Under a Calm Wave, Not Killing Myself | Sola Damon
My mother always threatened me not to have sex, but killing myself is something she never forbade. I’m sitting in a café in Collioure, France, when this realization blindsides me. It’s a strange omission considering her father killed himself and that suicide can result from a concoction of circumstances, including genetics.
The café walls are lined with wooden picture frames. Mediterranean seaside memories I absorb while enamored with the act of living. I’m drafting my first assignment at a writing retreat with the following prompt: Write about something you’ve never told anyone.
It’s dangerous territory.
Thoughts about ending my life have weighed on me since I was six years old. I’ve never told anyone about my dreams where I hear a voice underwater telling me to swim deeper and farther from shore. But I find the courage to share from the edge of this particular sea with a disclaimer: I am not suicidal.
The line between ending my life and it ending naturally is not a blurry one for me. I’m bursting with so much happiness. Like the kind I see in the paintings inside this café, filled with pastels of people frozen in their seaside holidays. Or like the man sitting outside drinking a glass of beer, a poodle at his feet, and a book with dog-eared pages. I imagine the book smells like an old book shop or a green wooden kiosk from along the Seine. The poodle stretches next to a glass water bowl with edges dimpled like a pie crust. The man is so content he might actually levitate. I know that feeling. But that’s not what keeps me hiding my history of suicidal dreams and thoughts. It’s because the thoughts act as shovels, digging up dangerous dirt. Family dirt.
Looking back at the paintings, I wonder if contentment comes from embracing only the parts of our lives we choose to put inside picture frames. Like the ones my father passed down to me. Thick mahogany frames holding West Indian maps of where we lived when I was a child, and pictures of his parents— the only grandparents I’ve ever known. His framable memories strike a disturbing opposition to my mother’s past. Her parents only ever existed in dark descriptions. Sadly, to my knowledge, nothing about my mother’s past is framable.
But she has reasons for her infectious unhappiness. Her father’s suicide leaked into my life in slow moldy drips. He shot himself in the head with his policeman’s service revolver when my mother was sixteen, one month into her teenage pregnancy. The newspaper article said his wife, my maternal grandmother, had filed for divorce that day.
On the other hand, my father was older and, from what society would call a “good family,” dutifully married his teenage bride. She was the oldest of nine from the other side of the hedges. Her mother was callous and miserable. I recall her cheekbones so high and sharp she looked like a skeleton wrapped in industrial strength nylons from a plastic egg. But that memory faded, gratefully, when my father moved us to a simple cement house in the Caribbean.
From the age of five, my life sat on the edge of a peaceful sea that looked like a vat of melted emeralds and sapphires. But it was juxtaposed with my mother’s desperate anger. She shouted at my father in ways that created insecurity, sending me to imagine a different world with my father’s books and the maps in those wooden frames. Or down a path to the beach, hiding from the uncertainty indoors. I registered memories like an intake clerk as if I knew I would need them later. Like the feeling of saltwater burning my sinuses, and watching my father’s blue eyes underwater, framed in a black rubber diving mask.
Now, in Collioure, as I watch the man with his dog and his book on a Mediterranean promenade, I wonder if my father would have traveled farther without children and the required marriage. Maybe have taken a book to a café in a small coastal town and read it with a glass of beer. He could have gone to all the places on the maps in those wooden frames that, as a child, hypnotized me with their symbols. I thought they could tell the future. I believed the maps were filled with places where the air had no anger, and the people were full of love and care. They were imaginary and invisible but so real to me that if I’d thrown flour around the room, I’m sure their outlines would have appeared.
Maybe my mother also stared at my father’s maps and wondered how to get to those places. But I doubt it. Perhaps she wanted to end her life like her father. I doubt that too. What I never doubted was that she loved me, albeit in a dysfunctional way that wove inadequacy, instability, and a massive lack of self-esteem into the fibers of my being. As the anchor that tied my parents to the life they were stuck in, I can pinpoint my first desire to leave this world when I realized they were miserable because they were saddled with me.
When I was old enough to move out, I put new maps on my own walls and hung some of the old ones my father gave me. They allowed me to picture the future and keep tabs on the past where my guilt thrived. They’ve helped me learn that my parents’ unhappiness was never my fault. They had the power to change their course, anchored or not. Staring at what I’ve chosen to frame helps me contemplate the unframable. It allows me to write the truth.
The dreams always started in the acacia bushes, where I dodged thorns and goat dung, sneaking down to the clear blue water in front of our house. I would pick limes and let the skins burn my lips before walking into the sea with no footprints. A voice underwater would tell me I could swim out towards the blurry void and stay forever, or return to the island. The water calmed me so entirely that I fought to stay in the dream when I woke, to stay immersed in the waters I still see on the maps. I didn’t want to be stuck in the limitations of a body. I didn’t want to be present. I was obsessed with finding a different future, even if it meant drowning myself to get there.
Even when I couldn’t sleep, I imagined that I was underwater, looking out into the blue. I pictured my straw blonde hair drifting in an apparition around my head, looking up to watch the underside of the calm waves rolling onto the sand. They would recede and wash the shore, again and again. I think about that dream now when I can’t fall asleep, forty-five years later.
My parents long broke from each other and somehow still remained stuck in different places, anchored by different things. But I’m grateful that they gave me the means to return to that same sea whenever I choose. I swim into the same blue water now in my much older body, sinking and squinting into the same void. I find a strange solace in knowing I can hand myself over if I swim far enough. As if I will cross some watery membrane into a new world like my mother’s father did, and others I’ve lost who took their lives. They chose to step inside the picture frames forever.
Unlike them, I would rather find the parts of me I’ve left behind living in all the places I’ve visited on those maps in the wooden frames—where I can emerge from beneath a calm wave and enjoy walking up onto wet sugary sand. Maybe to another café in Collioure. Or to places where hummingbirds slurp hibiscus flowers as the sun sets into the sea at the edge of the earth—to all the places I haven’t had my fill of yet.
As for the thoughts and dreams, I believe death will release me into the blue void when I least expect it, and it’s something for which I choose to wait. I observe my memories of the dreams by writing them down now in places like this café. I look through the blurry membrane on paper, watching it separate this world from the next, confident in my choice to remain in this one.
Sola Damon is the pseudonym for a recovering trial lawyer with four unfinished novels in her bottom drawer. She also writes personal essays and poetry, most recently, “Love, Naturally” and “Evolution,” appearing in the Penumbra Literary Review (Spring 2022). She is the author of Namaste at Home: Positive Thinking and Meditation During a Freakin’ Pandemic. She splits her time between South Florida, Laguna Beach, California, and her childhood home in the West Indies, where she’s polishing off those novels for publication.