I am high up in the mountains of Vermont. I have come here to rest my mind and body after Beau’s death. I have come here to be in limbo. It’s raining outside my cabin now. Oh how I love the sound of water.
Funny that I chose to retreat into hills instead of seas.
Funny this, too: I went swimming at UVM’s pool yesterday and the water made me seasick. I had to get out and nearly threw up. Never in 44 years of swimming, a career that included multiple state and national titles, has the water ever had such an effect on me.
Thinking of these two phenomena, I opened up Brain in a Jar (the book I spent all of last year writing about my father) and turned to the chapter in which I am six and Beau is reading The Little Mermaid to me. I read it again, a full year after I first put the words on paper–40 years since the story took place.
And I realize what has happened.
The Fairy Tale is over. I am no longer a mermaid. The spell is broken.
I have to go back to being a human now. My Sea King is among the fathers of the air. (Beau’s and my story being a variation on what happens in Hans Christian Andersen’s story.)
But I realize something else, too.
I am not afraid.
Back when I researching the meaning of the “bardo,” I found what one Tibetan scholar had to say about this in-between place between life and death.
It is an open space filled with an atmosphere of suspension and uncertainty, neither this nor that. In such a state, one may feel confused and frightened, or one may feel surprisingly liberated and open to new possibilities where anything might happen.
Also yesterday, just after I returned from swimming, I received an email from a friend. Somehow, she managed to send me a collection of words that capture these strange confluence of events perfectly. And thereby inadvertently delivered the boat I needed for drifting away from Beau and into a brand new story of life on land.
Goodbye sweet daddy. Your ole gal will always love you.
Out of the rolling ocean the crowd
And from my book, Brain in a Jar
My father is reading The Little Mermaid to me. It is the fall of 1972. I am nearly 7.
There dwell the Sea King and his subjects.
I am sitting sit on his lap on a bamboo couch on the lanai of our Florida home. I have learned our address: 310 Harborview Lane. We live in a fishbowl—long sliding glass doors in every room facing the water. People who walk through our backyard can see us. At night, I use a flashlight to get to the bathroom instead of turning the lights on because I’m scared of who’s out there. Of course, I’m scare of who’s in here too.
The sun hasn’t set yet, and I look out at the inlet that runs through our neighborhood and into the Gulf of Mexico. The house is quiet. My mother is finishing the dishes. She never, ever leaves one plate dirty overnight. She is pregnant. The baby is due soon.
My father keeps reading.
They were six beautiful children; but the youngest was the prettiest of them all; her skin was as clear and delicate as a rose-leaf, and her eyes as blue as the deepest sea; but, like all the others, she had no feet, and her body ended in a fish’s tail.
I pull my legs together tightly, turn my feet out and pretend that I have a long beautiful tailfin. I live with my father, the Sea King, under the water. Safe from all the horrible things on land like Berc’s illness and family curses.
Your tail will then disappear, and shrink up into what mankind calls legs, and you will feel great pain, as if a sword were passing through you.
“Daddy, is that true?” I ask. “Is that really in the book or are you making that part up?”
“Gal, she has to give up her tail to love the prince and be human. There is a price for any kind of love.”
“Why would anyone want to become human?” I say. “Life on land is scary, right, Daddy?”
“Yes, but we must learn to be brave. That is the meaning of life.”
“Keep reading, Daddy. None of this makes any sense to me.”
“It will, Gal. It will. I promise.”
Beau goes back to the book. The little mermaid loves the prince but she can’t actually tell him because she gave up her voice, as well as her fin, for the smallest chance to marry him.
“Dad! That’s not right. What does he have to give up?”
My father laughs. “Let me keep reading and we’ll find out.”
“Wait a minute! What if I promise never to marry a prince, or anyone—can I get my legs turned into a fin? You know, the opposite of what she did?”
“Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way,” Beau says. “But I like that idea, Gal.”
Night has fallen; my mother has gone to sleep. I can no longer see the water in the distance. Beau kisses me on the top of my head, and keeps reading until the very end of the book.
The little mermaid drew back the crimson curtain of the tent, and beheld the fair bride with her head resting on the prince’s breast. She bent down and kissed his fair brow, then looked at the sky on which the rosy dawn grew brighter and brighter; then she glanced at the sharp knife, and again fixed her eyes on the prince, who whispered the name of his bride in his dreams. She was in his thoughts, and the knife trembled in the hand of the little mermaid: then she flung it far away from her into the waves; the water turned red where it fell, and the drops that spurted up looked like blood.
I sob into my father’s chest. “I’ve never heard anything so horrible. She should have put the dagger in the prince’s chest and gotten her tail back. Instead, the Little Mermaid dissolves into nothing. She’s foam. It’s like the mermaid drowns. So cruel. ”
“Or maybe, so very kind, because she let the Prince live.”
“She died because she loved him, Dad. It’s different. She did all the suffering for love.”
“I guess you are right, Gal.”
My father tucks me into bed and sits down next to me.
“Let’s say a prayer,” he says.
“Yes, let’s pray to God that we don’t drown, and that I don’t fall in love with a selfish prince. Right, Dad?”
“Dear God, we pray tonight for all the people lost at sea. And for all the people whose brains are floating lost in their own spinal fluid. Help us live and love while we can. To make sacrifices for other people. To save people from suffering as best we can. Please help me raise young Nancy to be a person as good as her Grandmother. Give her the strength that she needs to grow up in the world, and to help me one day when I need her to make decisions about my life. Amen.”