My uncle, Henry, always says waves are unpredictable, like my mother. Her disappearance as he explains it or her abandonment as I describe it, still remains a mystery.
“That’s really been on my mind a lot lately,” I said.
“Get some coffee Matt,” Uncle Henry began.
His voice was deep and rough, it’s the sound of the ocean during a storm. He slid the glass door open and the cool air made me shiver. We took our coffee mugs outside on the deck that overlooks the Mendocino Coast, and watched the early morning fog drift over the water as it pulled away from the shore. Bo, his dog, stayed curled up in his bed by the fireplace.
“You know Matt, I’ve always noticed that most blue curls glide towards the shore and leave traces of foam on the sand, then slip back into the sea where they’re born. But, on occasion I’ve seen a few breakers rise up from the depths and scrape the beach clean. They reshape the earth,” Uncle Henry said.
His eyes were focused on the horizon, as if the words he wanted to say were printed on the westerly breeze.
“I’ve seen a few of those rogue waves. What’s your point?” I said.
“My point,” Uncle Henry continued, “is that your mother, like the ocean, was created from the same stardust. They inhabit the same realm of mystery.”
“That sounds a little eccentric coming from you. You really believe that?”
“Sure do. The rhythms of the ocean and the rhythms of women coincide with the influence of the moon. Think about it,” Uncle Henry said.
“If women are influenced by the moon, like tides, wouldn’t that mean that they are somewhat predictable,” I countered. “Tides are predictable, you know.”
“I see what you’re getting at,” he said. “Remember though, tides are subject to current and wind fluctuations. It’s not an exact science. It’s a way of understanding tidal conditions.”
My uncle has sixty-one years of knowledge and wisdom stored inside that gray topped head of his. We used to have the same shade of black, wavy hair, but our eyes still match, a gray that reflects marine blues and greens, depending on the weather.
We finished our coffee, put the cups in the kitchen sink, and packed Uncle Henry’s photography gear into the jeep. A photojournalist by trade, he was heading up to the Lost Coast, in Humboldt County, for the day, and I was going with him. While photography was my passion, it was not my day job.
I love my uncle. He’s taken care of me since my mother, his baby sister, left of her own accord, and disappeared, as if the wild surf had claimed her. That was 1978, I was only two, and I don’t really remember her. Uncle Henry and a few friends looked and searched for weeks, maybe months and the local Sheriffs’ department opened a missing person’s case, however since she an adult, and nothing suspicious had turned up, they finally designated her file to a drawer marked unsolved. Part of that decision stemmed from the possibility that she may have just walked away, left us, and began a new life somewhere else. She could have been a rogue wave.
The fact that her mother had committed suicide made us worry that much more. She took sleeping pills with a quart of whiskey and never woke up. Clinical depression was the doctors’ prognosis. But really, poverty, alcohol, and isolation will do that to a person in the mountains. My mother’s parents married straight out of high school and had their first kid six months later. Job opportunities were somewhat scarce in the rural parts of the county, and they never were able to get their lives on track, especially after my mother was born. Uncle Henry was the first, and my mother was the last. My mother bore her parents’ legacy.
“Matt, did you hear me?”
I hadn’t heard him. I was so lost in my own thoughts. I shook my head, “What?”
“Please get Bo’s water bowl, and don’t forget the tent.”
Uncle Henry shook his head.
My thoughts drifted back again. I don’t remember ever seeing my father, face to face. My uncle says he visited me a few times, and he was around town for a while after she’d gone. He and my mother had been high school sweethearts, but neither one of them wanted to settle down. They were only eighteen. Soon after my mother vanished, my father decided that a long stretch in the Marines was a better career choice than grease monkey at the local 76 station. Occasionally he writes to me, and that’s more than my mother ever did.
I grabbed the items Uncle Henry asked for, and Bo sensed that we were leaving. He stood up and stretched his scruffy, wire-haired body, and began to run around with his tongue hanging out.
“Want to go for a ride?” Uncle Henry asked Bo.
Bo got on his hind legs and pawed the air.
“Guess that’s a yes,” I said.
He’s a sweet dog, knows how to fetch slippers, and can run almost as fast as a jackrabbit. And he loves the waves. He’s the perfect dog for Uncle Henry. They found each other on an empty, secluded beach, and Uncle Henry, equipped with a pastrami sandwich and chips, fed them to his starving new friend. They’ve been inseparable ever since.
We all jumped into the jeep and headed up highway 1. Uncle Henry drove and I gazed out the windows and relaxed. I love how the two lane highway winds along the coast line, and provides alternating views of meadows, forests, and ocean.
“Uncle Henry,” I started.
After all these years maybe I should have called him dad.
“When my mother disappeared, did they notify the surrounding county authorities?”
“Well, no. The local sheriff’s department felt she left of her own accord. What made you think of that today? That happened a long time ago,” he said. “I won’t deny you your past, but I don’t believe it’ll lead anywhere…anywhere beneficial if you decide to unpack it.”
Maybe he was right, and maybe he wasn’t.
“It’s been bothering me lately. My girlfriend broke up with me about three months ago, and the thought that my mother could just up and abandon her family has been on my mind ever since. How could she just live out the rest of her life knowing that we exist and never get in touch with us?” I said.
“Look Matt, the circumstances surrounding your mother’s disappearance really aren’t clear. She went to the store, and never came back. Only one old lady thought she saw her walking towards the highway. That was the last bit of information we ever got about her, from anyone. I’m not sure what happened. I just keep thinking we need to let go, and move forward,” he said.
“I’d really appreciate more of your input,” I pressed him to continue.
“What happened with you and your girlfriend?”
Evasion, alright, he really didn’t want to talk about it anymore, for now.
“Do you need anything before we leave town? Uncle Henry asked. How about picking up some sandwiches and sodas for later? I think we should get something before we continue.”
“OK,” I said. What else am I going to say at this point? Maybe he just needed to get out of the Jeep for a minute.
“Good,” he said.
His shoulders dropped and he let his hands slide to the bottom of the steering wheel. I guess this conversation brought up a lot of pain. After all, he did lose his sister. Their father died, drove off the coastal highway shortly before I was born. Something about a deer, the dark, and swerving to avoid it. It was just one of those tragedies that unfolds every so often along the coastal route. There is a considerable amount of heartbreaking history in our family that I feel time had somewhat diminished. Still, I wanted to open it all up, to pick at the scars. What kind of ghoul was I?
We stopped at one of the small markets along the way, got our provisions, and continued along the ocean’s edge again. Uncle Henry got Bo a small bag of dog biscuits, but all that Bo was interested in was the smell of the sandwiches, pastrami and turkey. When I finally put the bag down by my feet, he stuck his head out of the window and licked the salty wind.
I didn’t want to upset Uncle Henry. He’s done so much for me. He’s been my mother and my father. Most of my weekends have been split between fishing and camping around Mendocino and Shasta Counties, and with Uncle Henry and his photographic excursions. It’s interesting how water really seems to play such a significant part in both of our lives. It’s also probably why my girlfriend dumped me.
“You asked me about my girlfriend,” I began again. “She left because I spend so much time doing what I love.”
“Hmm,” Uncle Henry mumbled. “Guess you aren’t ready for commitment,” he kept his eyes on the road.
“Maybe not. What about you? Did you ever fall in love? Did you ever back out on any commitments,” I asked.
“I fell in love with a beautiful woman when I was about your age. Back then I was busy too, too busy to keep her interested in me. Sound familiar? Anyway, after you came along I realized how great it was to have someone to love and care for. I found that I could make room for someone else in my life. I wouldn’t trade it for anything,” he smiled and kept driving.
“Did you ever talk to each other again?” I couldn’t stop the questions from coming.
“She called me a few times just to see how I was doing. She ended up marrying a fisherman up in Fort Bragg, and that’s really the kicker. She didn’t mind my long hours and the days I spent away so much, but she could smell my fear of commitment. Fishermen have long work days as well as I did, but that doesn’t keep Sandra and her husband apart. It was me,” Uncle Henry said.
“You’ve been driving long enough, how about if I drive for a while?” I asked Uncle Henry.
He agreed. I got behind the wheel, and he sat in the passenger seat with Bo on his lap. He wrapped his arms around his dog and closed his eyes.
The trip to Shelter Cove was long, roughly four hours. We stopped along the road, ate the sandwiches, and watched a few kayakers paddle along the shoreline carefully avoiding the rocky cliff. Then we took turns driving the rest of the way. I ended up in the drivers’ seat on the steep, winding, mountain road that descended to the town. It’s the only road that leads to Shelter Cove.
“You said you’ve never been here before?” Uncle Henry asked.
“No I haven’t.”
“I’ve only been here once before, just Bo and me. This town is really secluded, and I understand that’s what the folks around here like most about it. It’s one of those places where a tourist or a stranger really sticks out, and it’s the only town along the Lost Coast,” Uncle Henry said.
“Sounds like a good place to remain anonymous,” I said.
“Now that’s an understatement,” he said with a laugh.
Uncle Henry guided me to a secluded spot under the redwoods just north of town. Bo hopped out first, and ran around while we unloaded the backpacks filled with Uncle Henry’s photo equipment.
“We’ll be back before dark. Let’s pitch the tent when we get back,” Uncle Henry said.
“OK. Let’s go,” I said.
The moment we set off through the redwoods Bo took off running, he was headed towards the headland’s edge.
“Do you see Bo?” Uncle Henry asked.
We broke through the trees that bordered the field of stubby brush. The wildflowers were already spent, and had given up their seeds for next year’s blossoms.
“Not yet,” I said.
Then Uncle Henry let loose with a piercing whistle, and Bo appeared on a boulder. He’d heard Uncle Henry’s call.
“There he is. He’s way off the trail” I said.
“I don’t want Bo to run around and scare the local wildlife,” he said.
I don’t think that’s really what Uncle Henry worries about. Without Bo he would spend a lot of his time alone. We could see Bo clearly now, his head tilted slightly as his ears flapped in the breeze.
“Bo, come on boy,” Uncle Henry called.
He bounded through the scrub and ended up on the trail in front of us. As we got closer, he started to wag his tail, and barked a couple times.
The narrow deer trail snaked through some lonely stretch of state park that eventually gives way to the edge of ancient sandstone cliffs by the sea. Uncle Henry stopped on the trail near the edge. Below, bobbing on the water, we could see two surfers waiting for a wave. They were the only other people we could see.
“The trail’s a little steep, so just take your time and watch your step. I wouldn’t want to lose you over a photo shoot.” Uncle Henry said.
He smiled and started down. The beach has always been Uncle Henry’s favorite place. He’s lived most of his life on the California coast, and while photography may be his passion, the seaside, well you could almost call it his lover. Maybe that’s what Sandra sensed, not so much an unwillingness to commit, but rather that Uncle Henry was already committed. The pictures he’s taken brings out the spirit of the shoreline, like it’s alive, and in a way I guess it is. Uncle Henry understands the union between the ocean and the shore.
“Whoa,” I shouted. My feet slid on some loose rock and I plopped down on the trail, butt first, without letting go of the photo gear.
Uncle Henry stopped and slowly turned around. “You OK?”
“Yeah,” I said. How did he manage to stay so sure footed at his age?
We set the equipment down on the sand for a moment while Uncle Henry chose where he wanted to set up. We sat on a large piece of driftwood that had been thrown ashore by the last high tide. Bo ran straight to the water’s edge and began to bark, as if to invite the waves to chase him. We watched the surfers for a few minutes, and as an ocean swell began to pass underneath them they began to paddle furiously with their arms, to stay with the crest that was forming beneath their boards. When they stop paddling they stood atop their boards and rode the wave. It seemed effortless. I wish my love life could be that way. I just seem to choke every now and then, and I can’t seem to follow through with things, like my girlfriend. I don’t transition well in love.
“That dog just can’t wait to run with the waves,” Uncle Henry said.
“That’s an understatement. It’s one of the few times Bo seems to leave your side. Do you ever worry about rogue waves with Bo so close to the water?” I asked.
“I suppose I worry at some level, but what can I do, put him on a leash? Anyway, he’s pretty quick.”
Yes, he’s quick. Quicker than either one of us. He understood the need for a companion right from the moment he met Uncle Henry.
Uncle Henry decided we’d walk north just a short way. Something in the air called to him, and he responded. We lifted the packs and made our way to the water’s edge where the sand is easier to walk on. It’s also more dangerous, especially if it’s a high tide. Bo ran ahead of us, chasing the waves. Every once in a while, he’d look back to make sure that we were still there. At the same time, we kept an eye on him, and the surf.
We reached the spot Uncle Henry had picked to begin his work. We’d moved away from the cliff face and now stood at the base of a redwood covered slope that reached down to meet the sand. The breeze off the water was gentle, and the surf tumbled forward and receded with a regularity that alleviated my anxiety of the last three months. I was under its influence. Bo continued to play with the surf. The surfers paddled back out and resumed their watch for another swell.
“Uncle Henry, I’m going to walk with Bo a bit.”
“Sure Matt. I’m not going anywhere, I’ll be right here,” he said.
I walked over to where Bo was playing tag with the waves, and called him. He stopped for a moment, looked at me then resumed his game. Alright, he wasn’t interested in moving from this spot, as if the waves were any different down the beach. So I sat there and watched Bo dash back and forth, his paws making fleeting impressions in the wet sand. I looked back at Uncle Henry. He was busy focusing the lens on something. I was really glad I’d made the trip. I laid back on the sand, and closed my eyes.
Just as I was about to drift off, I heard muffled shouting over the ocean’s roar.
I sat up quickly, saw the surfers waving, and I knew that wave that was coming in fast could be the one, the rogue. That’s why they were yelling at me. I jumped up to grab Bo and he dashed towards the water again. As the wave grew, I ran up to Bo, he dodged me, and barked. I started to run back to safety hoping that Bo would think it was a game and run after me. I could hear the sound of the surf roar, it was hungry. I saw Bo out of the corner of my eye then the breaker slammed down on top of me, and knocked the wind out of me. I tumbled around under the water and then felt the suction of the undertow pulling me out. I tried to thrash about, but the oceans grip was relentless. I needed air, and I couldn’t tell which way was up. At that point I stopped thrashing. I just let go. My body was receding with the wave, until something tugged at my shoulder. I opened my eyes and couldn’t see anything. I was thinking shark. This time it took hold of my shoulder and pulled, hard. I opened my mouth to scream and water rushed in, until I broke the surface. He had me in his grip.
It was one of the surfers.
“Can’t believe we got him, lucky bastard,” another one said.
The surfer pulled me across his board. I coughed and coughed as they paddled back to shore. Uncle Henry was waiting.
“Matt,” I heard Uncle Henry, but I couldn’t answer just yet. My head was spinning, my legs were like jelly, and I couldn’t get my bearings at all.
The surfers drug me up to higher ground and laid me in the warm sand. I rolled over and vomited, and started to shake. Uncle Henry put a jacket over me, knelt down next to me, and gently moved the hair out of my face.
“You’re going to be alright Matt,” he said.
He looked back at the surfers.
“I can’t begin to thank you two,” Uncle Henry said.
“It’s OK man. He’s just lucky he drifted our way, and that we saw him just below the surface,” one of surfers said.
I opened my eyes, and that’s when I saw Bo. He watched me quietly.
“I don’t think he’ll fall asleep near the water again,” the other surfer said.
The two surfers helped Uncle Henry bring the backpacks, and me ,up the cliff and back to the jeep. He wanted to get me home, but he was worn out after my near drowning, so he drove us to the local hotel and got a room. I took a shower, climbed into one of the beds and fell asleep to the sound of the pounding surf outside the window.
The next morning, my head throbbed with pain before I even opened my eyes. I rolled over, and there was Uncle Henry sitting in a chair by the bed.
“I’ve been waiting for you to wake up Matt. How are you feeling?” he said
“Lousy. My head is splitting.”
Uncle Henry gave me some aspirin, coffee and toast. Bo watched his every move.
“I thought I lost you Matt. I heard the yelling and looked over just in time to see the wave cover you. I ran to the water’s edge and called to the two surfers. They were looking for you,” he said.
I’d never seen Uncle Henry’s eyes fill with tears like that. He closed his eyelids on the two pools of grey, lowered his head for a moment, recovered and looked at me again.
“I can’t imagine how scared you must have been,” he said.
“Absolute panicked, I thought I was going to die.”
My voice sounded hoarse. Everything was sore. I took a shower before we left, and saw scratches on my face as I passed before the mirror, they were probably from hitting the sand so hard. The steam helped me relax, to realize I was OK, and that’s when I started to cry. I put my hands on the shower stall in front of me, let the hot water run over me as I gasped for air between sobs. I was still tired by the time I’d dressed, and I was hungry. We left the hotel and drove over to the local café. Bo waited patiently by Uncle Henry’s feet.
I ordered a big breakfast, but found I could hardly eat anything, my stomach wasn’t ready yet. The waitress noticed I had barely touched my food when she brought the check.
“Not as hungry as you thought, honey,” she quipped.
“My nephew was caught in one of those wild waves yesterday. He almost drowned. A couple of surfers pulled him out, so he’s not feeling very well right now.”
At that moment I could barely hold my eyes open. I wasn’t feeling chatty.
“Oh honey, I’m sorry. That must have been so scary, I can’t even imagine. You’re lucky though. Every now and then you hear about someone who gets caught by one of those waves, and doesn’t make it out,” the waitress said.
I looked at Uncle Henry and at the door. I just wanted to go home. Then she continued.
“The saddest drowning I remember was about thirty years ago. Now this was different, a woman walked into town, no surf board, no friends. A few of the locals noticed her, and said she walked straight out to the beach, north of here. They never saw her again, but one old guy whose house is near the cliffs said he saw someone, we guess it was her. He said she walked right into the water and disappeared. He was too far away to do anything for her. Anyway, that was the last time anybody saw her, and her body never washed up on the beach. Poor thing, she must have been desperate. She certainly was alone,” she said.
I looked at the waitress. She was Uncle Henry’s age, give or take a year.
“What year was that?” I asked the waitress.
“Oh let’s see, that was mid to late seventies” she said.
I felt my headache return, with a vengeance.
“I want to go,” I groaned.
Uncle Henry nodded to the waitress. She gave him the check, and walked away.
“Alright Matt, let’s go.”
Uncle Henry put his arm around my shoulder as we walked to the Jeep. Bo jumped up on the driver’s seat when we opened the doors. He sat on my lap while Uncle Henry drove. I closed my eyes and held on to him. I wanted to hold on to someone, tight.
“Do you think that was my mother that waitress was talking about?” I asked Uncle Henry.
He concentrated on the turns in the road. The scar that I picked at was now wide open, a fresh wound, and I could see it in Uncle Henry’s face. It made him look older. I can’t imagine not fighting for my life in the water. Initially I had tried to save myself. I didn’t want to die, I wanted to live. I only stopped fighting when my strength ran out. And then I thought about the woman who’d made her final journey.
“She must have been unbearably sad, whoever that woman was,” I said.
At that point I realized it didn’t matter if it was my mother, or someone else. The pain that she endured was obviously enough to drive her to the water’s edge, to give up and let go. And then it hit me. I understood that final moment, when all else failed. There was a certain peace that enveloped me, when I relinquished my body to the liquid vice that held me, as that woman had done so many years ago.
I turned to Uncle Henry, “I learned to let go.” Bo looked up at me with the wisdom that comes from loss. “That might have been my last thought,” I said.
“I’m glad you never had that last thought,” Uncle Henry said.
© Jan Joe and Born in the year of the dog, 2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Jan Joe and Born in the year of the dog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.