WARNING: This whole poem is about past death and traumatic grief, and how to cope with that. It includes graphic descriptions of intense emotions which may be upsetting to recently bereaved people. Please consider your tastes and headspace before reading onward.
"Tidefeel and Undertowen"
Aquariana watched Irene as
the Jeanne Baret rode the waves
in search of their whales.
Irene had offered to help Steel
with his difficulties, and surprisingly,
the great whale had agreed.
Today the peaceworker wore
a loose top of cool seafoam green
with a white heart tie-dyed onto the chest,
over a crinkly wrap skirt of darker olive.
One bare foot bounced gently in time
to the waves as they cruised along.
To Aquariana's surprise, it was Steel
who first appeared at the surface,
followed a moment later by Moderato.
The distinctive forward-left spout
of the sperm whale was just far enough
from the boat to avoid soaking them
with the salty spray of his breath.
Morning, Steel rumbled.
"Good morning, Steel,"
said Aquariana. "I brought
Irene for you to talk with, so she
can help you with your feelings."
Nothing helps much, Steel said,
sinking lower in the clear water.
But it is ... kind of you to try.
Irene didn't try to cheer him up.
"Sometimes it takes a while to find
a technique that works for you, and
until then, you feel awful," she said.
"How about you tell me what's
bothering you, and then we'll
search for solutions."
Even though Aquariana
was prepared for it, the wave
of ancient grief left her reeling.
It is the same as I said in
the trial, Steel sent. Landers
have murdered my family and
tried to eat me. It is good that
people now recognize how
wrong that is, but I still feel --
The telepathic communion
dissolved into a muddle of
confounded and miserable
emotions all churning together.
Irene stood up much better under
the onslaught. "Loss, confusion,
sorrow, anger," she said. "It helps
to name your emotions so you can
separate them from each other.
What else are you feeling?"
Guilt, Steel whispered. I tried
to save them but could not.
"Survivor guilt is a terrible thing,"
Irene said. "People tell you that
it's not your fault and you shouldn't
feel guilty, but that's nonsense. You
feel it, so you have to deal with it."
Aquariana immediately felt guilty
for having said exactly that to Steel.
It was part of her EFA training:
assure the survivor that what
happened was not their fault.
But Irene was a survivor, too,
so perhaps this was better left
in those more experienced hands.
Why did they have to die,
while I still live? Steel went on.
"That's a good question," Irene said.
"Why do you think you survived
when other people didn't?"
Steel stumbled over her reply
with an almost tangible whump!
of unbalanced confusion.
He'd asked the question
countless times, but never
actually answered it.
"See, everyone has things to do
in this life," Irene said. "If you're
still here, then you're not done yet.
That's all it means, Steel. Either
you're done and gone, or here and
still working on it. So the real question
is: what can you do, that nobody else
can do, and is really important?"
Steel's mind swirled through a roil
of memories, from his protective urge
toward friends and family
to his superpower.
I don't know, he said.
"You've already done a lot
to stamp out whaling," said Irene.
"You've also made impressive gains
in interspecies diplomacy. Both
of those are worthy goals."
I could not have done it without you,
Moderato said, joining the conversation.
They needed to feel your grief before
they would stop the hunting. I had
only fear to share, and the landers
do not care so much about that.
Perhaps, Steel replied.
Then Aquariana recalled a book
that she had read while studying
the backlash against superpowers.
"There's a piece of human history that
might interest you," she said. "You may
appreciate Man's Search for Meaning.
It was written by a Holocaust survivor.
I could bring it and read it to you or --"
What happened next was like nothing
that Aquariana had ever experienced.
Steel caught the thread of memory
and somehow followed it down and in,
dredging up the whole book from
the depths of her mind, along with
the turmoil of emotions it caused her.
When he finished, she was left gasping
on the beach of her mind, too dizzy to do
anything other than cling to consciousness.
It hadn't been violent, just overwhelming.
Yessss, said Steel. That is how I feel.
I did not know landers could feel it too.
"I think it's part of being a person,"
Irene said. "When we're hurt, we all
have this instinct to wonder why,
not just at the time of the trauma,
but through all the aftershocks of
fear and sorrow and rage that follow.
Those things change us."
The worst part of it is,
Steel sent, that no matter
how often you shoulder aside
the emotions, you know that they
will always come back for you.
Aquariana could feel the shape
of the emotion inside him, rippling
through the link to spill over her,
and it felt like a tide -- like waiting
for a tide to come and knock her
off of her feet with cold salt water.
"That's terrible," she said.
It reminded her horribly of how
Haboob had tried to murder her
by stranding her in the desert,
and how it make her feel like
a stranger in her own skin.
"Yes, it is," said Irene.
"But we survived, and that
is a source of strength. We are
here, so we will keep going."
Where Steel was going was down, though,
and he pulled their thoughts with him.
When they come for you it feels like
an undertow, sucking you into
the cold dark water where you
cannot breathe, said Steel.
There is no purpose, only
the pain and the rage.
Aquariana remembered the time
she had snared her scuba gear on
a coral outcropping and almost
drowned, the giddiness of the deep
closing in before a pod of dolphins
had ushered her to safety.
It was that memory which
brought Steel back to the surface
with a snort of seawater and
a wordless apology.
"It's okay," Aquariana said.
"I knew this would be a rough ride,
and I don't abandon my friends
when they need my help."
She still felt strange, though.
Bizarrely, the tactile sensation
was not of emotions inside the body
as it was for humans, but around it,
a force both foreign and overwhelming
as it wrenched against skin and bone.
Aquariana struggled to put the feelings
into words, but they were not quite
the same as human emotions.
Fear and dread and desperation
all had something in common with
them, but not quite everything.
"We need some new words,"
she muttered. "Nothing fits."
So she and Irene talked around
the sense of ominous waiting
to be sideswiped by rising grief,
and decided to call it tidefeel.
The perception of drowning in
emotions as they sucked you under
posed more of a challenge.
"I like 'undertowed' but it sounds
like 'toad' and we already get
enough jokes about undertoads,"
Aquariana said. "If we go with fly,
flow, flown, then it's 'undertown' and
that sounds like 'tone' but people
will read it like 'city' instead."
"So add an extra 'e' like 'broken'
toward the end," said Irene.
That is what I feel, Steel agreed.
My sorrow is tidefeel and undertowen.
No matter how I fight it, it always comes
for me in the end, dragging me down.
There is ... there is no escaping it.
His fear made little eddies in
his grief as it passed through
the human visitors above.
"How do you escape a riptide?"
Irene asked, tilting her head.
"Swim across it," everyone chorused.
"So it is with emotions," Irene said.
"You will never escape your pain by
fighting it, Steel. Grief is a tide stronger
than anyone can swim against, and in
the end it will tow you under to drown.
You must find a way to swim across it."
I do not know how, Steel admitted.
"Some people find that it helps
to connect with others," Irene said,
"especially to share memories of who or
what they have lost. You could try that."
There are none now living who
remember my mate and our calf,
Steel said, except for myself. They
are both lost to time and tidefeel.
"Tell us about them," said Irene.
"Humans have a saying that
what is remembered, lives.
If you describe them to us,
then we will know them and
share your memories of them."
"We can help you carry the grief,"
Aquariana said, "if you let us."
Tell us, Moderato whispered.
I have asked and asked but you
would never share that time in your life
with me. It is part of who you are,
and I want to know all of you.
Aquariana held her breath, waiting.
My mate was very patient,
Steel sent slowly. I do not know
what she heard in me, only that
Shell loved me, no matter how
grouchy I could get at times.
She made me feel quiet inside.
The sense that came with the story
was sweet and serene, so that
Aquariana was reminded of all
the silly New Age nonsense
about whales as "sea angels."
But Shell was like a hurricane in
the ocean -- when she grew angry,
she pulled in everything around her and
used it against her opponent, Steel went on.
I saw her kill a giant squid once, and she
tore a hole in the ship that slew her.
His sense of amused admiration, and
a hint of wariness, washed over them.
Moderato rolled over in glee.
Our son's name was Bumper,
because he liked to ram things,
He was not like me, Steel said.
He was bold and carefree.
The memory shone with
joy and pride, as bright
as a sunbeam piercing
through dark water.
They could see-feel-hear
the little whale bapping
back and forth between
his amused parents like
a giant ping-pong ball.
The happy memories
inevitably led to horror,
Steel's burned-in trauma of
seeing his family butchered right
in front of him, the awful scene
replayed over and over again with
the relentless force of survivor guilt.
Irene was ready for it this time,
and she threw the weight
of her mind against his.
Steel didn't budge, as lost
in his grief as ever before.
But Aquariana was there too,
and Moderato whose mental gifts
outweighed even those of Steel.
"Swim across the riptide,"
Irene reminded them, and they
were all water folk, so that skill was
worn into them from long practice.
They strove against the tide of grief,
and finally pulled free of it, floating
in calmer waters once again.
Thank you, Steel said,
the thought tinged with guilt,
but also appreciation, and even hope.
"That's enough heavy work for today,"
Irene declared. "Come back with us.
I finished making your wind chime."
Steel sighed, a faint spray of fog.
I do not feel much like playing.
"Neither did I, for months," Irene said.
"Joy is a skill that you have to relearn
after a tragedy. I did, and so can you.
During the trial, you didn't feel playful
until I brought out the toys, and then you
couldn't get enough of the metal ones."
Steel did not reply, so Aquariana
picked up the thread. "You made
a wind chime for whales?" she said.
"How in the world does that work?"
"Well, I found this giant gear wheel
and chained some oil drums to it,"
said Irene. "They're even tuned to play
different notes, like making a steelpan drum.
Then I suspended the whole thing from
an elephant bungie. I think it's neat."
It is made all of metal? Steel said,
curiosity swirling around them.
"Come and find out," Irene said, and
Aquariana took that as her cue to turn
the Jeanne Baret back toward the harbor.
After a moment, Steel turned to follow them.
* * *
See Aquariana's houseboat, the Jeanne Baret, and read about women in oceanography. Here is the floor plan. The deck has lounge chairs and a table.
This is Irene's heart blouse and skirt.
Healing from grief takes time. Sharing memories of the deceased is one way of coping. Relearning how to have fun is another.
Survivor guilt has its own moral logic. Dealing with it is complicated. It's okay to feel guilty or wonder "why me?" at times. Understand how to heal from survivor guilt and how to support a grieving friend.
Living a life of purpose helps people find meaning in their experiences. Everybody has one (or more), but not everybody knows what that is. Know how to find your life purpose.
Irene uses an elephant bungie to suspend Steel's windchime. The giant gear serves as a top wheel to connect the parts of the windchime; it is a little taller than a typical person. Here's an example of an elephant windchime made with plastic drums. Steel's is similar to that, just made from metal.