By Meredith Fein Lichtenberg
I’m watching the water roll in, walking quickly along the shore while there’s still land to walk on. I know I could make it around the whole tidal island, back to the wooden stairs set into the rock face, and then up to the summer cottage, before the tide stops me. But I was delayed setting out—by what, I don’t remember now: an unexpected load of laundry, a lost Pokémon card, a creeping Daddy Long Legs that spooked my daughter out of her nap.
I walk briskly, but I can’t make up the time: I’m three-quarters of the way around, but the beach gets shorter and shorter. Now I’m walking right up next to the rocks. Now I’m tying my sneakers around my neck and water splashes over my feet.
I’m walking faster, grinning as I try to outrun it although I know I can’t—it’s much more powerful than I am. Now I’m hiking my skirt up to keep it dry, and finally I have to swim. As I ease into the water, I’m laughing that it beat me, and I’m more than a bit exhilarated, hooked. I was ripe for the taking, ready to be swept away by it or by something else.
When we first arrived here, we’d driven slowly, the way you do when you don’t know the roads yet, where each turn in the road or unusually shaped tree might be the landmark that you’ll imprint on your memory. We worried, driving beneath the canopy of old pine and oak trees, that we’d missed a turn—wasn’t there supposed to be a bridge?—then the road dropped off abruptly, and a wide salt marsh spread out endlessly left and right: long, waving grass, divided by a gray wooden bridge. Across it, the narrow road climbed steeply into the pine forest, winding across the island to cliffs facing Cape Cod Bay. Only it wasn’t an island, just then, because the tide was low.
After we found the cottage, the rest of my family ran to climb down the cliff to the vast, shell-strewn beach, but I stayed to explore the inside. I found that the owners had left us a calendar. It showed the phases of the moon and the height of each day’s tides, drawn as parabolic curves along the calendar page. Each day, I saw, as the moon waned to a crescent, the high tide water would surge higher. It would cover the beach to the rocks. It would fill the creek below the bridge we’d crossed. It would overflow whole salt marsh, cover the tall grass, spill onto the pavement, make the road impassable, at first for minutes, but then longer and longer each day. By the new moon—they called it the “astronomical high tide”—the road would flood for hours, cutting us off from the bridge, the rest of the Cape, and the world.
Vacation is always lulling and maybe a beach vacation even more so, but this cut-off place that’s drowned twice daily makes me feel almost drunk. Since the road floods at inconvenient times, and I’m not a planner, we rarely get off the island. I never get away from it long enough to come down, so I keep feeling all I want is more. It is enjoyable in a way that feels a little naughty, like a cocktail hour that goes on for weeks.
In the hall, there’s an aerial photo of the island. I can make out the pitched roof of our cottage, a speck of reddish shingle visible through the knot of pine branches and scrub oak. The Bay water swirls around like a Van Gogh, but the colors are blurred, so you can’t tell whether you’re looking at water or sand or marsh. I pore over the photo, and the tide calendar, and my maps, obsessively. I don’t want to think about anything else.
I take down the photo, and soon I’m carrying it with me from room to room. Each time I look at it, hungrily, it’s like I’m taking another hit. This was how I was when my kids were infants: they cried, or even just peeped, and I became dopey with the strength of the call, impelled to respond to it. I was obsessed with their rhythms, disinclined to get far enough away from them to sober up and see it more clearly. This didn’t happen the instant they were born, of course; at first there was the shock at what I’d lost.
But when that subsided, it was obvious: my babies’ needs were clear, irrefutable. When they needed, simply, my breast, all I had to be was the breast they needed. It made me docile. Every time I looked at them, I was drunk with it again. It wasn’t just that I was broken, or that my instincts rose up and I saw I was perfect for the role just by being a mammal. It wasn’t even that, as the weeks passed, I did it for the sake of the love growing between us. Yes, it was those things, but more than that, living so completely constrained by them, living utterly in their minutes, there was so much about me that I did not have to decide. It was heady. For a while, I could be simply a mother with her young, fecund, legitimate, uncomplicated.
When the tide comes in, we walk down to the bridge and see teenagers who gather there to jump into the cold Bay water. A handful of skinny boys with farmer tans goggle at the curves that half a dozen sunburned girls are trying to camouflage under shorts; their play-acted confidence is punctuated by giggling. When the intensity peaks, they all jump off the bridge to cool off. Wading in the marsh, collecting green crabs with my kids, I’m aware that I have all the freedom the teenagers imagine they want, and even access to adventures they haven’t dreamt of yet.
And, yet, I am spending my vacation at the one shelly beach near the cottage, snacking on stale bunny-shaped cheese crackers because we’re out of peaches and the tide too high right now for me to cross the bridge and drive off-island to the farm stand. I’m not restless. If I stay here, in sync with spring tide and neap tide, it will shape the day for me. And that feels, at the moment, perfect. People talk about freedom like it’s only a good thing, an ideal, the ideal, but it’s also so damn demanding. This feeling of containment—we can’t leave because the tide’s in—takes the pain of decisions away; it’s easy to surrender to it.
Surrender is so unlike regular life. It’s not maybe we should stop using plastic wrap is it worthwhile to buy Ad Words for my website do you think we should talk to your parents about getting long-term-care insurance I wonder if that conference is a good networking opportunity or a waste of time, and by the way who might I be in this life I’m making? Only, simply, yes, now, for you. Regular life has freedom. But there’s a different liberation in being defined, for a while, by something bigger than you—the ocean, the infant’s hungry mouth. It made me happy for a long time.
This summer, for the first time since I last looked, Henry and Jane are not babies. Being fundamental to their hourly survival has, I realize, long since given way to lovable, fungible parenting. There is time now to attend to questions of plastic wrap, Ad Words, long-term care insurance, networking, other things. But I’m soft and used to surrender. There’s a vacuum where babies’ rhythms once defined me. In the vacuum, I reach for something else to contain me, to numb me, to let it stay simple a little longer, and in flows the tide, also gigantic, demanding, beautiful, and simple. It carries me along, willingly.
I walk around thinking “water.” Water. Water and water and water and water and water and what more would I want and I’ll be the island and let it suffuse me, shape me, create me. I feel I am helpless for it, that sparkling feeling that takes over, makes me feel something-like-happy, and a little dumb. I just want to think about it again and again, to be near it and let it command me and keep out all the other big stuff. I feel I am in love with the rhythm of the tide. And is that so weird, really? I was also, twice, in love with babies who were, then, little more than mouths, lungs, and assholes. They were my flood and ebb, and I loved them, and I love this.
Somehow, though, one day, we venture out to see friends. We return home late in the evening, sleepy, and as the car comes over the hill, I literally gasp to see the marsh, spread-eagled, careless, before us, and island rising up beyond it, awaiting inundation. The bridge is dimly lit by a handful of stars to the east and the last bit of sunset to the west. Water is everywhere, and I’m so instantly pulled back into its magic that it takes me a minute to realize that we misjudged the timing. It’s half an hour before high tide, but already the pavement is wet. A man with binoculars tells us we can’t cross safely till the tide turns and water ebbs away. His shoulders are low and his feet are in waders. He speaks in a slow, authoritative cadence. “The road dips down on the far side of the bridge. Even if it’s still passable here, it’s too dangerous on the island side.”
I blink dumbly, repeatedly. “We have to wait?” I ask.
Greg quietly suggests we leave the car and hike home in the dark, and some tiny fraction of me briefly imagines us wading across and climbing through woods lit only by a merest sliver of moon. It’s what we’d have done before the kids. But Henry worriedly asks what we’ll do, and Jane observes that it’s very dark. I am as slow as a cow, disoriented, but I can see that she would need to be carried and he would complain all the way back. My habit of surrendering doesn’t lend itself to adventuresome thinking.
So we wait. A long, cranky hour passes in the car. I open the windows and look out at the stars and the marsh. Even in darkness, I can see the water moving in; I can hear it, moving towards me, relentless.
The kids respond to long periods of confinement with a kind of hideous duet—each takes solo verses to opine about the injustice of having had to share the one good fishing net all day, or our present lack of snacks and entertainment. Then they come together for a complain-y, bickering chorus that would sober anyone up, their voices joined in harmonious resentment. It is my least favorite sound track.
I think of whole days trapped with them—hundreds of them—with a toddler insatiable for endless rounds of The Erie Canal or a preschooler smelling every dog-piss-fertilized flower on the way to the store. How lovely it had been, at first, to surrender to them each time, to find their helplessness or curiosity thrilling, their appetite for repetition fascinating, clues to the people they’d grow to be. And yet sometimes I spent—I spend—a whole morning waiting for naptime, searching among my feelings for the peaceful surrender that came so naturally at first. Sometimes I find it again. Other times I feel, I want my fucking freedom. But motherhood deadens your impulses. You don’t leave a little one behind. You don’t even fantasize about it. You look at her and she pulls you back in and the restive feelings are all against your will.
The high tide finally rolls in and then begins to recede dreadfully slow. I am itching to get moving but I’m so tired. The sea’s undertow pulls some kind of crazy love out of me, undeniably; I don’t wish it away. It is irrational, the way it’s irrational to love being your babies’ bitch. But right now, strung out on the tide we’re tied to, I want to go home.
On the day of the New Moon, we finally join friends off-island, at the ocean. My toes sink in to the loose, white sand dunes there. Compared with the packed, moist Bay beach near our cottage, it’s hard to walk. The sun blazes, reflecting diamonds all around me, so bright that I’m confused; between the glare and the deafening surf, it seems our island is a cave we have hibernated in, and now, away from it, I’m jolted awake by hunger, amazed to reencounter the world—it’s huge and beautiful, and I’ve been asleep for years.
All at once, it’s evening. The idea of folding ourselves into the car, back to the cramped domesticity of the cottage is unbearable. I am suddenly ravenous. I want French fries and onion rings and fried oysters and stuffed quahogs, a baked potato with a little plastic container of sour cream and beer on tap and soft-serve ice cream. I want everything you can’t get at home.
We end up at a local place with a hundred other vacationers in skin tones ranging from sunburnt to roasted. We share a long picnic table with someone else’s bickering family. The kids, restless and whining, draw on paper placemats with broken crayons, and solve the word-find with the improbably misspelled “seafod.” The adults are clutching plastic lobsters that will light up and vibrate, eventually, to let us know our order is up. It’s too bright, too loud, hard to wait. Everyone is cranky, and I don’t feel like trying to make it better. I think, longingly, for a moment, of our tidal island, dark, limited, yes, but also a buffer against these harsh wilds of Tourist Restaurant Hell. It is a nest whose beauty makes me so dopey I call the drudgery of cooking and cleaning and caring for my little ones a “vacation.”
My life is that nest. I designed it to fit my peculiarities, to comfort me so I could brood and nurture my young and learn to be their mother. I placed each leaf and feather and twig painstakingly, then filled it with people I love. It limited my world, so I could focus on theirs. I made it so beautiful that living in it seemed like a terrific deal in exchange for my time, my body, my freedom. It was, once.
In the loud restaurant, now, everything seems distorted, pointed the wrong way, poking me; I have no room. This life I’ve so carefully built, loved ferociously, found so much more than satisfying, this nest, which suited us so well, it’s not just a nest, anymore. It’s a cage. And its bars, woven all around me, are the twigs and scraps I chose myself, placed with my own hands and heart, according to my own design, to contain me. The kids are hatched now; it’s only me still hoping to be comforted by containment—grasping at anything else that reminds me that for a brief time there was a role that suited me so perfectly I was willing to enslave myself.
My cheeks are hot with shame. Even birds, with their almond-sized brains, know that after the little ones hatch and fledge, it’s time for the mother to fly, again, too, to go anywhere, alight unsentimentally for sleep on any old twig. Even the most lovingly built and well-used nests are just for a sojourn. Only human mothers try to remain there so long that they go crazy. Only human mothers could try to stay in a cautious, protective role that fits less and less, a little longer, a little longer, to avoid seeing the loss, the heartbreak of being outgrown, the terror at what we might become next.
A while after the plastic lobsters vibrate, I want to get going. The high tide isn’t until late. “But it’s the new moon,” I say, over and over, more to myself than to anyone. But Henry and Jane dawdle with French fries, and on the way to the parking lot there’s No we can’t do mini-golf tonight and Fingers do not belong in your brother’s ear and Let it go, she said she was sorry. I gun the engine restlessly while everyone straps in.
Off the highway, I fly up the road with the pine canopy. I take the hill so fast that my stomach springs up to my throat and down to my groin. As we crest the top, I see alongside the marsh, several cars parked and slow-moving folks wading down to the bridge or standing, hands-on-hips, gazing into darkness. They’re here to see the astronomical high tide.
The water is already creeping up the road, farther than we’ve seen it before. In a wordless, agonized split-second calculation, Greg and I meet eyes and realize we’ll be trapped here till midnight.
I open the car door to see water already inches up the tire. It is closing in. It’s not containing me, holding me, providing me the structure I need. Not anymore.
Our eyes meet again for a moment as I make the decision. Then I drive forward, not testing, tentative, but lurching, foot to the floor. The water is deeper than I had guessed, the steering wheel not so responsive. But my foot is an anvil. The world dwindles to nothing except for my certainty that I must get across immediately. The car is listing to the left as we descend, deeper, towards the bridge, and it occurs to me that I could miss the bridge entirely and go straight into the creek. I think: I must get through this motherfucker! And then: This mother really may be fucked.
I’m loony, I think. But it’s moonless tonight, and I’m the opposite of loony: I’m emerging from a years-long dopey haze, and now getting out of it, I’m newly reusing a muscle I can only barely control. My pacing is wild. All I can think is that I must drive forward.
My aim is decent, and we’re up on the bridge, momentarily on dry ground, and I’m elated. We’re halfway there. We thunder across only to descend with a belly-flop splash to the further side. The causeway here is deeper, and for a moment, I can’t quite feel the pavement; are we floating?
My head is roaring, a chorus telling me to GO! GO! GO! Water is splashing over the hood of the car (GO!! KEEP GOING!). I need to turn on the wipers (GO!). It’s so dark that I can’t see where the road ends and the marsh begins. Are we veering left? If the tires go into the marsh, we are sunk (FASTER!). I can’t see the road at all (DON’T STOP! KEEP GOING!). There is no road (GO! GO GO GO!).
I hear Greg’s voice, as through a tunnel—is he telling me to slow down? I am afraid to listen, afraid that whatever he says will be like the newborn’s cry, like the rising tide, a Siren’s wail, tempting me back to the habit of following, surrendering, but I am in the driver’s seat now. We all need me to jam the pedal down and go forward, with no compass and no way to steer, navigating only by the imagined road ahead.
Then I’m on dry land, heading up the hill onto the island, speeding, now that I’m not dragged down by feet of water. We whip along the sand road, through the trees, the last mile through the steep forest.
Shaking and triumphant, I’ll be sore tomorrow, but for now, I’m laughing uncontrollably, giddy. I feel soaked with tears and sweat; adrenaline races through my arteries. Soon all four of us are whooping and giggling. At home, we put the kids in bed unceremoniously, still covered in beach and dinner, and Greg and I walk back down to the causeway without a flashlight. The pines above look like pulled cotton balls against the black sky, and the moonless night is so dark we navigate purely by memories of where the road curved or bent or rutted. We walk without speaking, dumbfounded, holding hands, and arrive exactly as the tide is high. The marsh is so full it looks like a lake, covering even the tallest grass, deep enough to reflect us, and the trees from the island and even the stars above. The sky and the water go on and on, even farther than I can dream of.
MEREDITH FEIN LICHTENBERG lives in New York City where she is a prenatal and parenting educator and a board-certified lactation consultant. Her writing has appeared in Brain, Child, The Mom Egg, The Huffington Post, and elsewhere, and she can be found online at www.amotherisborn.com. Her kids aren’t really called Henry and Jane; she wonders how life would have been different if they were.