool evening breeze washes over us. I take out my dad’s dog tags and study them as I have a million times before. Buried in the crevices of his name, in between his blood type and his social security number, and the word Catholic, specks of his blood hide in the corners of each letter. I wonder if he knew he was going to die as the shrapnel pierced his heart. In those seconds before his death, did he think of Mom and me?
I look at Mom and her cheeks are damp with tears. She leans over and rests her head on my lap. I stroke her hair, gliding my fingers between each silky strand. My tears trickle onto her cheeks. Our tears are merging, for once we cannot be undone.
"I love you, Annie." Her words catch me by surprise. I haven’t heard those words in months.
"I love you, too."
"He always came back to us. I never expected anything different," Mom says.
"Me either," I say. "I miss him; I miss you."
Mom looks out toward the ocean and she is silent for a moment. "The morning your father left for his deployment," Mom says, as she wipes away a tear, "I told him this would be his last deployment or I’d leave him."
I can feel her sadness and shame choking us. A part of my heart ripples into the ocean and I watch it wash away. I now understand what I knew all along: that my mother’s guilt and grief were meant to drown her. But I won’t let it continue, not anymore.
The sun begins to set and deep purple and orange hues slowly paint the sky. I think of my childhood and how it was before the war took my dad. I see my mother laughing, her head tilted back, a dust of flour on her cheeks. Her slender hands are kneading sweet dough. The air is heavy with the scent of yeast. Sunlight streams across the hardwood floors. I see my dad coming through the back door in his tightly pressed uniform, and he holds a bouquet of yellow roses in his hand. He winks at me and he turns toward Mom and kisses her.
I take Mom’s hand into mine and she holds it tight. I say to her, "I’m here for you, you are not alone." Ahead of us the sun dips below the horizon, twilight has come, and the stars begin to glimmer, lighting our way.