Aedin sat in the shopping cart swinging her legs and talking non-stop in her three-year-old way. The middle-aged woman ringing up the groceries said to us, “Isn’t she a cutie pie?” I smiled and mussed Aedin’s hair.
Aedin looked up at her. “The whale died.”
The clerk paused with a box of cereal over the scanner. She looked at me with her mouth hanging slightly open. “Did she just say a whale died?”
The image of the whale lying dead in the sand made me bite my lip and swallow before I could answer. “Yes, she did. We saw an injured whale beach itself.”
“The whale died,” Aedin said again, finishing my story.
The clerk wrinkled her forehead and looked at Aedin, then back at me, then cleared her throat and said, “That must have been something.”
“It was very sad,” I said, and focused harder on digging around in my purse for my wallet.
She cleared her throat again and began ringing the groceries faster, not saying anything else until she gave the total. I heard her sigh as I pushed my cartful away from her.
Scenes similar to this played out many times over the next year. We’d be in a store, at the university where I worked, at the park, anywhere, and Aedin would look up at people and say, “The whale died.” It was a simple declarative sentence, without any hint of sadness or questioning. Most people would snap their heads to look at me, to make sure they’d heard her right. I’d just shrug and say, “We saw a beached whale in Virginia.” Like the grocery store clerk, most people seemed anxious to distance themselves from us. As I watched them wrinkle their foreheads or nod awkwardly before walking away, I often wondered why it was that when a child said a statement as simple as “The whale died,” it made people so uncomfortable.
We saw the whale die just before Aedin’s third birthday, when my partner and I took her on a long weekend camping trip to Chesapeake Bay, Virginia, what would be our final vacation as a family. On the drive there, several hours were consumed by an ongoing conversation about having a second child. Mostly, I listened and nodded or shrugged. Theoretically, I was partially open to the idea. Practically, however, it just didn’t seem like the timing was right for such a big commitment. I was in graduate school and we were scraping by. I had no biological clock troubling me. The only ticking I heard was the reminders for school deadlines and the hours I might steal from sleep to finish the book collecting itself in the margins of notebooks and folded pieces of paper tucked into folders. My reluctance to agree was creating a divide between my partner and me that I grieved over in my journal night after night, my tears mixing with the ink on the pages while I tried to conjure up the excitement I’d
felt at the thought of bringing Aedin into the world. It wasn’t happening. Since I couldn’t escape to write on the long drive, I meditated on the broken lines in between the lanes, the whoosh, whoosh, whoosh of the seconds of my life flying by me.
At the bay, our campsite was an ordinary one for a state park. It backed up to the woods, where there was a small walking path crawling with snails. Aedin was fascinated with them—their eyes were on stalks and their house was on their back. She laughed when they curled themselves up into their shells when she tried to touch them. A short walk from our tent led to the boardwalk that ran over the sand dunes to the beach. The first two days were full of sun, sand, surf, and snails. My partner took after-lunch naps with Aedin while I wrote at the picnic table. In the evenings after Aedin fell asleep, my partner and I would drink beer next to each other in near silence and watch the fire die down before crawling in the tent to sleep on either side of the toddler sprawled out in the middle of the air mattress.
We made it a point to take a walk as a family at sunset, though the water was on the wrong side of us to have a brilliant display of colors. As we walked, the patches of tall grasses and low shrubs scattered across the dunes seemed to close in on me, making the beach feel much wilder than it was. Around one lovely sweet-smelling shrub, at least a hundred dragonflies hovered, their green foil bodies glimmering against the velvet blue of the bay. Their wings were invisible except at the split second when they changed direction, or when they seemed to stop time altogether by lighting on a blade of grass. Their collective humming made me hold my breath. Aedin was amazed and tugged on my hand. “Momma, it’s a dragonfly city,” she whispered. I looked at my partner over Aedin, who was tightly grasping both our hands, to see if she’d heard, but she was staring out across the bay.
On our last day, the three of us went to the beach after lunch. Aedin sat just out of reach of the waves with my partner, absorbed in constructing ditches and hills in the sand, inching backward as the tide rose. I was floating on my back offshore when I noticed what looked like a Coast Guard helicopter making low rounds overhead. I waded back to the beach and squinted up at the sky. Soon, a second helicopter with a local news station logo on the side joined in the circling. I turned and opened my mouth to say something to my partner when I noticed people running down the beach toward a large, black something pushing out of the water onto the sand. A whale!
I picked Aedin up and started hurrying down the beach, but every step felt like it was in slow motion. I’d always wanted to see a whale, but thought that the experience would be from a distance on the deck of a whale-watching cruise, not up close on a beach. At first, the whale was writhing in the sand, and people started to gather around. A few put their hands on its head, a futile attempt to move tons of black flesh back toward the water. The closer we got, the slower it moved, and the clearer I could see the wounds on its side, bright pink gashes in an otherwise smooth inky surface. It was a humpback whale the size of a school bus, tiny for a whale—a baby. I looked at the one eye I could see, hoping to see signs of life, but the black circle rimmed in blood was so dull it barely reflected the crowd gathered around it. I wanted to reach out my hands to touch it, to run a soothing hand across its face, to wipe away the suffering I knew its last moments would hold. I felt my own tears only when Aedin touched my cheek with her hand.
As I watched them set up a perimeter, I overheard one of the Coast Guard officials say that she had likely been hit by the propeller of a large ship, and had beached herself to end her pain. I asked him how old the whale was. He replied, “About two or three. Her mother is probably still nearby, out there. That’s why we have helicopters flying over, watching for her so they can keep people’s boats clear. We don’t want any other whales to get hurt today.” At the mention of the whale’s age and gender, I held Aedin tighter.
I’d read about entire pods of whales beaching themselves, and had always imagined it was the result of grief. I thought about the suffering the whale’s mother must be feeling, and imagined 40 feet of grief-stricken whale circling somewhere off-shore, her song sad and low, as she tried to figure out where to go. Though our children were nearly the same age, I couldn’t bring myself to imagine the grief I’d feel at the loss of my child. Instead thought about my grandmother standing on her still-empty grave next to my mother’s, showing me the headstone she picked out and had set—awaiting only an engraving to mark her last day—her face buried in her hands and a low wail escaping her body.
I realized I was sobbing when I felt Aedin’s body shaking. I hugged her hard, and realized that her tears were shed out of sympathy for me only when she pointed at the whale and asked, “What is that?”
“It’s a whale,” I told her. “They’re large animals that live in the ocean.”
“Why isn’t it in the water?” she asked.
“It got hurt by a boat and died,” I said. I think most parents might not have been so honest or direct about this point, but already in Aedin’s short life, she’d been to three funerals, and had seen my daily battle with grief for my mother, who’d lost a short, yet brutal, battle with pancreatic cancer the previous year.
Looking at the whale, Aedin said, “They shouldn’t have done that,” her eyebrows knit and her mouth turned down.
“I know,” I said, and turned away from the whale. We walked back toward where my partner stood waiting, Aedin staring over my shoulder the whole time in silence. When I reached the boardwalk, I sat Aedin down and she ran to my partner, who quickly took our daughter away from the scene. I looked back at the whale for a long time, a beautiful and tragic reminder that even a life so large and seemingly indestructible can be so easily taken in a moment by something so insignificant and mindless. Layers of insulation are not enough to protect us from the small dangers hidden below the surface that catch us off-guard during the simple act of taking a breath.
Soon after the vacation, my partner and I separated. Aedin struggled to understand her new reality—day care, two homes, and weekend visits. Every weekend when she came to my new apartment, I held her in my lap, rocking her as she pleaded, over and over, “When are you coming back? I want you to come home.”
“This is my home now,” I said, holding her tight, trying not to match her sobs. A true believer in the ability of art to heal any pain, I kissed her forehead and sent her off to her miniature table and chairs. I told her, “Draw what makes you sad. It will make you feel better. That’s why I write in my journal. It helps me.”
She rubbed her little fists into her eyes, and then bent over the paper earnestly. After a while, she showed me a drawing she had labored over—a perfect ink outline of the shape of the whale laying on the beach at the bay, the water line crossing the tail at just the right place. I looked at the drawing, then back at her. “The whale died,” she said, and then walked over to her table to draw some more.
In a previous version, this essay was published in the 2007 issue of Inscape (as Frankie Finley).
The version posted here was published in the Summer 2012 issue of New Madrid (as Frankie Finley). It was one of the two pieces that I submitted when I won the Kentucky Arts Council Emerging Artist Award for 2013.