By: Ruth Ticktin
Just like every morning, Trish woke up before sunrise and walked down to the bay.
That was her promise to herself, and to her family, to keep her sanity. But today it was getting cold and the birds and ducks were noisier than usual. She had to get close to the rocks to actually hear the water. That’s when her heart found a regular pace and she breathed at peace.
Waiting for the golden-orange ball to pop out of the water’s edge, she heard some goddamned people yakking away, way too close to her space.
“No, it was her husband, he was CIA or FBI.”
“Oh, is that why they moved?”
“I have no idea it was all so rush-rush-hush, and those poor kids.”
Hurry up and pass by me, she thought. There was no way she could afford to have something like this ruin her day. All it took was a small act to trigger her reaction and get her feeling lost again. She began to walk with urgency, pushing for that happy place as a focus for the day. At home, as she prepared for her daughter’s visit the following day, putting things away and making lists gave her pleasure.
At eight o’clock she got a text, wishing her a happy birthday, from her best friend Renee. It wasn’t her birthday yet, but those who’ve lived together in rehabs or institutions always know the month and approximate dates of all the people in their group. Renee was in the hospital with her for a week. They were in the same outpatient group, and then they had met with another guy from the group on their own, checking in every month or so, for a few years. They’d been friends for over forty years; it pretty much was her family.
“Thanks, I’m fine, sending love.” She texted back. It had become hard to explain her deep depression to that group. On some level, they understood mental illness more than the general population; on the other hand, everyone’s essence, experience, and treatment continue to be so varied.
She had gotten out of her rhythm and had to push herself now to get back to the task at hand. Put away the phone, fill the coffeemaker, and ignore the dull headache and active stomach cramps. The gurgling of the coffee and her gut took turns declaring themselves.
The next morning was better. Solitude was the scene on the bay unless you counted the birds and ducks. Unclear what they were doing out in the 17-degree sky, the 37-degree water, or the 11 miles-per-hour wind. But those intrepid creatures gave her strength to carry on. She needed to keep the pace going and keep the sensation of flatness away. That numb space was the enemy she had to face and erase.
Laundry, shopping list, and daily activities got her going. She wanted to be on her game when her daughter arrived. Finally, it was time and she went to the bus stop.
Big hugs and they were able to pick up the cadence of their lives and love for one another, which was a relief. Trish took her cues from her daughter, Carla, who was a forgiving loving young adult now. Her confidence gave Trish the boost to be herself and honest.
“I roasted chicken for us, for dinner,” Trish said.
“Mmmm, yes a perfect comfort food for me, thanks. I’m going to shower first.”
They sat in the little kitchen at the corner table and Trish asked about her daughter’s apartment in Philadelphia and her job. This is not strained; we can do it, Trish told herself, and asked:
“Do you want to come with me to sunrise?”
“Nah that’s too early. I’m on vacation.”
“Of course, understood.”
“But that’s great that you’re getting up and walking early. I’m glad to hear that.”
“Oh, you have no idea, so helpful. I didn’t realize the sunrise would be just right for me.”
The next day, on the dot, down by the bay, the sun rose, as it apparently did every day. Trish watched the lights form a mirror on the water and then dance outwards, like an art film. How was it that those same folks were out again at 7am walking their dogs? This time they were yakking about the building up the road from the bay and she heard snippets:
“Look how high it is”
“So many floors above the rest of the houses”
“Isn’t that against regulations?”
What troubled Trish was how people could actually walk away from a sight of beauty to look at this sight of non-beauty, but possibly that was her own opinion.
And then the spiral began or continued, as Trish got herself agitated by the fact that she was concerning herself with others and what did that matter in the first place?
She had to talk herself down and remember her mantras:
Be happy no worries; do unto others as you want done to you; don’t stress the small stuff; no making mountains out of molehills. Wait, what the hell is a molehill and where has anyone ever seen or made one? Keeping only the peaceful words and music in her mind, Trish made it purposefully back to the house. The next day was better. No one spoke until she was walking back from sunrise and a woman who looked vaguely familiar said conspiratorially, “Quite outstanding isn’t it?”
Trish did manage to nod and smile. There would be no way to explain that today sunrise actually was the cloudy kind, where the streaks of white puffy streamers go all the way from the water to the clouds. Some may consider the sky looking like a scene from the Bibles, but the clouds weren’t special to her today. They actually covered the dramatic rising-up of the sun that she had seen and that made her long for wintertime, clear days when she viewed the water and sky alone, and stared at her very early morning miracle without natural or human distractions.
After the woman (maybe she was the cashier at the gift shop) spoke to her, Trish looked again at the sky and realized that what she was calling biblical may be because it looked like the parting of the Red Sea. A writer must have seen this and imagined that was how the crossing took place because she could swear that she’d seen a painting like this at some point. An understanding of the tides and seasonal flow of the sea was so much less of a story. In the same way, it seemed to her, not all people successfully crossed the sea. Just like the refugees today crossing the Rio Grande, not all make it. Wheels bouncing on concrete, coming louder and closer, distracted her from her daydreams, as she turned to see a young man skateboarding on the other side of the path.
It was noisy, but heartening to see a kid out early, exercising and enjoying the beauty right at hand. That time was prefect: to have Carla at home, someone to cook for and talk to; to be a mom again, at least for then, for one more day.
The weeks before the morning of the fall, were preceded by more peaceful walks, and continued experiences of striking beauty. Even on those rare occasions when she didn’t get outdoors to view the rising of the sun, her days were more serene and calm than they had been in decades. Acquiring and moving to the little house in Conoy, close to the Chesapeake Bay and footsteps from her path, had been the best decision she’d made.
Trish tried to explain to herself, as if she were writing in her journal, about what happened that morning:
I learned as a child how to fall gracefully, but on that day, I wanted to fall and cause a break. What’s best to break, the ankle, knee, or hip? In that split second, I tried to trip and not really hurt myself. I needed to be able to continue my daily routine but I also desperately needed to get his attention. I suppose the psychiatrist will ask if I wanted to get attention to him or to me. Honestly, I wanted to get his attention and you must believe me. But wouldn’t you know, it was a bit worse for me than I’d imagined in that split second. I wish that I would have just twisted my ankle, which had pretty much been my goal. In the end, luckily nobody knew the fall was self-inflicted, it was done for the important reason of preventing someone else’s worse act of self-infliction.
Trish finally told the story to her daughter on the phone when she was recovering from the accident. In the end, she had fractured the top of her femur, near the hip joint, where they had to put in pins to stabilize it. And she had severely sprained her wrist, when she had tried to sit up so that she could emit that “help” cry in as loud a voice as possible.
“What the hell, Ma, you are always so careful on that path, and you know it so well. What happened?” Carla asked and Trish explained as she lay on the stiff bed.
“When I walk back from the bay, in the early mornings, I sometimes pass by Arthur’s Tavern. I often see this guy smoking. He’s on the deck near the garbage bins. He doesn’t see me. There’s a big tree near the street. But I sorta know him. I’m not supposed to tell you this. I know stuff about him. Because his brother is married to Renee’s cousin.”
“Oh, that’s random.” Renee was Carla’s godmother, who’d been Trish’s closest friend since the ‘70’s.
“I’ve met this guy’s brother and his wife who’s Renee’s cousin. You’ve probably seen them at Renee’s at some party, but not him. Anyway,” Trish continued, “this was on Thursday. I saw him walk towards the long pier near the cliffs. Wearing a big heavy overcoat. He was picking up stones. And putting them in the coat pockets. His pockets were bulging with rocks. He was walking into the water.” Trish reached for the notebook and pencil on the bedside table, “I gotta sketch the scene before I lose it.” She placed the notebook in her lap and continued. “I was sure he was gonna keep going deeper in the water. That he’d sink, and drown himself. Then, I made myself fall. Crazy, I know, I actually did it on purpose. So that I could yell help.”
“Oh Ma, I’m so sorry,” Carla said as she tried to be patient while the story took a while to tell, with her mother’s usual long pauses and slow careful speaking.
“I had no idea that it’s real hard to scream. When you are in pain. Or that I had to sit up to get a good yell out. Or that you have to shout several times, to get the big sounds out, from deep inside.” Trish looked at the notebook and pencil on her lap. She sighed and said: “He did finally hear me. I think he must a dumped out some of the stones from his coat pockets. He did run back from the water’s edge. He got up to the path to help me. He called 911 from my cell. He told me his name was Walter. And then waited with me till the EMT got there. We talked only about my injuries. About where it hurt and how much. Could I do this or that. We didn’t exactly mention the cause of the fall. Or what would happen next. I thought if I could just keep on telling him, how grateful I feel. Maybe reassuring could give him hope. Some reason to live.”
“Yes, incredible, so f-ing dumb, that’s me.”
“Whatever you do is real, it’s important. Not dumb. And you understand so much.” Carla was astute and what she said always made sense. Trish had to listen and accept. Acceptance and being grateful were two important but overused words that Trish knew by heart from years in groups and therapy.
“Thanks.” Trish laughed, “My mother always told me: ‘Never talk to strangers,’ ‘Not good to rock the boat,’ ‘Don’t stick your nose where it doesn’t belong.’ And there were more. Negatives. But y’know, if it was only for a brief moment of his day where he got to consider someone else, then, maybe that was something good.”
It was like this, for Trish and for Walter. They had trauma, but also the minutiae of daily life that was made up of moments, and some were good and some were not. Trish didn’t know why she had stopped him; she knew that when people like herself were desperate, strangers were not particularly helpful. In this case she wasn’t exactly a stranger and it’s never exactly clear what can be a benefit and what can’t. While recovering from the hip fracture, she went over the scene again and again. She came up with several reactive actions she could’ve taken instead of causing herself pain.
The days after the accident had been bad. The whole rhythm of getting up to watch the sunrise, even from the window, was shot by rain clouds and then, incredibly, by two days of an overcast sky that was heavy and crushing where there was no view of a sun at all. Sunrise was not something that she could count on, or know for certain that it would start the day off perfectly for her. Instead it got warm much later in the day and the sun found its way out during the afternoon, but there was no early a.m. sunrise over the bay. Appreciating the sun’s rays on her face and shoulders during the good days, Trish took several deep breaths. She closed her eyes and promised to stay in the moment of those morning walks. She pushed down the disappointment and the loss of her essential balance. She replayed her walks over the seasons since her move to Conoy.
She practiced remembering all the morning sunrises recently and began to recall a day, a couple of weeks ago when she was all set to give up and not move at the sound of the alarm ringing. 5:35 am really is quite early for sunrise, which happens every spring. She did get up, tucked her big t-shirt pajama into yoga pants, slipped on shoes and grabbed sweater, phone, key, and sunglasses. She stopped at the house at the corner because she saw a man’s legs slipping back through the doggie door, from the porch into the house. It was so funny that she wanted to capture it on camera, but what if he saw? Well actually it was just his legs so he wouldn’t see but somehow it was an invasion of privacy. She was still smiling when she got to the water’s edge; just in time to witness one of those breathtaking perfect sunrises. She wanted to capture it in a bottle and have it with her whenever needed. Like clockwork, that May morning, the sun rose exactly at 5:44 am. On the return walk home, the dog was outside and a car was driving off. That dog usually loved to bark maniacally but that day he’d cried forlornly.
The days, following that one, were usual, Trish moved slowly and purposefully without encountering animals or feet. Walking to the water another morning that week, she was aware that it would not be possible to see the sunrise that day. It was overcast and they were predicting cloudiness and possible rain all day. It was humid even though a little cool, but she had made it outside and was enjoying the walk. A middle-aged man in gym clothes walking on the other side of the path said, “You must be optimistic in those sunglasses, or maybe you just had a hard night.”
She wanted to hit him, then realized that would have been a mistake. She wanted to yell at him but there would be consequences. She wanted to respond with a perfect retort but she wasn’t such a swift speaker. She walked on. After a while she broke off the path and leaned over a concrete beam looking into the water’s edge. She was checking out the rocks and the noise that the water made hitting them. The crash and flow were soothing.
The same man had turned around and came towards her. “You put yourself in a time out?” he asked, laughing. She didn’t look at him or respond in any way, hoping that he’d go away. The man moved on. The surprise to her was not that the man invaded her space, but that he assumed she’d find him funny.
Forcing herself to not let this get to her, she had found a bird to watch sitting on a log near the water’s edge. She’d taken a phone picture and identified it as a heron. Now still recuperating, Trish convinced herself to not think about past sunrises, dogs, that stupid man, or troubled Walter. She pulled up that photo and got out her a sketch pad. She chewed on her lower lip as she began to capture the blue-gray pointed beak of the heron with its long skinny crooked legs standing on the log.
Ruth Ticktin has coordinated programs, advised students, and taught English in the Washington DC area since 1977. From Madison and Chicago, a University of Wisconsin graduate, Ruth encourages sharing stories. Coauthor: What’s Ahead? (ProLingua Assoc. 2013.) Contributor: EnglishClub, ThinAir, Niveous, BendingGenres Anthology18-19; PleaseSeeMe, Art in-Time-of Covid-19 (SanFedele Press.)