What is Still to Be Lost
I’m listening to the final chapter of an audiobook through headphones: Blue Nights by Joan Didion. The crash and pull of the ocean stretches out in front of me as I lie on a lounger, the sun on my skin. It’s late June; the humid, briny air coats me as I absorb Didion’s words. I know what the fear is. The fear is not for what is lost. Grace gets up from the lounger next to me and walks toward the water, her tanned skin shiny with sunscreen. I watch her move, thankful for this time with her, for the easy closeness we have always had. Somehow Grace bypassed the teenage disdain girls typically display toward their mothers, and has grown from the little kid I remember, with muddy knees and wildly tangled hair, to the poised figure before me now. I close my eyes.
In February, Grace’s dad—my former husband, father to our three children—texted me, concerned about a rumored plan for Grace and her friends to rent a house for a weekend-long high school graduation party. I wrote that I had just booked two nights for Grace and me to celebrate at the beach instead, so he needn’t worry. “Nice!” he replied, and then sent me photos of the view where he was in Colorado, anticipating my appreciation for the bright blue sky. We texted back and forth about my late father, and he sent a picture of the hotel he was staying in, comparing it to our favorite in California. The following day, Grace turned eighteen. The day after that, her dad died in an accident, and my children and I fell into grief with no hope of a soft landing.
This was the sudden loss of a forty-six-year-old man who had decades of life sliced away from him. It was incomprehensible. I had long thought my family was protected by statistics: my parents died too young; what were the chances we would lose someone else? And yet, on that day, in the space of a phone call, everything changed for us. Almost immediately, coronavirus hit in earnest, and everything changed for everyone. After months of lockdown, Grace and I checked into our hotel by cell phone and wore masks to the store for supplies.
The audiobook ends and I open my eyes. Through my sunglasses, the sky is tinted but its brilliance is apparent. I sit up, looking for Grace in the ocean. The waves are large, swelling greens and blues, thundering into white as they race to the shore. I wait for Grace’s head to emerge, imagining her having dived into the soaring arc, just as I have seen her do myriad times before. She doesn’t surface. More waves. I remember that as we walked onto the beach two hours earlier, Grace had said the phone reception wasn’t great; she planned to go to the hotel to message her friend in a while. I pick up my phone and text her, Where are you? My message is delivered, but she doesn’t reply.
I look left and right along the shoreline, wondering if the current has drawn her to one side. I don’t see her. There is a sprinkling of people on the beach, and a couple at the water’s edge some distance away. I look at them, expecting to recognize confusion, There was a girl in the waves, and now she’s gone. No one is looking at the water.
During what can only be seconds, fully formed scenes play out in my mind: telling my sons their sister has drowned—would I drive home to tell them or would I need to be here? Would I tell them to come to me?—Grace, lifeless, being pulled from the water, her long, blonde-red hair twisted across her face, her friends’ horror as the news would spread by calls and text. . . How is there time for my mind to play these sequences? My heart beats against my ribs, a wild bird resisting its cage.
I wipe my damp palms and pick up my phone again. I call her. No answer. I run around the other side of her lounger and pick up her shorts and T-shirt. Her phone isn’t among them. I exhale. Then I notice a lump under the towel she was lying on. And there it is, her phone, tucked out of direct sunlight. I step toward the water, my throat tightening, my legs threatening to give way. The images, the scenes of the aftermath of her drowning, come at me like traffic.
Spinning back round, I see Grace step out from the dunes that separate the beach from the hotel. Her wet hair is tied back, and she makes her way toward me. I bite my cheek and take a deep, measured breath.
“Where did you go?”
“I swam and showered off the salt.”
“I called you.” I try to keep my voice level. “I thought you were in the water.”
She tilts her face, eyes narrowing. “You thought I drowned?”
I twist my lips to hide the trembling of my chin and sit back on my lounger.
“Mom, are you okay?”
I was never a worrier. Raising my three children, I have never been one to assume the worst. Through football games, horseback riding, skateboarding, and late nights out, I was the encourager, never the naysayer.
Yet now, in the aftermath of losing my former husband, one of grief’s many offshoots taking root in me is this apprehension of suddenness, the sense that everything can be as expected one second and destroyed the next. I didn’t experience this after the deaths of my parents, both of whom had cancer; there was an appreciable decline, albeit it very brief in my mother’s case. But losing someone young and vital, with no warning, has created a short circuit in my brain, bypassing reason and heading straight to worry.
Grace lies in the sun beside me. She is safe. She was always safe. I have six weeks before she goes to college and edges away from me, into a life that I hope is wide open with adventure. I don’t want to see potential danger in all she does. I don’t want to be anchored by unease.
How many minutes was I left daughterless in that ghastly rendering of reality? I don’t know why I didn’t scream to alert others on the beach. Was it the terror of making it real, if I gave voice to my desperation, or a deeper sense of rationality that kept me quiet? I look at Grace, her face tilted away for maximum exposure to the sun, and blink back the stinging in my eyes. I don’t know if this angst is part of a process, if I will return to my previous, more carefree self at some point. Maybe, once the unimaginable has cracked your life open on a random February afternoon, there is no lifting of the seemingly imminent threat of further destruction. I won’t remember Joan Didion’s words until later this evening—The fear is for what is still to be lost—and when I do, I will understand. Even in the depths of this fresh grief, I am thankful that I have even more to lose, and fearful that I might.
36 replies on “What is Still to Be Lost”
Beautiful. Heart wrenching. Poignant.
Your words took me on a journey. First to the beach then quickly spiraled into grief then fear ending with questions. Good story
Thank you so much x
Thank you Marisa x
Outstandingly powerful! You are so gifted with your words. Loved this….
Thank you for reading, Elsa x
“one of grief’s many offshoots taking root in me is this apprehension of suddenness, the sense that everything can be as expected one second and destroyed the next.”
This is *exactly* what I felt in the aftermath of my second daughter’s sudden and unexpected stillbirth at 27 weeks. I too, was never the worrier, never the naysayer before that. Beautiful piece.
Thank you, and I’m so sorry for your heartbreaking loss. x
Wow. In tears.
Thank you, as ever x
So beautifully written. I lost someone in an accident unexpectedly and it has made fear a constant, underlying part of my life. Thank you for expressing the anxiety of having adult children so well. ❤️
Thank you so much Felicia x
When I read this I envied your early years with your children. I fear that my angst with mine made their life so restrictive. Happily it hasn’t affected our closeness for each other, but is often a conversation between us which they find funny. I particularly related to your feeling of sheer panic when you thought Grace had drowned, the desperation when you couldn’t reach her. This is my life! Beautifully written Jo, I felt every word. Love you xx
Thank you Maz, and I don’t think your girls have been restricted – they’re world travelers and happy. Love you too xx
Beautiful, haunting and relatable to parents the world over – but yet unique to you and your unexpected and profound loss. Sending wishes that your life has only joy onward.
Thank you so much, Regina x
Remarkable piece that hits close to home and heart for all of us.
Thank you for reading, Shawn x
Anchored by unease…your eloquence shines a perfectly diffused ray of light on the weight carried by so many. Beautifully lived. Beautifully written.
Thank you so much x
Thanks so much for sharing so eloquently.
Thank you for reading, John x
Jo, I feel like I was swept away with you. I’ve had those same thoughts about Benji. Sitting on a beach in the Dominican thinking I have to stay until he’d be found. It was paralyzing and THANKFULLY unwarranted. And, yes, can’t scream for fear it would be real. Your fear and pain is, so sadly, more based in a crazy reality. I am sorry and think of your beautiful family. You are a beautiful author. You carried the same melancholy that Joan Didion did for me. Thank you for sharing such deep pain. Sending love to all of you.
Thank you, Wendy. I often think of our little league days with so much nostalgic fondness. I’m sorry you shared that same terror, and thankful Benji was fine… Lots of love to you and yours. x
I felt like I was there with you Jo, searching for Grace even though I ķnow she is safe. That familiar unbearable feeling. So very sad and real. Beautiful writing x
Thank you Emma – that means a lot to me. Xx
Such a beautifully observed piece. Thank you.
‘I won’t remember Joan Didion’s words until later this evening—The fear is for what is still to be lost—and when I do, I will understand. Even in the depths of this fresh grief, I am thankful that I have even more to lose, and fearful that I might.’
This sums up so accurately the dichotomy of being a mother. The fierce love and encouragement of independence set against the terrifying fear that moments such as these throw into sharp relief, and the continual balancing of emotions that requires. My daughter heads off to university in September. I am filled with awe at the young woman she has become and in equal measure fearful of the same as she steps out into the world.
Thank you so much for reading and good luck to you and your daughter x
I so appreciated this beautiful piece on this rainy NY morning. You gave voice to the incessant, intrusive thoughts running through so many of our heads, ruining otherwise lovely moments. With crime up, horror in Eastern Europe, grief, fear, and splintered relationships from pandemic, I have felt especially vulnerable to these thoughts. A violent crime happening on our block to a beloved vocal teacher in the building has heightened the tension. Each afternoon before school ends my mind goes to worst-case-scenario thinking. This is a brave and powerful piece. Thank you for sharing your story- and sending you strength as you send your children go out into the lovely and terrifying world.
Thank you for your kind words and understanding; I really appreciate them. And I’m so sorry for your loss – what a senseless and abhorrent crime. Wishing you and yours well. X
Absolutely beautiful writing. This gutted me: one of grief’s many offshoots taking root in me is this apprehension of suddenness, the sense that everything can be as expected one second and destroyed the next.
Thank you for putting words to the anxious feeling that has followed me since I almost lost my son to an overdose 7 years ago.
Thank you for reading, Anna and I’m glad it resonated. I wish you and your son well. Xx
Thank you to Jo for writing this & to Literary Mama for publishing it. In reading this essay, I nodded my head in understanding. Beautifully written, I’m grateful that I got to read about this moment.
“this apprehension of suddenness” – how did you get to this phrase?! It’s spot on why I plan and spreadsheet and gnaw on things. Lovely piece, well done.
Incredible, beautiful, and all too relatable. Stinging and stunning.
This is a beautiful exploration of loss. Poignant, well written, lyrical and gut wrenching. Thank you.