The clouds are still in. They seem to always be for the first third, if not half of the day. Summer mornings in Western Washington State linger in the low 50s, climbing only to the mid-70s with spots of afternoon sun. I crunch down the rocky beach of Camano Island, about fifty miles north of my parents home, carrying one end of a kayak down to the water. My godfather’s brother supports the other end. His wife and my mother are half a mile up the hill at their house, preparing to stroll down and sit on the beach while we row. He pushes my kayak into the water and retrieves his own from his truck as I make my way out to the buoys that mark the deeper water.
Seagulls dip in and out of view, looking for fish and landing on the shore to peck at crab shells. One swoops down to a crab buoy next to me, pecks at the red plastic for a few seconds, then leaves. As it swoops back up the hill towards the house, it occurs to me how differently birds must understand distance than humans. It makes no difference whether they go up, down, or back and forth – it’s all just like how we walk down the street. It’ll take me a few hundred feet of rowing, labored beach-walking, kayak-heaving, and a short drive back up the hill to get where the seagull could be in the next minute. I wonder if it’ll fly by our porch. I wonder if it’s supposed to mean anything to me, if I’m missing some sort of lesson in my comparison, but I can’t think of what it could be.
My godparents lived on Camano Island for about seven years before my godfather died three years ago. I’ve searched for messages everywhere since then, but I look especially hard when I’m here. I scan the land across the water searching for a glimpse of something mundane that I can make a sign out of. I believe this is one of the most naturally gorgeous places in the country, but I seem to want more out of every beautiful thing. I think about the way the morning fog covers things up and then rolls away in the afternoon. I think about the way the sunset comes every night but is always beautiful. I think about what could be hiding in the evergreen trees and whether people should disturb it. None of it resonates with me; none of it means any more than the obvious, and it feels almost demanding of me to want more out of the beauty that I love so much on its own. I watch as a jellyfish floats under my oar. Could it kill me if I reached out and touched it? I’m only a few feet away, yet my little vessel of shiny blue resin keeps me safe.
When I was twelve, I agreed to take a ride on the back of my godfather’s moped along the winding, woodsy roads. I visited him for the last time in the summer of 2019, after his stroke, and sat on the deck and looked at the roads along the island and thought about how scared I was when we rode along them. Now, I squint up at them from my kayak and imagine what we would have looked like from this perspective, how small I must have looked and how grown up I felt. I was terrified. I had always scoffed at the way girls in movies clung to the driver’s waist when they rode on motorcycles, thinking that it was some kind of performance of helplessness and that I was tougher than that. But as I felt us tilt as we went around the slightest of turns, I held onto him so tight that my arms hurt. I want a moped of my own now, though that was the only time I ever rode one. Both of my parents hate the idea. I could probably take that fact and spin a tale of psychological reasoning behind it, like how I feel that he would be proud of me for conquering my fear or that I would have a part of him with me if I learned to do it on my own. It’s probably much simpler than that. I think I would look cool in a helmet. I like to wear leather jackets.
I have always believed in ghosts. I believe that people who have unfinished business linger on the earth in the form of spirits, but I don’t think they’re happy. I don’t think that my godfather is a ghost now – he was a happy person, enlightened and intelligent and full of love. Even so, I know it wouldn’t take much for me to convince myself that I saw his ghost everywhere on the island. I would look up at the clouds and wonder if I saw his face, or look at the houses from my place in the water and convince myself that I saw his form on the beach, waving at me, only to disappear when I rubbed my eyes. I would look at the picture of him that I carry in my wallet and stare at it until I could believe that it smiled back at me. I might even smile at it first, sitting alone in my room waiting for a photograph to smile at me. As a younger child, I did so with a painting of Paramahansa Yogananda that sits above the fireplace in my godparents house. I stared and daydreamed for so long and so often that I can almost convince myself that the image of the painting winking down at me is a memory.
The clouds make it hard to see with my sunglasses on. I slide them to the top of my head to try to make out the dark water swirling under my oar. It looks the same. I see nothing but the tiny waves I’ve made as they disappear. I knock my sunglasses back down to the bridge of my nose, blinking the water’s reflections away from my vision.
I sometimes think that I look like my godmother. I’ll occasionally; walk by a window and glance at my reflection and the way my hair lightens and curls in the summer sun will remind me of hers. We’re both partially Jewish, but my Chinese-Indonesian mother’s features are too present on my face for most to assume we’d be close relatives. I’ve never looked particularly like either of my parents, and obviously someone I have no biological relation to wouldn’t be any different. I don’t understand what it means when I see her face in mine. I can dream up many psychological explanations, like something about my desire to resemble my actual parents, physically or otherwise. I could even chalk it up to thinking of her so much that I start to see her in places she isn’t. My face in the Puget Sound is distorted by ripples and my blue-tinted sunglasses as it stares back at me from the water. Right now, I could easily convince myself that I see her face in mine. I remember her and my tween self, around this time of year, walking up the island and picking blackberries on the side of the road. Maybe someone who only saw us from behind as we faced the bushes would think we were blood related. Perhaps aunt and niece.
Loss, as much as we hate to think it, is horribly universal. Everyone that I know has experienced some kind of grief, even if on different scales. Still, it is common practice to offer the comforting phrase “I can’t imagine what you’re going through”. I have no bone to pick with it – it’s kind, it’s considerate, it doesn’t overstep. It’s comforting – to some extent, to both parties.
I used to pride myself on never getting sunburnt. I bragged to my more Caucasian friends in the summers that I would only ever tan in the sun, even without sunscreen. They’d complain of the pins-and-needles effect on their noses and ears, and I’d obnoxiously remind them that I had no idea how it felt. The first real sunburn I ever got was at my godparents house, here on the island, after sitting sunscreen-less on the deck for the entirety of a summer day. My left bicep was searing red by the evening. I remember how confused and alarmed I was when I felt my skin radiating heat and itching, how I had to soothe it with aloe vera so that I could sleep, and how miffed I was to go through such a universal experience that I had somehow convinced myself I would never, ever be affected by. Today, I have SPF 45 on my arms, chest, and face, even under the clouds. I press two fingers to my left arm to make sure I haven’t burned.
No one needs to be reminded of how badly you miss the dead when they’ve gone. There is no metaphor, simile, or analogy I can make to convey the way it feels. The literal, too, can’t manage to communicate. Anecdotes about how I go to my godfather’s grave cannot capture the way I wish he was here in his body, and everyone knows that. His grave is underneath a tree, perfectly set so that one can sit on a root that sticks up out of the ground if the grass is wet and be protected from the sun if it’s hot out. I sit on it and talk out loud about whatever he’s missed since the last time I stopped by. I bring flowers and a wet paper towel to wipe off whatever has collected, but it’s usually clean from others who love him doing the same. I think about what it could mean, what it could represent – I come up empty. Wiping the dirt off of someone’s grave and talking to them as if it’s their body with their ears and their voice. Everyone who sees it knows what it means. Taking it at face value, choosing not to dig deeper for a literary device – what do you miss? What can it be like that it isn’t already?
This is the first time I’ve kayaked on the island in three, maybe four years. The last time I did was with my godfather, my godmother on the shore waiting for us. These kayaks used to belong to them. The water from my oar trickles up my wrists and drips onto my lap every time I row and the salt from the water has crystallized. It leaves a thin layer of white powder on my skin, just too sticky to brush off. I will have to shower to be completely rid of the remnants of my kayaking trip. There is no metaphor, not this time. I cannot always find a greater meaning in every little thing that appeals to my eye. Death is far too big to link to something small, like the way that the whirlpools on the end of my oar disappear into the water, or the empty space at the table. Death will never be small. It does not have to be. There is nothing I can say to make it smaller; I cannot say anything new at all. I do not have to. I row back to the shore, climb clumsily out of the kayak, oar in hand, and keep my sunglasses on. The clouds have cleared.
Celia Shinn is a student at Bard College, and native to Washington state. Her other writing has appeared in The AutoEthnographer. She sincerely hopes you enjoy her work.