[A revised version of July’s Letter in the Mail, performed for the Marrow series at Chicago’s Whistler on August 16. A work in progress.]
Have you noticed there aren’t that many good stories about Poseidon? Here he is one of the most powerful gods in all of Greek mythology – Brother of Zeus! Lord of the sea! – and all I can come up with is that he was grumpy and not terribly popular, though he did do all right with the ladies, as he left kids scattered all across the Aegean. And I wonder, does Poseidon’s lack of a memorable storyline have something to do with the fact that his tale unfolds mainly under water, where it’s hard for even the other players to get a grip on what’s happening, and harder still to communicate the details to those back on land?
I was thinking about Poseidon because I’ve been thinking lately about Greece, and about water – its abundance and its absence.
When I think of Greece, a place I have never been, I think of white sandy beaches and grilled octopus. I think of Odysseus trying in vain to find his way home to his family, thwarted for ten years by Poseidon’s rage, and of democracy, and of war, and of the thousands of migrants now washing up on its shores. And, of course, I think about water. Because, have you been following the Greek debt crisis? The language of global finance is drenched in water. Debt is “underwater” rather than, “underground.” Assets are “liquid.” The economy must be kept “afloat” — through a “bailout” of course. Is it because being “underwater” holds the promise of resurfacing, and the chance to catch your breath, while “underground” carries the finality of the grave?
This all also makes me think of Detroit – where things are so underwater that the city has at times cut its poorer citizens off from the otherwise abundant natural resource of water from the Great Lakes. And of New Orleans, still under water ten years after Katrina drowned the city in despair, despite what the Chicago Tribune editorial board might think. And that for every drowning economy there’s a parched ecosystem to balance the scales. Like poor California, where last month it came to light that Tom Selleck had been stealing water from a Ventura County hydrant and trucking it to his ranch in the hills. Apparently, austerity does not apply to Magnum PI.
To the north, even notoriously rainy Washington has declared a drought emergency. Just last week, Seattle and the surrounding cities asked residents to cut their water usage by ten percent. Beyond that, the drought’s had little visible effect on humans, but the water table is all out of whack, and in hot and shallow rivers across the state migrating salmon are dying by the thousands. The situation is so dire that in some areas the state is trucking stranded fish to safety in hatcheries upstream.
I’ve been out in Seattle, my hometown, for the last several weeks, and I was riveted by the salmon story. The under-watered fish somehow provided a strange counterpoint to my reasons for being there. Because out there in the west, my father has been under water for months – his damaged heart and lungs struggling for control of a system as out of balance as the Columbia River.
Until this spring, I didn’t know a whole lot about edema, but it’s a brutally common side effect of heart failure: As the heart struggles to pump blood, fluid backs up in the body, thanks to a little miscommunication with the kidneys. Thus: my father’s feet regularly swell to unrecognizable shapes. Water floods his lungs and seeps from his pores, blisters flower and burst through his skin. We wrap his weeping legs in gauze and in an hour it is drenched and needs to be changed again. He is drowning in his own fluids – dying, in inexorable and weirdly mundane fashion by the force of something as elemental as water.
From the moment I got the call in March – “Something happened. Come now.” – I’ve been underwater as well. That day I couldn’t figure out how to work the Internet, or how to buy a plane ticket. I just stared dumbly at the screen, the white noise of surf flooding my ears. Eventually I managed to enlist a friend to come over and help me pack. (“OK, underwear,” she said, “put it in the bag. Next: socks!”)
In the Critical Care Unit of the hospital, my father floated on a raft of tubing and machines. Sedated and unable to speak, he squeezed my hand and raised his eyebrows, trying to swim to the surface. Once he did, days later, and the tubes were removed, all he wanted, with furious desperation, was a sip of water – but of course that was not allowed.
Now, six months later, he rides the tide of chronic illness: in and out of the hospital nine times and counting, choked with water one week; dehydrated the next, stranded between Scylla and Charybdis, the only thing certain the ceaseless uncertainty.
The roar of surf in my ears has quieted to a dull pulse, just rhythmic waves lapping distractingly, hypnotically, at the shores of consciousness, barely audible but nagging enough to keep me from working, from remembering to answer email, from reading a magazine let alone an entire book.
In May I went to Puerto Rico, another island with white sandy beaches and grilled octopus, where the underwater debt stands at $72 billion, and where another crippling drought has left neighborhoods on a rotation system – one day with water, one day without. I was sitting in a plaza in San Juan when I got another call. My father was back in the hospital, for the fourth time, or the fifth. He was, unsurprisingly, feeling pretty down. He wanted to talk about his funeral – about who should speak, what music we should play. I want you to write my obituary, he said. Here’s what you should say.
That night I went out to a bar and drank Cuba Libres, and every time I went to the bathroom I had to stop and remember why the toilet wasn’t flushing. That water was being carefully rationed. That that was why there was just a sad little bottle of hand sanitizer sitting in a dry sink.
What does it mean to bail someone out? And who deserves it? OK, obviously the salmon are blameless. But what about Greece, or Puerto Rico – those lands of sunsoaked, day-drinking layabouts who brought crisis upon themselves and are now being scolded to suffer the consequences? What about Detroit, or New Orleans? What about my father? Did he seal his fate the day he started smoking and drinking and eating salt, rejecting austerity for not just the needs but the pleasures of the moment?
Moralizing comes easy on land, but once you’re in the water things get murky. Questions don’t really have good answers – and bailout means to simply do anything you can to stay afloat. Who deserves it? Everyone.
When my dad was hospitalized in June, for some medical complication the details of which have already drifted away, I went out for a quick visit, and spent four days sitting by his bed with a digital recorder, helping him narrate his life story. A life story in which the sea plays a large part and in which, sort of hilariously, his children seem to barely factor at all. But collectively, as a troika, my sisters and I have decided to forgive that debt, and he now holds onto it like a flotation device. Daily, he harasses me – it’s a running joke: “Have you finished my biography yet?” And of course I haven’t, because if I do – who do I tell it to?
Just a few weeks ago, while I was again out west, my father developed an internal hemhorrage and, going into shock, was resuscitated with a massive transfusion of blood and other fluids; he gained 18 pounds overnight. The next day, still shaking the water from my ears, I was talking to a guy I knew only vaguely at a party for a friend’s 50th birthday. Haltingly, I gave him a rundown of the last 24 hours – minus the gory details. He cocked his head, and looked at me and said, “Is he dying? I know where you are right now.” I wanted to kiss him, I was so grateful he could hear me from the shore.
In a devastating 2011 essay chronicling the illness and death of his infant daughter, Aleksandar Hemon likened the isolation of those days to life inside an aquarium. I can’t imagine the horror of Hemon’s experience, but I do know that an aquarium is a precise metaphor for the climate-controlled, rigorously monitored bubble of the hospital, whose watery byways and language are incomprehensible to those on the outside looking in.
When you’re dealing with the everyday crisis of a dying parent, though, things are less contained. Though the challenge of communicating the texture of the experience stands, you can’t sit in Critical Care forever. So when the conditions of life leave you underwater for the long term – in economic crisis, in ecological distress, in medical limbo – you, like Poseidon, have to figure out how to both swim in the sea and walk in the world. To get on with things on land but also, maybe, to accept that under water is the place where your story makes the most sense. That Poseidon’s children – the naiads and the salmon and the strangers you meet at parties – will, in the end, be those that hear you best.