Warning: This poem contains intense topics. Hankie warning! Highlight to read the warnings, some of which are spoilers. It features the aftermath of a drunken boating accident that killed the human pilot and a mother whale, relationship tangles, traumatic grief, traumatic fear, survivor guilt, self-blame, accidental temporary paralysis, Steel's attempt at interspecies first aid, retrieval of lost memories, followed by grief, worry, and other challenges. Readers with unresolved family losses may need extra support. If these are sensitive issues for you, please consider your tastes and headspace before reading onward.
"How to Hold the Darkness"
[Tuesday, April 7, 2015]
After the tragic incident with
the orphaned whale, Graham
needed a few days to recover.
He took advantage of
some professional support,
which helped sort through
his own feelings about it.
He went through several calls
with Shiv to address various issues,
along with other family challenges.
Then Graham went back to the Maldives.
Jumpship left him on the Bilimbi,
a little cuddy cabin boat that
gave Aquariana easy access
for working with the whales.
Captain Boshi Koul handled
the boat so everyone else
could focus on the whales.
"Thank you for coming back,"
Aquariana said. "After what
happened, I wasn't sure
that you would want to."
"I'm fine now. How is Steel
doing?" Graham said, scanning
the water in search of him.
"He's not violent, but I don't think
he's doing well," Aquariana said.
"Steel barely speaks to anyone
except the folks who are helping
him feed Shale in some way."
"Any idea why?" Graham said.
"He doesn't like humans even at
the best of times, but this seems
like more," Aquariana said. "I'm
guessing that either Steel feels
more threatened by people than
usual, he's afraid of hurting us, or
both." She sighed. "Probably both."
"Well, that's understandable,"
Graham said. "I can start
with Shale, if he's willing."
"He's still skittish about
humans, but getting better,"
Aquariana said. "I think
it helps that Moderato
actually likes people."
"That's a good sign,"
Graham said, nodding.
"Oh, there they are now!"
Aquariana pointed to
the low, bushy spout
of a humpback whale,
followed by the small left
spout of a sperm calf.
Captain Koul aimed
the boat in that direction,
keeping the speed low,
then cut the engines and
let the whales swim in
as close as they wanted.
You came back, Moderato said.
"I said I would," Graham replied.
"What happened a few days ago
was upsetting, but I'm okay now.
I talked to a few people who
helped me through it, and then
I had some family entanglements
of my own to handle. I'm here now."
Steel worries and worries that
he has hurt you, Moderato said.
He doesn't want to admit it, but
I think that he admires you.
"That's very thoughtful of him,
and if he'll just come see for
himself, I'm quite all right now,"
Graham said. "How is Shale?"
Still sad most of the time, but
he's eating better -- the landers
finished the feeding jacket
for Steel, said Moderato.
"I'm happy to hear that
the feeding jacket is done,"
Graham said. "Will Shale
come up and talk with me?
I'd like to see him again."
Moderato dipped beneath
the waves, tucked a fin under
Shale, and boosted him up.
"Hi, Shale," said Graham.
"Do you remember me?"
Shale gave a sneezy spout.
I remember, he said. I
still miss my mama.
"Of course you do,"
Graham said. "Are you
still thinking about her
most of the time?"
Yes, Shale said.
It makes me sad.
"It makes me sad, too,
but there are things we
can do to feel better,"
Graham assured him.
We sang for mama,
Shale said. That
helped ... a little.
"That's what funerals
are for," Graham said.
"They help us remember
the people we love after
they're gone. Sometimes
people make scrapbooks --
collections of images -- but
that wouldn't work for you."
Show me? Moderato said,
suddenly curious. Humans
fascinated the humpback.
Graham thought about
his family scrapbook, then
the trauma scrapbooks that
he helped clients make to put
their tragedies in perspective.
We can sing that, Moderato said.
We make pictures with sound.
I don't want to, Shale said.
"You don't have to if it doesn't
feel right to you," Graham said.
"Will you tell me why not, though?"
Because it's all my fault, Shale wailed.
I wanted to the see the boats and
mama said not too close so we
stayed back but one hit us
and now she's dead!
"That's not your fault,"
Graham said. "You were
following the rules by staying
away from the lane. The man
driving the boat was very drunk,
not being careful, so he went
outside the lane and hit you."
If I hadn't wanted to see
the boats then mama would
still be with me, Shale sniffled.
"Nothing you did could have
changed anything," Graham said.
"Being angry and blaming yourself
for not being able to control the past
or the future is only going to hurt worse.
If you keep thinking like this, you will
just magnify the pain, which isn't good."
It's hard to stop crying, Shale said.
I stop but then I start back up again.
I feel like I'm drowning and can't breathe.
"Grief is like the rain, Shale," said Graham.
"Sometimes it rains a little, and sometimes
it's a monsoon for months. It's not the rain
that makes you feel like you're drowning,
it’s the pain of wanting to control the sun."
I don't understand, Shale protested.
"You will eventually," Graham said.
"It takes time to see how grief
breaks up, like clouds, and
lets the sun shine through."
?? Shale sent, and Graham
realized that despite speaking
as well as a much older child,
the calf was too young to have
seen the seasons cycle yet.
"Like this," Graham said.
He thought of the seasons in
California, then the Maldives,
focusing on the rain patterns
and how they broke apart.
Your home is so strange,
Moderato said, but it
is very beautiful.
Then a wave pushed
Shale toward the Bilimbi,
making him squeal and
thrash away from it.
"Are you okay? Did you
hurt your back?" Graham said.
My back doesn't hurt, Shale said.
Boats are scary. Landers are scary!
"This is a pretty small boat,"
Graham said. "I'm even smaller.
Do I seem all that scary to you?"
Not as much, Shale admitted.
You feel different in my head.
How small are you, really?
"This small," Graham said,
leaning over the side of
the boat with one hand
clutching the grab bar
at the back corner.
I can't see you,
You're all blurry.
He is in the air, not
the water, Moderato said.
You are supposed to breathe
the air, not look through it.
"I can get in the water,"
Graham said. "You just
have to be very gentle
with me, because you're
so much bigger than I am."
"Do you need a blanket
to change clothes behind?"
Aquariana asked him.
"No, I wore trunks under
my clothes," Graham said.
He peeled off his clothes,
grateful that he had applied
sunscreen before leaving home.
Even the Sunspot on his hand
was still a cheerful green.
When he slipped into
the turquoise water, it
felt as warm as a bath,
the waves barely bobbing.
You're so tiny! Shale said,
coming alongside him.
The baby whale, dwarfed
by Moderato's adult bulk,
was more than twice as long
as Graham and probably
weighed as much as a car.
"Yes, I'm much smaller
than you are," Graham said.
It was easy to float in the seawater,
not far from the boat, and it was
downright magical to swim
with two real live whales.
We make you happy,
"You're beautiful and
exciting," Graham said.
"I never imagined getting
to swim with whales."
Moderato was graceful
as a dancer in the water,
but Shale was as clumsy
as any child and still injured.
When the calf drifted too close,
Graham put out a hand to keep
them from colliding, and Shale
let out a series of sharp clicks.
And Graham's whole arm went numb.
Hush! Steel barked. You cannot
look at landers so closely, Shale.
They are too fragile for that.
The great whale appeared
beside them almost instantly,
yet without a ripple in the water.
You cannot swim like that,
Steel said to Graham,
although Graham had
no trouble treading water.
I will put you back in the boat.
It felt like being cupped in
a rubbery sheet as Steel
lifted him out of the water
and deposited him delicately
on the deck of the Bilimbi.
"Shale got a little too close,
and now my arm's asleep,"
Graham said. He managed
to twitch his fingers. "Steel
is chewing him out, but
I think I'll be all right."
He sat on the edge of
the boat. "Steel, it's okay,
I don't think Shale hurt me."
You do not know that,
Steel said sharply. He is
too young to know any better.
He could have injured you.
Then Graham felt something
like wet hands sliding over
him, first the good arm,
and then the numb one.
It squeezed gently -- testing
the muscle tone, he realized.
Then it lifted his arms, moving
the fingers one at a time.
Awed, Graham held still and
permitted the examination.
"Do you want to see how
human arms are supposed
to work?" Graham offered.
More curious than worried
now, Steel browsed through
Graham's knowledge of
anatomy and medicine.
A faint buzz vibrated
through the boat, so softly
that Graham would have
thought he was imagining it
except that it had a pattern.
Steel was actually looking
through him, very carefully.
"What do you see?" Graham said.
I think you will be all right, said Steel.
Your arm is just stunned, like the fish --
if we do not eat them, then they
wake up soon and swim away.
"It's good to get a second opinion,"
Graham said. "Thanks for checking."
If you do not feel completely normal
when the sun goes down, you should
talk to the landers who fix bodies,
Steel said. Until then, be careful.
"I'll be careful," Graham promised.
"As for getting help if I need it, well,
most of my family are people who
fix bodies, or in my case, minds."
They are valued, Steel said.
Especially Aida, who cherishes
the ocean as much as one born
to it. I would not send you
home to them damaged.
"Thank you," Graham said.
"I'm glad you came up to talk
with me, even if it was just
to rescue me from Shale."
He is young. He will learn,
Steel said. For now, though,
he should eat and then nap.
Graham couldn't resist
leaning over to look, and
was surprised that nursing
didn't take long for whales.
They did it in big gulps, and
the milk was so rich that
a little went a long way.
Moderato will watch Shale
while he sleeps, Steel explained
as the two of them moved away.
"Will you stay to talk some more,
or have you had enough of me
for the time being?" Graham said.
What do you want to talk about?
Steel asked, heavy with suspicion.
"Whatever you want," Graham said.
"The last few days have been rough.
Are you coping okay, or would you
like some fresh ideas from someone
who knows a lot of coping skills?"
The memories are ... difficult,
Steel said. They jut out like
broken coral after a storm, and
cut me when I least expect it.
"That's hard, but it's part of life,"
Graham said. "Memory, when it juts,
retreats, recovers, shows us how
to hold the darkness, how to breathe."
I do not know how to remember and
breathe freely at the same time,
Steel said. I wind up gasping.
"Here, I'll show you," Graham said.
He didn't think the linen closet metaphor
would make much sense to a whale, so
he imagined a treasure chest instead.
At least Steel had probably seen those
while exploring shipwrecks before.
He imagined a chest full of things
all jumbled together, so that tugging
on one made them all spill out.
Then he imagined a chest with
everything neatly organized, from
which he could take a memory of
his mother's cameo necklace
without disturbing anything else.
It hurt a little -- it always did --
but he could breathe through it,
slow and deep, like he had
learned in therapy long ago.
"There, you see?" Graham said.
"Breathing through the pain is
a skill, Steel, it takes practice
and knowing what you're doing."
You sound like Irene, said Steel.
"Oh, is she a counselor?" Graham said.
"Sometimes we tend to sound alike."
She said ... a peaceworker? Steel sent.
She works with people who have been
hurt. I met her after the whalers tried
to murder me again. It was a hard time.
"I'm sorry that humans have been so cruel
to you," Graham said earnestly. "I wish
I could make up for that somehow."
A low hum vibrated through the ship.
You already have, Steel murmured.
"Then I'm glad I could help,"
Graham said. "Nobody should
have to deal with loss alone.
It's hard enough with help."
Steel's mind stroked along
his own. You understand
what it is like to be broken.
"I do," Graham said. "When I
was in college, learning how to be
a psychiatrist, there was a rule that
we all had to go through therapy so
that we understood what it was like,
before guiding someone else in it."
A wise rule, Steel said. You cannot
lead where you have not gone first.
"Exactly," Graham said. "Well, I knew
that I had a lot of unresolved grief from
losing half my family, because it happened
when I was so little that all I understood
was that they were gone. So I chose
to tackle that, and I absolutely went
to pieces. My advisor had to pull me
out of classes until I recovered."
Another nudge, followed by
a gentle probing pressure
along the seams of his mind.
Graham let Steel explore.
You are whole now, Steel said.
The edges do not tear at you.
"As whole as I can be, after
what happened," Graham said.
"Think of it like closing a wound
with stitches. It heals better,
but it still leaves a scar."
They shared a memory
of Shale's back, tacked up
with a row of dexflan stitches.
I truly did not mean to hurt you
that day, Steel said. I am sorry.
"I forgive you," Graham said.
"It's not the first time that I've
gotten dinged up at work, and
I'm sure it won't be the last."
Even though it made you sick
and didn't go away? Steel said.
"It went away, it just took longer
and a little help," Graham said. "I'm
okay now. Really, this happens
about once a year. It's not as bad
as getting kicked in the face."
Graham let Steel glimpse
a few of those memories,
too, hiding only the faces
and not his own emotions.
You value these experiences,
even though they hurt you,
Steel said, puzzled by it.
"Yes," Graham said. "They
help me understand my clients,
like you. I haven't been hunted
as food, but I've had people
threaten to kill me. I've lost
people I loved. It gives us
some things in common."
how emotions could
punch and smash
through your calm,
breaking it up like ice
so the shards floated in
the dark restless water.
It hurts, Steel mused.
And then it heals, somehow.
"It does," Graham said.
"Heartache purged layers of
baggage I didn’t know I carried.
Gifts hide under the layers of grief."
You have remarkable gifts, for one
who claims not to be a superhero,
Steel said, his tone warm and dry.
"These are the last gifts my family
could give me," Graham said. "I just
wish that I'd had more time with
them. I barely remember them,
and most of that is ... impressions,
rather than a clear narrative."
You remember, but you
do not know how to find
the memories, Steel said.
"Perhaps that's true," Graham said.
"I tried some regression techniques
in therapy, but I never got much more
than what I recalled consciously."
Steel snorted. Your minds are so tiny,
I don't understand how you can get
so lost in them, but you do. I've rarely
known a lander with any real skill in
memory. You do better than most,
and you cannot do this simple thing.
"It's not simple to me, Steel,"
Graham whispered. "It's really not."
Do you want me to help you?
Steel asked. It is simple for me.
He had offered before, but
both of them had been
too overwhelmed at
the time to manage it.
"Yes, please," Graham said.
"I want to remember them."
And then he was somewhere else.
The air was a shade of grey-gold
that he couldn't recall seeing before,
sunlit fog softening all the edges.
A girl and a boy played catch
with a stuffed dog, and the grass
beneath their feet was so green
that it looked like spilled paint.
He knew them. He knew
that Roisin was his sister
and her favorite color was
salmon, not pink; that
Ethan was his brother
and loved to play pranks,
like snitching the toy.
Graham wanted that dog
with a purity of desire
he hadn't felt in years.
He wriggled, and his chair
wrapped its arms around him.
He was sitting in Da's lap,
and the breeze smelled of
shepherd's pie with real lamb,
because that was Da's favorite.
The dog sailed overhead, and
Graham squealed, his voice
sounding high and strange.
"Ethan, that's enough,"
Da said firmly. "Give
Moppet back to Graham
now, he's still too little
to understand pranks."
"Sorry, baby brother,"
Ethan said as he handed
the stuffed dog back.
"It was just a game."
"Tha," Graham said,
squeezing the dog.
Then he pulled Ethan
into Da's lap, and Roisin
followed. "Is fearr liom."
The scene faded.
Graham came to
curled on the deck of
the Bilimbi and sobbing
onto Aquariana's shoulder.
The pain of loss felt fresh
as the day it happened,
bright and burning like
seawater in an open wound,
but at least it was clean.
He could face the grief
as a grownup, now that
he knew how to deal with it
instead of being overwhelmed.
It was all about letting the memories
jut, retreat, recover, moving like the sea.
You had to know how to hold the darkness,
and just concentrate on your breathing.
Graham sat up, wiping his face,
and Aquariana handed him
a handkerchief that must have
come from someone else, since
she was still bare as an egg.
"Are you hurt?" she demanded.
"What happened? One minute
you were fine, then you fell apart!"
"I asked Steel to remind me of
my family, and he did," Graham said.
"It just aches, because they're gone.
But I'm deeply grateful for the chance
to be with them again, even if it hurts."
He slung an arm over the side of
the boat and hauled himself up
to sit on the edge, looking down.
Steel was right underneath him,
so close that Graham could have
reached out and touched him.
Graham wasn't sure how
someone with such a rigid face
could manage to look worried,
but Steel managed all right.
Maybe it was the wrinkles
around the tennis-ball-sized eye.
"Thank you," Graham said.
"Don't worry about me crying, I'll
be okay. I expected that to happen,
but I guess I should have warned you."
I have not hurt you? Steel whispered.
"No more than I asked for," Graham said.
"I'm sad, but I'm happy too." With
the ease of long familiarity, he
reached into the grey-gold swirl
of emotions and brought out the joy.
Steel's touch was soft as seafoam.
I am glad that you are unharmed. I was
afraid I had broken you somehow.
"You know, life fractures all of us
into little pieces," Graham said.
"It harms us, but it’s how we glue
those fractures back together
that makes us stronger."
Then I think you must be
one of the strongest people
that I know, Steel said.
"I feel the same way
about you," Graham said.
Then, greatly daring, he
reached down toward the water.
Steel rolled, lifting his nose so it
just brushed Graham's fingertips.
Graham took that memory
and tucked it carefully away in
the treasure chest of his heart,
next to the handful of Hugo
reaching out to him for help.
* * *
This poem is long, so its notes appear separately.