the Rule of Waves
At six, I learn the rules to be simple: when your dad dies, friends huddle around you with dry eyes. You receive tissues and pity; you make a good mourning face in return. If your friends are sad on this day, they do not show it.
When other dads die, I know the law: above all, no tears. I shoot eye daggers at the girls who fail.
The universe as a pond. Can you picture it?
At the pond, there is no wind, or plants, or fish. No two things happen at once.
The pond is still.
Robert and Eveline live in the same small town. It’s a coincidence, but through my mom’s social alchemy they come to know each other over time. Robert’s a family friend. Eveline’s my cousin. Both of them used to tower in my mind, impressive and imposing.
The name of the town where Robert and Eveline live roughly translates to venerable city. The noun comes from the adjective, worthy of being revered, which comes from the verb, to feel awe. Awe as in awesome, but also as in awful.
Wonder and fear both. I admired Robert and Eveline, but in the same breath, I cowered.
A pebble falls into the pond. This fall is the first time life ended.
The impact of the small stone as it falls deeper and down is forever.
It knows it immediately.
Robert scared me first. He was married to my mom’s best friend. Their daughter Sarah was my best friend, because I used to think that was how things worked. Robert was a lawyer, and I thought of him as smart but angry.
Robert was neither the best nor the worst surrogate dad who stepped up after mine died. He shouted a lot, but never at me. His way of being fun was throwing us into the pool, or holding both Sarah and me in his arms at once. It wasn’t bad, just weird. Forced closeness that never really took.
Eveline scared me second. She was part of the older cousin clique, with me squarely in the younger. Tall, impermeable, with perfect hair, she modeled for our fashion designer aunt. At family gatherings she laughed, snarky and smart. As we grew older, she grew successful—a superior being who seemed to minimize my faculty for speech.
To be fair, all of my older cousins intimidated me for a time. They seemed to bestow upon me an awkwardness, or perhaps they brought to light odd qualities I didn’t know I had. I was always the cousin who talked too fast, the one who told stories with no punchline, who made excellent fodder for teasing at Christmas. My cousins could be harsh and relentless, but I was fine with any identity other than daughter of the uncle who’s gone.
One by one, waves echo from the center, radiating, rippling. Most intense at the center, then fainter and fainter.
Never gone, though perhaps no longer visible.
The waves abound.
Robert’s niece got married in New Mexico when I was thirteen. I was baffled as to why we were going, but most things baffled me at the time: suddenly fleshy hips, pimples and bad moods, the certainty I was disgusting.
I loved Santa Fe, at least. Dusty hills out the car windows, turquoise ring kiosks, fertility deities and handmade textiles. My mom and I were getting along well for once, like we had flown through a portal into a smooth and shiny alternate universe.
We settled into a little rented bungalow. Terra cotta floor, stucco walls, exposed wood beams. The mirror above the bureau was framed by small, brightly colored tiles, and after we unpacked, we stood side by side and looked: my pale skin, hair, and eyes a sharp contrast with my mom’s shades of tan and brown. She squeezed my shoulder. “Chulita,” she said, then completed the routine with, “Just like your dad.” I didn’t even cringe. Still, discomfort could only stay away so long.
The tiny, awful moments accumulated. Sarah ignored me all weekend and stayed in her room, wanting to do nothing but braid her wild red hair or thicken her black eyeliner. That night in bed, the moon shone bright and menacing, eyeing me with suspicion. The rehearsal dinner the next day was full of dust, strangers, and sun in my eyes. True to form, my mom engaged everyone in animated conversation, and I stood mute at her shoulder. As the bride made her rounds I stared, in awe of her poise and beauty. Her charm was so intense it was demoralizing.
Finally she approached us, hugging my mom and me. My mom pulled back, complimenting the bride for being so skinny, as she did whenever she felt heavy.
“Too skinny!” the bride responded. Like that’s real, I thought with anger. Robert’s laughter rang out from some yards away. I hated everything.
The pebble is not just the first life. It is all life. Consider each infinitesimal distance that
the pebble travels.
Eveline got married at City Hall when I was 26. The fourth-floor gallery in the huge building was full of echoes, so I could barely hear the speaking parts. But I loved the string quartet, which played instrumental versions of pop songs Eveline or the groom had some connection to. I wound up walking out with Eveline’s mom as they played a song I knew but couldn’t place.
“Peter Gabriel,” my aunt explained. “That one was more for us—Eveline teasing her dad for always making her listen to that song.” I heard a sniff and looked up to see her crying. “It’s so funny,” she smiled, wiping her eyes. “I didn’t cry once during the ceremony, and this is what gets me.”
I thought back to an email I’d sent to the whole family years prior, asking them what my dad had been like. When the replies came, I could barely read the responses. They weren’t what I’d wanted, somehow. Eveline’s mom had been particularly candid. She was eager—desperate, as she had put it—to tell me about her brilliant and loving brother. I responded politely but not in kind, with little more than thanks. If my aunt noticed, she never let on. I let the endeavor fade away, embarrassed to have asked so much and acknowledged so little.
As we walked out of City Hall, I felt I’d been given a rare gift, my aunt’s vulnerability offered so easily. I could hardly find the words to continue the conversation with her, much less imagine making an offering like that myself.
Barely a year after this day, Eveline’s husband would be gone, and I would experience new ways to not know what to say.
Each step downward is an epoch in the vast history of human life.
The pebble falls indefinitely, the great entropic retreat from life in the universe.
We joined Robert and his family on the lawn, the afternoon of the Santa Fe wedding. I stewed in self-disgust. My mom’s concealer—several shades too dark—covered my pimples, and I had done my best to apply the eyeshadow and lipstick samples that’s she’d given me. My shimmery dress from Delia’s had so excited me when I’d ordered it, but it had a low back that required a corset-like bra. I just knew it made my boobs look stupid.
“You sure clean up nice!” Robert’s voice boomed as we approached, his mustache twitching. When I realized he was talking to me, I grew red with bashfulness, then fury, followed by a manic fixation that continued throughout the ceremony. Cleaning up nice meant my default was hideous, didn’t it? A pig with lipstick on. Who did he think he was, appraising me like that? Had grown men everywhere been openly inspecting me all this time, waiting for me to clean up? Plus, Robert was obviously wrong. A pig with lipstick was still a pig.
I barely noticed the happy couple kiss and retreat back down the aisle. At the reception, the maid of honor reminisced how she and the bride would pick their noses and butts in bars to dispel male attention. I will never have that problem, I thought. Despair leaked out of every corner.
At last, I convinced my mom to let us leave. The moment our bungalow door shut, a burst of tears erupted out of me. I saw my mom’s face and thought to explain: It was because of Robert’s comment, but then that wasn’t it, so I thought The wedding made me feel unexplainably sad, but that wasn’t it, either. What I really wanted to say was It’s the moon’s fault, but all of these explanations were so stupid I couldn’t bear it, and probably that was why I couldn’t stop sobbing, because only broken people cried about nothing.
I wailed into the colorful bed, then moved to the floor, folding my arms over my knees into the cool tiles. Sadness compounded with shame about the sadness, and my mind began hopping from sad thing to sad thing, every tragedy in my life and in the entire world yet another sinking lily pad.
In the morning, Robert’s comment felt like the only half-reasonable explanation for my outburst, so I let my thinking stop there. Though I rarely saw Robert after that, I hung onto a mild disdain for him for years afterward. "Robert always asks about you," my mom would say, now and then.
"How sweet of him," I’d lie.
The center where the pebble has fallen is the site of all deaths, each resultant wave carrying away
the last one. Loved ones reside in each surrounding ripple.
A year after Eveline’s wedding, I drive my partner’s car toward the venerable city. He and I are scheduled to move across the country the next morning, and we should be finalizing details.
“I’m not sure she will ask you that,” D is saying instead.
“I am,” I say stiffly, now more certain. He says nothing for a while.
We wind through the city on a hot Saturday morning. At the northern tip, we approach the long suspension bridge where Eveline’s husband died mere hours ago. We could have driven around the bay to avoid it, but such a detour feels selfish. Still, I shiver when we pass the part at the end, where the bridge bends to the left. I can’t help imagining the night before, when a sharp turn on his motorcycle sent him flying.
After the bridge, we ride down the bouncing hills into the swampy flat parts. Near the university, we pass the turnoff to Robert’s acre of land, their ranch-style house. Distant sensations of jumping on their trampoline come to me, the late sunlight and dusty smell of some anniversary party with “Hey Baby” playing as Robert crooned along. Vineyards start to fill the landscape, brown speckled with green. Off the freeway now, D naps beside me. The rolling, lined hills look fresh, budding in a respite between fires and drought.
I’m not sure how we’ll find Eveline and her infant son when we arrive. How does such poise respond to such a shattering?
Family is in the smallest circle, extended family the second smallest. And so on, until the largest
circle contains the briefest of acquaintances.
Years after the Santa Fe wedding, Robert invites my mom and me to lunch when we happen to be in town. At the restaurant, my mom and her best friend get instantly lost in conversation. Robert and I are on our own.
In the sudden vacuum, his comment from years ago floats into my mind. It seems benign now; I don’t begrudge him for making it any more than I blame my young self for her response to it.
After a few minutes, our conversation falls into a lull. We’ve covered all the bases: the weather, why I’m in town, what I’ve been up to. I haven’t yet mastered asking adults about their lives without feeling I must be prying.
Robert speaks first.
“It’s just crazy,” he starts. “Even after what, almost 20 years, I still can’t—” his voice breaks, I tense. He inhales. “I still can’t believe he’s gone.” I look at his eyes for the first time that day, and they are full of tears.
Oh, I think, the soft realization. I never paid much attention to the fact that he and my dad were friends too. That they had a closeness of their own making. Robert’s tears hover over his cheeks but do not fall.
My gut clenches in embarrassment, but whether for Robert or myself, I’m not sure. Two voices inside tell me how to react, and they battle one another at high speed. The first is outrage. It argues for the greater right to be sad. You don’t get to claim him, it says, he’s not your dead person. It’s a feeling I fight often. I don’t admire it, but I’m not certain it’s always wrong, either.
But the second voice feels Robert’s pain. The second voice is no stranger to the bewildering suddenness with which tears can appear.
The former voice shouts louder in protest, as it probably always will. But the latter grows stronger too. It sees a man in his sixties, roughly the age my dad would be. Maybe not even all that different from what he would look like today. I see a man who is able to cry without shame. I imagine him seeing me as unbearably young, forever the small daughter of his dead friend.
I hear the voices, thinking. I form my conclusion, which is that a turn away from Robert would not be a turn toward my dad. It would not show loyalty, nor would it show some proof of deeper love or claim to more meaningful loss. It would just be a fold into myself.
I rest a tentative hand on top of his, leathery and like a stone. I look into his eyes and offer a crumpled sort of smile as he leaks a tear.
There’s a rare but familiar crack of something falling, something breaking. Though a soreness in the back of my throat wants to crystallize a tear, I push it back, squeezing his hand before letting it go. I don’t know if I’m giving or receiving something. We sit, waiting for the uncracked space of a moment ago to return.
The ripple may pass a wave outward, but never back inward toward the center.
This is the rule of waves; I know it to be true.
I reach a turn on the right and go downhill. The bumps jostle D awake. We drive down, deep into thick redwoods. If Robert’s home is a ranch, my aunt’s is a log cabin. Gorgeous, big windows surrounded by foliage, forest peppered with wild deer and a fenced coop for their chickens.
As we pull up to the house, my heart pounds. We knock softly and let ourselves in. I assess the situation: platters of uneaten food, a dozen faces I know and love, a heaviness I’ve never felt here before.
Even as it’s happening, I can feel the moment glossing over. It surely isn’t so smooth, so crystalline in its focus, so immediate: the preternatural way Eveline knows it’s me at the door, the way she leaps up and toward me immediately, needing to hear my words, as I stride to meet her where she stands. All memories slip deeper into themselves over time, but today it feels as though this is happening in the moment.
Reality lands when Eveline’s sobs collide into my shoulder. It is a keening I have never heard. Eveline lends me all her weight, but I know I can bear it.
“You turned out okay, right?” she asks me, leaning her head back to meet my gaze.
I hesitate. Depends on the day, I could say. Or, Actually, I feel pretty dysfunctional a lot of the time. Or, Sure, except I like to joke about death and it makes people feel uncomfortable. But none of these answers are quite true. Or they’re all somewhat true, along with a hundred other things.
So, I pick the one we need. “Well, I get sad sometimes, and I’m on Wellbutrin, but who isn’t!” No question mark, just assurance.
That night, I will start writing letters to her son. Words he won’t understand for years still. I write that I worry he’ll have it harder than I did. I was a little girl when I lost my dad, and everyone knows little girls are allowed to cry. My uncle was young when his dad died; “he never recovered,” is my aunt’s refrain whenever she relays his struggles to keep a job, a home, a sober mind. I think about how I look white, and neither my uncle nor my cousin’s son has that privilege.
I don’t know if I will ever send these letters. I can’t tell if I’m writing them more for him or for myself. At next year's paella party, I will hold Eveline’s son and walk him down to the chicken coop. We’ll wave to the rooster, and I’ll help him ring the wind chime. When I hold his small body close to mine, his legs dangle as his head bobs. It feels like my hand on his back leaves a small trace, a bit of fellow-feeling for what he still doesn’t know he’s learned.
On the other hand, you might argue that the rule of waves is diabolically lonely-making.
If you’re in the smallest ring, alone in crying, you might think you’re broken, or crazy,
for not stopping.
My dad was caught on camera just a month before he fell to his death. We all watched the VHS tape on Christmas, our first holiday without him. Aunts and uncles and cousins crowded into the TV room, tittering at the impressive technology.
After a moment, my dad appeared onscreen, already glowing with sainthood. Sniffles started to echo around me. An aunt’s hand squeezed my shoulder. I hated everything.
The sniffs then turned to laughter, and my mortification doubled as the picture changed to an image of me, sticking my tongue out at the camera.
I stared at my tongue, a wily worm. Its body so assertive that I despised it, loathed the girl in the video for showing it. My face hot, my eyes wet. I ran out of the room, began a bad habit of fleeing.
After the motorcycle accident, a friend will ask me if I felt the lack of a father figure growing up. This friend is a widower, and he knows Eveline. I’ll say, Of course not, which does not feel untrue. But it also feels defiant—an evasion.
I will think about this question all day. I’ll realize for the first time that the lack I have always felt is not, mainly, sadness at having lost someone. It is more the sadness that someone I might have loved once existed but no longer does. Sadness at the fact that there are limits to how much you can love that which you have never really known. Sadness because it is still a mystery to me, how much this limit can be overcome.
I believe that my dad only lives on in the memories of those who knew him. In mine, he will be forever suspended, somewhere between a ladder and the ground.
The pebble falls indefinitely.
D and I leave the venerable city, hours later, exhausted. We delay the move by a week; I go to the funeral with my mom. At the end of the long, hot day, we sit on her porch, drinking gin and bourbon on lots of ice.
My mom smokes her daily menthol, and I join her. She tells me that people have been asking her all day if she feels okay, but that she wants to know how I’m feeling. It’s the first time we’ve come close to bringing up my dad all week, maybe all year. Through a tipsy haze, I reassure her that I’m okay, registering a faint sadness that speaking about this sober would have terrified me.
After a work shift he couldn’t avoid, D picks me up at my mom’s. The traffic is light on the highway, and I can see stars in the sky as we speed home. D puts on his favorite song by Peter Gabriel, the same one from Eveline’s wedding.
Finally I am able to cry.