Listen to a reading by Roger Rosenblatt with introduction by KR editor David Lynn:
Reflections on Love, Grief, and Small Boats
Two and a half years after our thirty-eight-year-old daughter, Amy, died of an undetected anomalous right coronary artery, I have taken up kayaking. They say that people in grief become more like themselves. I have always been a loner, so going out in a kayak suits my temperament. It also offers a solitude that is rare for me these days, because when Amy died, my wife, Ginny, and I moved into her house in Bethesda, Maryland, to help our son-in-law, Harris, care for their three small children, Jessica, Sammy, and James. We spend nearly all our time in Bethesda but we have also kept our home in Quogue, a summer village on the south shore of Long Island. It is not far from Stony Brook University where I teach English and writing. I commute between Bethesda and Quogue from September to June, and from June to September, whenever time allows, I go kayaking in Quogue.
Our oldest son, Carl, and his wife, Wendy, also have three children, Andrew, Ryan, and Nate. The adults and the six children spend much of the summer together in Quogue, as we did when Amy was alive. When I am more sure of myself with my kayak, I will take the kids out with me one at a time, sitting them between my legs as I paddle. “It would be cool to see the water from the water’s point of view,” says Sammy, a serious-minded child. Early in the morning, I go out by myself.
It is Sunday, June 27, 2010, just past dawn. My family is asleep, including our youngest son, John, who is visiting for the weekend. My boat scrapes on the public ramp. I dig my paddle into the pebbles in the shallow water, and push off.
Past a wooden dock jutting out into the creek, and littered with parts of seashells, strafed by gulls. Smashed china on gray boards. Past the skeleton of a fish bobbing in the suds near a tuft of sea grass, thick as a sheep’s head. Past the orange buoy, and the wet brown sand. A neap tide settles like a defeat. The sky is a blue stripe, squeezed between two wide layers of white clouds. Over the canal it turns gun-metal gray. Elegies of water. Could rain.
I try to be careful about kayaking. I bought a good, sturdy boat, olive green. I got instructional books and took a couple of lessons. I have learned to sit straight and to hold the paddle with my hands between its center and the blades. I bring a bottle of water if I am to be out a while. I spray on sunscreen. I wear my PFD, a life vest now called a “personal flotation device.” I rarely paddle farther than ninety feet from shore. Amy would have approved of such preparations and precautions. As a child she would pore over toy instructions. As a wife and mother, she read booklets on household appliances from cover to cover. As a pediatrician, she was tirelessly careful with her research and with her patients.
Until recently I was never like that. I thought I could figure out everything as I went about it, and simply plunged in. When I was eleven, our sixth-grade teacher, Miss Washburn, asked if anyone in the class played a musical instrument. She invited us to perform the following day. My Aunt Julia had just given me a guitar for my birthday, on the day of Miss Washburn’s invitation. So I decided to bring in my new guitar even though I had not a single lesson in the instrument and had not even touched one until that day. The following morning, I stood in front of the class singing “Red River Valley” to the one major chord I’d figured out the night before. My classmates were shaking and screaming with laughter. I must have thought that playing the guitar would simply come to me, like a miracle.
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*Excerpt from Kayak Morning to be published in January by Ecco.