Published on February 5th, 2019 | by Lucinda Cummings


Beneath the Surface

Bathyscaphe (noun): “A navigable, submersible vessel for exploring the depths of the ocean; an observation capsule with a separate overhead chamber that is filled with gasoline for buoyancy, and steel weights for ballast. Capable of reaching ocean depths of over 10,000 meters.”

Bathyscaphe. A word we learned in second grade from a Weekly Reader story. A word that conjured big images in my seven-year-old mind: a lone deep- sea diver peers out of the small round window of his bathyscaphe, into the darkest ocean. Schools of glowing fish swim by, going places: searching for food, escaping predators, catching currents, swimming in this great sea of life. The diver floats inside his chamber, its steel walls and window panes dividing him from the bustling world he can see outside. Inside, there is silence. The diver never imagined how deep the silence would be, or the blackness of this place he must now explore. A new world, one that he observes from his solitary place.

I’ve been down here in my bathyscaphe since the morning when my 23- year-old son did not wake up. The world of grief is a deeply private one, a dive into unknown territory inhabited by the demons of anger and regret, the blackest sadness, and a visceral, all-consuming longing that will never be satisfied. Dark currents push me down as I stare out at this unexpected terrain. My breath is the only sound I hear.

Photo by Severinus Dewantara on Unsplash

Up at the surface, the world goes on. A mother stands in the checkout line, chatting with her two sons. A teenage boy tells his older brother about a new jazz artist he’s discovered. Young men go to graduate school, get married, have families. Fathers look forward to going to concerts with their sons.  Parents drive by cemeteries without a second thought. I put on my old self and go to work. In my therapy office, I listen, I comfort, I recommend, I get into the zone of seeing five clients in a row. I remember why I like this work, feel like I’m contributing something, go for long stretches without thinking about my loss.

Then, in the next moment, I’m back under the surface, in my parallel world, fIattened by a tidal wave of grief. In this new internal world, the smallest trigger can make my body forget to breathe. I would give anything to cross back over the big black line that now divides my life. Before and after, that is how time is measured down here.

I turn to the attic in my head, where I dump out every box that contains my lifelong assumptions about the world, and start over again. I go over what happened again and again, searching for the clues that will tell me why. The reality of losing Benjamin takes months to seep into my brain, like an underground stream wearing away rock, layer by layer. Just when I think I have finally taken possession of the full truth, I’m startled by the thought, “Benjamin can’t possibly be dead.” I lose him over and over this way, one drop at a time. I must let go of his future, our future, every moment I imagined we would have, everything he would have accomplished, every deed his remarkable combination of gifts and challenges would have allowed him to do. In place of that future, I now have to build a different kind of relationship with my son, one that exists despite his no longer being alive. I must build without a precedent or a plan, like trying to build a tower out of water. I don’t know how to do this, but I must do it.

Photo by Fikri Rasyid on Unsplash

Sometimes I see myself as an underwater miner, down in the coal-black shaft of grief. It’s a lonely job, chipping away here with my pickaxe in the dark, because only Bob, Sam, and I have lived through this very particular and unique loss, and only we know the full depth and breadth of what the world has lost by losing Benjamin. It is not that his life was more valuable or promising than any other; it is just that every life is infinitely precious, and we are the only ones who lived the specifics of his one precious life. Now that he is gone, a part of me wants to tell everyone I meet all the stories of his amazing but too-short existence. But the world is not listening. And even if it were, I would still be alone, despite the loving community that surrounds me, because no one can fully grasp what I live with down here, or what I live without. Bob and Sam are off mining their own veins of grief, each in his own way and at his own pace. I hold my breath, waiting for the day when our veins meet up, the day when we can just tell stories about Benjamin, without one of us being blasted by trauma triggers back down into the mineshaft.

Meanwhile, back on shore, I am living, surviving the one thing I always thought I would never survive, wishing less often now that I would develop a terminal illness, going on. Well, part of me is going on, and part of me will never be alive again, and another part is down there in the bathyscaphe, trying to chart a course that will have some meaning. A course that can stand up to the gaping hole at the center of my body and say, “Yes, it’s worth going on. The remainder of your time on this earth can be meaningful.”

I watch the shore dwellers getting on with their lives, wondering how they see me, the solitary diver. I wonder if they still look at me with sadness and think, “That poor woman, how does she live with her sorrow?” Or do they just feel fortunate that it didn’t happen to them, and then guilty? Do they feel afraid when they see me, knowing just for a second that it could happen to them, and then soothing themselves with the notion that I am strong and I look okay and it’s been three years already, so I must be okay? Do they know that I sometimes envy them, with their living children and their accomplishments and their lives that have not been disrupted by tragedy? When the well-intentioned refrain from saying my son’s name, do they realize that it feels like he’s being erased, as though he never existed? Can people see how hard I struggle against letting Benjamin’s death be the sole definition of the rest of my life, while at the same time struggling to hold onto him every day?

These questions come and go, I can’t afford to dwell on them, with all the effort it takes to live on the surface and underwater at the same time. But they are a piece of what sets me apart, what separates me from the going-on world to which I once belonged. Grief is an outsider country, where I am now a reluctant resident, unmoored.

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About the Author

Lucinda Cummings is a mother, writer, and clinical psychologist who lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Her work has appeared in mamazine, and is forthcoming in the anthology, She’s Got This.  She is seeking a publisher for her book length memoir about finding home.

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