Midnight Mile-Marker 63

I want to capture what it is to leave an elevation of seventeen hundred feet– thickly forested, steep, snow bound… and arrive at the ocean’s floor.  It’s mile marker 63 when it hits me.  Suddenly the world is flat.  I feel it on the inside first.  There is a shift in my internal wake, a settling– like sediment to the bottom of a glass; and even if I’ve been snoozing with the kids,  I know we’ve arrived–not quite to our destination– but to sea level.

With a great exhale, I release my preoccupation with the unending Parkway, and begin to take in my surroundings.   Names like Tuckerton, Beesley’s Point, Great Egg Harbor appear and I wonder how it is that I never noticed these characters before– settings for some great work of fiction, tickling my tongue and imagination.

By mile marker 30, the smell of the marsh has found its way to me through the cold air and through the tight seal of the car windows.  As we pass the exit for Sea Isle City, my own tides steady to balancing point– like the bubble inside a level.   Does the body know?  Do the cells swell with recognition at the place of one’s birth?

A hundred and sixty-nine monotonous miles of the Garden State, suddenly warp speed.  Dropping into the teens, a surge inside me rises to meet the sea.  “Hello, again old friend.  It’s me, Kelly.  Kelly Brown from out of town.”  That’s how my grandparent’s neighbors greeted me each summer of my return.

This tide recedes as we move into the single digits.   Racing through Cape May Court House, I struggle to remain afloat in the onslaught of memory…  the light at Stone Harbor Boulevard, the Repici’s roadside motel, the chapel where James and Lynn were married, the road toward my dear friend’s house.

Pulling back like a wave from the shore, I am almost swept up into a sea of grief, just as my youngest rustles beside me in the slumber party of our back seat.   Buoyed on each side by a son, my husband at the helm of this homecoming ship, I steady myself amidst life’s debris.

The boys have their own internal compass for the journey. At exit 6 when we turn off the Parkway and  head east onto the strip of land that carries us to the island, they begin to stir like the tiny clams in the sand after a hundred miles of sound sleep.

I can’t drive this stretch of road, past the sewage plant,  without the smell of fresh lipstick and cigarettes– my mother’s, as she takes a brush to our sleep-tangled hair and rubs her spit roughly against our cheeks– early lessons in the importance of appearance as we’d approach my father’s childhood home.

Once over the draw bridge, Past and Present collide, lifting me into the lap of my soul, tossing me like a conch to the shore.   Shells fly from under the tires as we bounce over the salt-weary roads of “home.” The grocery store where I pawned pennies for bubble gum has finally had a face lift– six years too late for my mother who shopped there even when the rest of us called it the “Beirut Acme,” and took our business off shore.

We cruise into the island town of Wildwood Crest, deep in winter hibernation.   Pulling up to an abandoned curb, the man I love slips out from behind the wheel and opens the gate to his childhood home.   On my right, is the bay; and on my left, the sea.  Straight ahead, just two blocks, is the house where my own mother would be waiting at her late night perch over a bottomless cup of black coffee.   Like some sailor’s wife, her voice floods with an undercurrent of longing as she looks up and greets my return.  “Hi, Kel,” she’d say.

Only now, she speaks in whispers that the ocean brings to me.

You can move away, but you can’t get the sand out of your shoes,” a dockside barkeep used to tease whenever I talked of leaving.   I laughed at his warnings, like the one about pizza and my hips.   Jim’s gone now too, but was once very pleased to know that I couldn’t get pizza delivered to my mountain home.

He appears to me now, an apparition, leaning too far across the bar to pour my drink, a jester-like grin lifting thick Caselle frames from his sun-creased face.

The grains of his words rub between my toes, as the salt and the sea rise up… in me.


by Kelly Salasin

Home sickI’ve been called to write for days, but excepting posts on Facebook & Twitter, I’ve rebuked the call. “I don’t feel good and don’t want to write,” I hiss at my muse, but the pressing doesn’t stop.

The truth is that I know I’m on the cusp of recovery because last night I moaned and complained “about” being sick (as opposed to just being sick)—and this morning, I’m ranting and raving about it. “I’m DONE!” every impatience screams.

The older I get, the more I sense that illness is a rehearsal for dying. In fact, I can apply Kubler-Ross’s stages to my simple case of strep:

DISBELIEF-Sore throat? I just got over the flu last week!

DENIAL-I’ll just have an extra big glass of wine.

BARGAINING- I promise to rest tomorrow.

GUILT-Wow, I shouldn’t have gone to that baseball game, gallery walk, the cow parade, that party…

ACCEPTANCE-I WILL stay in bed until I’m better!

DEPRESSION- I can’t do this anymore. I’m tired of feeling terrible.

ANGER-Enough already!!!

Actually, the idea of the stages is that they’re supposed to “end” with acceptance and hope—not with anger– which is where I’m stuck. Needing to ‘reorder’ myself brings me to this morning’s reluctant writing as I add another pillow behind my neck as an olive leaf toward  surrender.

Birth is the other metaphor that comes to my mind during illness. And certainly we cycle thru the same stages during labor. I remember that exact moment of despair in the eleventh hour just before my son was born—which itself lends “hope” that there is something ready to be born in this week-long labor too.

There was once a gift born of a single virulent summer flu that I’ll never forget. As the fever burned through me, I came to the realization that I needed to leave my new job. I resigned there right from our plaid couch with great clarity and peace of mind.  In exchange, I finally conceived our second son that fall.

I have no job to resign now—but maybe that, in and of itself, is what requires my resignation.

My dreams this feverish week have been plenty. One found me removing an outgrown child’s sweater from my closet. Woolen and pale, it hung misshapen with moth eaten holes throughout.

Days later, this rich image continues to speak to me. First it tells me of the winding down of my role as mother to young children. At 13, my oldest graduates this week from elementary school and my youngest, at 8, has begun the bittersweet dance of moving both toward and away from me.

In another dream that same fitful night, my chest of belongings is destroyed by fire and all the letters that I was to read for my memoir are gone. The next day, in “real” time, I find out that my great Aunt Sue has died—one of the last vestiges of my magical childhood at the ocean.  This dream of loss continues to burn in my heart.

Perhaps it was Aunt Sue then, who came the night of her death in my most comforting dream of that evening—delivering delicate skeins of just spun yarn in brilliant hues—placing the soft pile of color on the bookshelves that surrounded me.

“Let things come,” is the quote that serves me of late-  which itself “came” on a bag of green tea. Quotes arrive like friends, emissaries of light, and stay—sometimes for days or even weeks, but never as long as this one–which has continued to teach me through the seasons.

“Let things COME,” I breathe deeply, resisting my urge to strive. I have been striving for as long as I can remember. I see myself as a character in one of those war torn films where a scrappy youth survives the odds by her own tenacity.

In The Empire of the Sun, a young boy makes it through bombings, refugee camps, exile and war’s end surviving by the dogged persistence of his spirit and will. As a Social Studies teacher, I used this film every year, and each time I felt the closing scene in my bones.

Finally reunited with his parents (against all odds), the boy-turned young man–falls into his mother’s arms and finally, FINALLY, closes his eyes.

This DEEP need for “rest” is one that screamed out at me just a few years back when I left my roles in education to take a three-month writing sabbatical. A few years before that, I met “Rest”, face-to-face, in the ending of my mother’s life. The deep exhale of her travail permeated the house as she left her wrecked body.

Why do we “work” so hard at living, I wonder? What is that for which we “strive”? Are illness–and ultimately death–the only ways to truly surrender to our deep need for rest?

“When the world is too much with me,” sings Wordsworth and poets through the ages. No matter how enlightened we may be, we are not spared this weariness. Even Jesus on the cross moans, “My God, my God, why hath thou forsaken me!”

My ultimate rest is dreamed inside a mother’s fleshy arms, warm and brown–my head on my husband’s chest–just like it was last night with our boys wrapped around us.

One cannot force a birth–at least not from home–for the hour of telling–is it a boy or a girl–must come of its own accord. And thus, I wait—and hope—to know what it is hath come of this week’s suffering and surrender.

Now knowing, that if nothing else, the scene of my family in my bed–like a renaissance artist’s rendering– is worth this tiny rehearsal of death.

And remembering too, when in her last weeks in a home re-filled with family, I asked my mother, “Don’t you hate lying here in bed; waiting for someone to get what you want?” To which she responded with the smile of one who has loved 7 siblings, 9 children, 4 dogs and 2 husbands:  “No Kelly, I kind of like it.”

Maybe that’s the whole point of these striving lives we lead… so much are we in need of rest–that whenever our time comes–we’re ready.

in memory of Sue Ramagosa, in her eternal rest & rebirth

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