Why Write Beyond the Breakers?
Eventually, everyone faces tragic grief. At some point they will lose someone dear to them. Sometimes it seems normal, as when a person dies at an old age. And then there are those other cases of prolonged illness, or the long lingering results of an accident, or a killing that results in premature death.
When it comes to the emptiness and pain of loss, arguably the worst loss is the sudden and unexpected death of your child. The death may be only at their start in life, or they may die in the midst of discovery at any age. What is left are unfinished lives, torn from their goals and their dreams far earlier than life’s intent. And your future dies with them.
The world goes on with the merest of notice. You want to scream, but you can’t, for it won’t help. Or, writing skills be damned, you want to put something down on paper that reminds the world of the wonder that’s been lost, but you can’t, not because you can’t write, but because you can’t write about it. And who will read it anyway?
So, that’s where I am stuck. My son of twenty-four years died suddenly, three thousand miles away from his mother and me. It has been nearly twenty years since…and I still cry.
Writing this book makes it no better. It is not my way of “letting it out,” but it is a story that knows why it screams in lonely silence. It is a fiction about non-fiction reality that all too many of us experience. I am not the protagonist, but I know how he feels. I know how he breathes. And I know how he yearns for justice. In my son’s case, the murderer was an accident, a wisp of fate. In the case of the son of the fictional Dale Riley Richards, it was an intentional bullet.
Beyond the Breakers
1 – The Ocean
Long Island is about 110 miles long east to west and about 30 miles wide at the thickest part north to south. That’s where I grew up – to the left of the middle.
Along the southern side there are a number of thin islands close to shore. The one separated from Long Island by Great South Bay is called Jones Beach Island. It contains Jones Beach State Park, which covers 6.5 miles of the island’s ten-mile length. It’s hot in the summer, cold in the winter, and has more sand than you could ever want to play in.
As a family, we often went to Jones Beach to swim in the Atlantic Ocean. I loved it there. Sometimes after my dad got home from work, we quickly drove out there and ate cold fried chicken and cold boiled potatoes in the cooling ocean breeze of the early evening. And the water was freezing too. It was great!
When I go there now my senses fill up with memories, mostly of the waves, beautiful and terrifying, waves that would knock the largest man down without any effort. The day after a hurricane went through, I once saw waves higher than the top of our house roof – power beyond belief – power from Hell! As a boy, I used to stand at the water’s edge and watch the waves come ashore in wild chaos, crashing down as frightening breakers, or so it seemed to me, fascinated and fearful. I couldn’t swim very well then, and have remained so, but I never even thought about the actual drowning process. It was simply the power of the breakers, simultaneously beautiful and deadly, that I feared. And yet the greatest lesson of my life was theirs to give me.
When the ocean was relatively calm, I could walk far out in the freezing water, but eventually a wave would always rise up to attack me. The fear of that wave, not of drowning, would overtake me, over wash me with shear unthinking terror, and there I was, just a little boy alone. I would run with legs as in a dream, slow, impeded, fighting the irresistible undertow, and seldom did I outrun the inevitable. I would tumble in a world of sand, water, violence, and darkness, drinking in the very wave I feared. I never cried, but it was my personal solid proof that going beyond the breakers was never to be done.
I look at ocean waves now, and they calm me down. Back then they were a living nightmare. Other children my age and younger would enter the water and go out beyond the breakers. “Just get beyond the breakers,” my parents would say, but I knew they were wrong. Yet, deep inside of me, the will and strength to do it was there all the time and growing. And then one day I did, and I became stronger than the ocean that threatened me. The ocean became calm for me in the midst of fury, chaos, and destruction.
The fear didn’t leave me, but now I knew its name, its face, its illusion. Now I could trick it, outsmart it, defy it.
And then I grew up and married, and we had a son who would hopefully someday learn the lesson of the breakers, but instead, in an instant, my wife and child were gone, as if washed out to sea by a violent, irresistible undertow, far beyond the breakers – lost in the darkness, yelling my name and yet uttering not a word, forever beyond my reach.
2 – The Aftermath
The murderer was never caught, and his reasons for the murder were drowned in a sea of ignorance.
I had been brought up a Christian, yet I couldn’t believe it was God’s will. Still, it was one of God’s creations that had shot them. One lone breaker had finally risen to a height that I couldn’t cross. And it continued to grow as the minutes and hours flew by. Along with that breaker came an unrelenting undertow – grief, hatred, and darkness – the searing confusion of the greatest loss. I knew to approach the wave would bring more destruction, maybe my own, but I wasn’t ready to stop hating it. Those of you who have been through deep grief know what I mean. You would do anything to destroy the destroyer, even at the risk of your own life, but what was the name of the wave? No one knew.
I was left without my family, and surprisingly without some who had called me friend. They could leave rather than face it. I had no choice. The only thing I had left was a dying dog that hung on for what, for me? I don’t know. Maybe she wanted vengeance, and knew she couldn’t get it if she died. It was her family too. She had to know something about the horror. She was there. She was part of it. How deep can a dog think? Where was the reasoning in any of it?
Still, Esther hung on. She had been shot once, and after two nights at the vet, she returned home bandaged and on death’s brink. The vet held out no hope, but there we were in our house, just Esther and me. Esther was a comfort to me between the tears, and sometimes even while they rained down. A few friends, relatives, and even strangers offered advice and food. Esther offered only extremely weak and intensely sad eyes, her breathing abnormal and labored. Strangely, at least to me, food was a big part of it. It was probably about the only real comfort that got through the haze along with Esther.
On went the ocean, waves of grief, waves of anger, waves of bewilderment, and the undertow of hatred for the person that did this.
I remember thinking soon after it happened, “Two hours ago they were fully alive, unharmed…three hours…four hours…a day…a week. How can it be true and yet seem so untrue? Let’s fix this mistake before it becomes permanent.” And at that point my body would almost come to a complete stop.
Their names? You want to know their names? It’s hard even now to say them to people. They’re gone, and I feel so responsible for the thing that I could not possibly have predicted or prevented. I can just barely talk about it, but say their names, and it becomes too real to talk at all. I can only say them to Esther. Ask her. She’s still alive.
What purpose was there to leaving me here and taking them? They deserved their lives. They were good. Why kill good people? Why maim an innocent dog. Why give it the pain of a long recovery? Esther never barks anymore – for joy, for anything, with few exceptions. And the point is?
How can God allow this? Why fill me with hate and grief?
The police had all but given up. And I didn’t see why they had any reason to go on. Unlike the police, I had no choice, neither did Esther. “Move along, there’s nothing more to see here.”
I can’t. I won’t.
OK, Beyond the Breakers sounds pretty depressing, but you must know that the protagonist means to have his revenge. I simply gave him a reason to do so. That’s all. And now he must find the killer, deal with him, and repair his life as best he can!