The Taste of Tears

by Debbie Augenthaler

I don’t remember a time when the ocean hasn’t seduced me. The mystical music of waves cresting and crashing, tugs at the ancient in me. Waves whispering “let me soothe you” as they recede, hypnotic and compelling, calling me home.

As a child, I’d lay on warm sand and burrow in while the ocean lapped closer and closer, covering my body an inch at a time. I’d let it wash over me until it reached my chin and my little body felt safely encased in a hug of sand and salty water. They called it a game, but for me, it was a ritual. The game was body-surfing, the thrill of riding the strength of a wave surging electric through my skin, carrying me like a horse, riding and skimming to shore in glory. Never fearing the magic of the ocean until a summer day in Nags Head, North Carolina when a wave I rode bucked me off and galloped away, leaving me tumbling in its wake. Pounding the air out of my lungs and taking me to the depths, upside down and all-around, tugging me out to sea, until my father’s big hand yanked me by the elastic of my yellow bathing suit and he pounded on my back with an arm strengthened by fear. The force of him expelled salty water from my lungs, they swirled with my shocked tears and flowed back into the ocean.

After that, our relationship changed, the ocean and me. I was afraid of her, the power and mystery hidden by the musical waves and would never swim too far out, always careful to not go where the water was over my head. Once in a while, swimming to a sand bar, fear mixing with excitement, denying the dark depths below, not even sure what it was I was afraid of, but oh my god, if a creature brushed my leg I’d pee just little, and swim as fast as I could to find firm footing, heart racing, more tears mixing with water I inhaled in my panic. But this isn’t why waves taste of tears.

In the summer of 1999, I was visiting a friend in Martha’s Vineyard. Jim, my husband, had been dead for over two years. I was fragile in my healing, still deeply grieving, and felt his presence everywhere. We’d go to the Vineyard every summer, honeymooned there, and dreamed of retiring in a cottage near the water. So many summer days spent walking on the small beach behind my friend’s house, where I was now laying in the sand, honoring my childhood ritual. My friend was up at the cottage and I was all alone. Feeling the warmth of sun baked sand on my cold grieving skin, crying while water and memories licked at my feet, I wanted music of another kind. I wrapped headphones around my ears and tuned into our favorite local station and began to drift off when the sound of low flying planes brought me out of daydreams of a different life.

I sat up and saw small boats circling out in the ocean and looked down to the public beach about a quarter-mile away. At that moment, the music stopped and the disc jockey said John F. Kennedy, Jr., his wife Carolyn, and her sister were missing, their small plane having disappeared the previous night into the murky waters washing over my toes. Disappearing into the ocean where I was, where I’d just gone swimming in hour before, still careful to not go too deep in the water.

I stood up in disbelief and in sorrow and in disgust at the tourists in the distance who’d begun looking for pieces of what might wash up. Another kind of grief engulfed me, mixing the with the grief I already carried. A grief so much bigger than me as I imagined the terrible fear as they dived into the deep in the dark hours of the night. As I imagined the newly broken hearts rippling out from that torpedo fall. The waves of grief that would most surely be coming. I felt the wave crash through me. I cried for them and their families. I cried for myself and for all of us who have lost people we loved.

I think of how many people who have swum in the murky waters of grief, afraid of the depths, of what they can’t see, feeling as if they’ll never be on firm ground again. Not knowing that as horrible and terrifying riding that wave is, if you just hold on, you will find firm footing again. But how can you know that at first? And I wonder, is this why waves taste of tears?

Photo by Samuel Ferrara on Unsplash

Philip Brautigam
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