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.