Diving Into the Big Dipper
Squid ink sky, long creaky dock, September night swim, a cool enough evening that I was wrapped in a blanket at the campfire, and I was still cocooned now at the end of the pier, over a jacket, a leotard, pants. I had dress shoes on because they were all the footwear I’d brought to Saltspring.
The flames had come off the wood like excited insect wings. In the past year, I’d had a heart attack and open heart surgery with complications, and I was still pretty sick, both with worsening cardiac disease and asthma I couldn’t kick, getting sicker, but I’d been overseas, and I’d been to New York and California, and I’d been in love with two women, and I’d enjoyed the heck out of my younger kid, and admired her, and missed her older sister til the missing throbbed in me, and I’d painted some, and even though I hadn’t been able to write anything, and even though all of that wasn’t all I wanted, and I often felt I was letting myself down, I was happy.
I was grateful for Heather and Lynn’s wedding with all its extravagant expressions of love; I was still mulling over the declarations of admiration and tenderness from the brides’ friends and loved ones. I was still being rubbed by poignancy’s long graceful fingers. I’d wept (which Heather maintained was just a thaumaturgy, a wonder-working from all my pent-up sorrows). I had been thinking, also, about the woman who had somehow wiggled her way from being my fling into being my girlfriend, Jules. I’d been missing her quite a bit without that hurting at all. Like Sartre said to Beauvoir: “I love you with the window open.” I was thinking about the week we’d spent on Saltspring together a month earlier and how, then, I’d skinny-dipped at night with Jules on the dock and the bats winging low around me. As I’d floated, not paddling, ears under water, all that I was narrowed down to an inverted bowl of stars and the inside-out sound of my wonky heartbeat drumming. That beat of life that had gone off its own rails, and above me all that flash and dazzle that was our galaxy, which made me contemplate Earth, which my physicist friend Martin noted was in the suburbs, really, along the Milky Way, an infinitesimal speck, and I’d been reading the book Eaarth that Jules had recommended, which confirmed that we were messing it so far up that it needed new branding, a new name, and above the Milky Way, sight unseen, other massed stars, unfathomable. The world narrowed down: My heartbeat and forever galaxies. Somehow out there in Cusheon Lake with that beautiful woman on the dock waiting for me with a towel, my gorgeous reality spun me on my axis three times three times three.
Wood smoke stung my eyes and I looked at the sky instead of the fire, and thought the sloppily romantic Jules gave me the stars. I meant it literally, because we’d crab-walked through a hobbit hole into in a physicist’s observatory on top of southern Californian mountain together, and looked through his powerful piece of glass at galaxies and nebulae, inconceivable things for a dolt like me even when I was gazing at them, but I meant it figuratively, too, in the way that her love kept expanding me. One of the brides kept noting that once love is the right love, it was easy, and my friend Leah said the same thing about her gal.
In my first house on Saltspring on Blackburn Road, back in the 1980s, overlooking what was then a sheep farm, and the lake, which was often wreathed in mist, and where I paddled with the girls and my then partner in a blow-up dingy we bought at Mouat’s, we heated with wood, and every year we’d have seasoned wood dumped in the driveway, and C would split it and stack it, and we’d hope all winter that it would last through spring. I walked away from the coals, away from the ring of stones and the bigger ring of chairs with my small flashlight beam. Everyone had gone to bed except Charrisa, who would wait for me.
Some of the things I thought of: Jane Smiley’s brilliant writing in A Thousand Acres. Pam Houston’s first book of stories, Cowboys Are My Weakness. Jayne Anne Philip’s Black Tickets. Best American Short Stories, every year. They were some of the books that had sustained me, that made me stop in my tracks and say: Shit, yeah. My eldest child in Utah. My youngest’s dying cat. Julia’s smile and how I’d give a lot to see it again, how it came through a door or over FaceTime and I filled up like a windsock and fluttered. How there couldn’t be sharks since it was a fresh water lake, but still, it would be diving into utter blackness, cold utter blackness, a September lake on a chilly night, and how my flashlight had picked out really disgusting algae bloom along the north side of the dock that looked like massive installations of green candy floss. How my sister was hurting on the anniversary of her child’s death and how I was looking forward to seeing her. How I loved my friend Glynnis and how glad I was that she had Gilli. How I missed making paintings, and writing, and being some kind of a contributor to living. I thought about the transformation of the resort’s Beachhouse into a reception hall and how beautiful a group effort had made it, and how the brides had just trusted our impulses. A woman named Maggie had been essential for the success of the flowers. I thought about how charming all the guests were, except for a few, and I thought about Charrisa, my roomie, and her generosity of spirit and her uncanny connection to animals, how as we walked, she talked to every one that sounded. I thought about the dead pig Charissa and I had seen on the side of the road by Blackburn Lake. I wondered why I was almost always very happy. I’d been gutted by my marriage’s unexpected cracking a few years before, and three months later, I had already started back towards happy when I stumbled across a violinist playing Water Music under a blooming cherry tree. Six months after that, when I was undergoing exploratory breast surgery, I asked my ex to stand beside me. My wife said she had no interest. I’m not sure why this was the final straw in her garbage dump of straws heaved my direction, but I disconnected from the emotional slum that had been loving her, had four surgeries and the news was good, and I didn’t even tell her.
Of course, while that news was good, the other, cardiac news was getting worse and worse. As I stood on the dock, stripped of my clothes, shivering and pretending bravery, I thought how I had once thought concurrent diagnoses impossible, inconceivable.
I thought about Lauren Slater’s writing, and then Annie Dillard’s. And then I thought of E Annie Proulx’s. And Cheryl Strayed’s.
Somewhere in my life, around 2002 or 2003, I’d taken on happiness as something I wore like a veil. I found life difficult, and I found some people hard to be around, and I kevetched mercilessly about irritations and disappointments, but because of my medical frailty I was whole and content, plump with self esteem and gratitude.
Then I thought about my cat who kept jumping into the tiny backyard pond in my new digs, spronging straight up covered with duckweed like a small green antelope. I thought how if she could do it, so could I, even in this cold, even when I knew St Mary’s was far from Saltspring’s warmest September lake. I didn’t want to let myself down, but for a long time, even with the pressure of Charissa probably chilled waiting for me, I couldn’t do it. (Balk, balk balk balk balk.) Then I thought of the brides, and I thought of how they had done this themselves the day before, diving in when maybe good sense and the wisdom of age should have kept even the contemplation from their hearts. Love badly, I thought, then love well. When I lifted my arms to shape the dive, I noticed the Big Dipper was riding the black water, twinkling in the small movements of lake current. I wondered if I’d gain something, magic, maybe, some necromancy skill if I dove through Ursa Major. Dubhe, Merak, Phecda, Megrez, Alioth, Mizar, Alkaid, each from 58 to 124 light years away, unimaginable, yet here just beyond my feet so that in the water, I surely ought to be able to reach out and pull one of them to my bosom. I aimed exactly where a person’s lips would go on that diamond drinking gourd, and I launched.
-Jane Eaton Hamilton