His feet were in cold sand when a wave washed away his oldest son. They were in California on a windy day. He was no more than 50 feet away when it happened. His wife was in the beach house with their other son. He had watched countless waves crash upon the cold stone jetty, yet somehow, while he was sitting there on a piece of driftwood, he missed the one that swept his son out to the sea.
It took the Coast Guard a day to find the body. A freak event they said. No current should have taken him that far. No wave that size should have hit so suddenly.
Years later, the night before his younger son’s 23rd birthday, he was barreling down a long, straight interstate. He was supposed to go the next day with his wife, but they got a late night call that said their son got out of his room and was missing.
Ever since that day he lost his first son to the sea, he felt as if he couldn’t control anything. He couldn’t protect his family from the forces of the world. Even now, it was like at any moment friction could just vanish, and the cars on the road would start gliding and spinning like figure skaters on an icy lake in the winter.
He will never forget her eyes when he told her. It was like a piece of his and her souls were contained in that child, a piece that represented all the purest love and joy they knew. And that day it seemed to washed away. A wave took it as he sat there among the driftwood, and did nothing. And when he looked in her eyes, he saw them grow dimmer. A corresponding part of her was lost at sea. She cried in the day. She cried in the night. She cried loudest when no one was near. Her favorite foods seemed about as appetizing as a plate of sand. Her eyes never did gain back their luster. That once bright part of her became buried within, utterly, beyond recall.
Two years later, their other son turned 4 and was diagnosed with autism. They never once heard a single word from their child, nor did they see a single tear, even when he was dressed up in a little suit for his brother’s funeral. Their son just examined the room and met every sad face with a static glare. A flock of birds flew over the grave when they placed flowers on it once. Their son watched them until they were little black dots on the horizon. He swore that at that moment his son almost said his brother’s name. He mouthed it soundlessly, and then looked down at his shoes.
Over the years they spent a fair amount of time in children’s hospitals. Having lost their first son, they intended to do everything possible for their now only child. They did all they could to provoke something out of their son. They liked to think that beneath that calm, wordless façade, a vortex of passion was churning. They bought anything their son seemed to cast attention on, but the fire trucks and action figures remained lifeless on the floor. One day, he bought a pack of markers for his son, and something clicked. The boy would spend hours turning white pages into swirls of woven color.
They took him to countless experts. He received groundbreaking scans, and was examined by the finest therapists. They thought it was going really well. When he was nine, their son was staying as a temporary resident in a premier children’s hospital in the city. The window washers dressed up like superheroes as they repelled down the glass walls. It gave the kids a sense of enchantment, they said. Well one day Superman didn’t attach his harness properly, and as he descended, giving inspirational smiles to sick kids in hospital beds, the line broke, and he fell to his death.
After that they kept their son home as much as possible. They figured it would only make it worse locking him away like that.
But when the boy got older, something dark within him seemed to emerge. Perhaps it was just his unique form of puberty. He no longer used color in his drawings, and just made black crow after black crow. He started playing with fire. He would collect shaving razors and hide kitchen knifes. As a young man, he was getting too strong to restrain. He started pulling out his hair and writing cryptic symbols on the white walls of their house. It almost looked like words, but still, they couldn’t tell if they were meant to be prayers or curses.
Their son’s behavior got so bad they had no choice but to put him back in a hospital. He was becoming a danger to himself and others.
Never before in his life did he divide time up like he did on that drive. Each moment ticked away a second in his heart.
The trees were swaying in the wind when the sun at last rose. The road seemed to shine, and though he still counted with each pinprick in his soul, he started imagining the hospital just around each corner.
He had almost forgot the gift for his son’s 23rd birthday, which would have devastated him. It became increasingly difficult to buy gifts for their son. Every object either contained some abstract evil or utter pointlessness. The boy could only have so many makers, pens, and sketchbooks. This year they decided to try something new. They went through storage of their other son’s old things. Almost 20 years later, but still, the sights made their scar feel like a fresh wound. The dust in the air made it seem like a gentle snow was the in the attic with them. They found a little stuffed dragon, their oldest son’s favorite toy, and resolved that it would be the perfect birthday gift for their youngest and last child.
When he was about five miles away from the hospital, he began to question the motive for going there in such a ferocious haste. Perhaps he went in the hope of seeing his son’s face one last time. That was a moment he didn’t cherish the last time one of his sons lingered near the border of death.
He wondered if his son blamed him for the death of his brother. His friends, his coworkers, his siblings, his elderly parents, even his wife at this point, they didn’t matter. He only wondered if his other son blamed him for doing nothing as his brother was lost in the deep blue waves. He had built layers over his heart to protect him from the judgment of others, but if for a moment he thought that his only remaining son resented him for that death, the layers would melt away like wax in the blazing sun.
When he finally arrived, a gentle rain had begun. As he walked through the parking lot, he began to softly cry, but no one would notice, for every tear that fell from his eyes was lost among a legion of raindrops.
Near the entrance, he noticed a dirty little puddle near the base of a tree. In that puddle was a sparrow that seemed unable to lift its head or body from the water. The puddle was growing as streams flowed down the trunk and branches of the tree. He couldn’t tell if it was already dead.
He walked inside and inquired his way to a nurse he had met there before. She explained to him that his son managed to get to the roof. He was in the low security wing. Never once did he do a thing like this. And well, when they realized he was gone and the roof alarm was triggered, some orderlies ran up there and saw him standing on the edge of the building, holding his arms in the air. They walked up, grabbed him, and walked him back inside. It was the first time anyone in the hospital had seen him smile. She said they found a note in his room; they’d seen him write what looked like a few letters jumbled up before, but last night wrote something coherent. They thought it was a suicide note. It seemed to be the first and last actual words his son had ever expressed in his life. She handed him the note. It was folded up. He put it in his pocket. She said he could see his son but he would probably be asleep at this point.
He walked into the room. It was still raining outside. The room was practically empty. There was just his son surrounded by a static sea of white. White walls, white sheets, white slippers on the floor, yet all slightly dimmed by the shadow of the clouds in the now opaque window. He didn’t want to wake his son, just see him. He whispered that he was sorry, that would get him out of here and take him home as soon as he could. He told him he loved him and they would be a family soon again.
He tried to leave but he couldn’t. He stood at the door soundlessly. He walked back to his son, took off his jacket and hat, and woke his son up. He made his son put on the hat and coat and said they were going for a vacation. His son followed him with the same placid face he always had. He left his oldest son’s stuffed dragon in the static white hospital bed. He knew the workings of a hospital well, and with his son disguised, they easily walked though the labyrinth and back to his car.
He started driving home but took a detour to the beach. It must have been 50 miles from where his son had washed away all those years ago.
They walked up close to touch the water with their hands. It was windy and the sand was cold.
They sat among the driftwood and watched the waves crash on the jetty. His son watched a flock of birds fly into the horizon and held his arms out.
He reached into his pocket and pulled out the note that was still folded there. He smiled at his son, and threw it into the waves.
They looked at each other, as all the fetters fell off, and together they flew over the sea, further, and further still, until they looked like little black dots on the horizon.