Sunday, January 2, 2011

Drowning Lake, Baptism, Death, Water

Scene 1: Drowning Lake
I almost drowned in this lake when I was around seven years old. It's just down the street from where I grew up on Staten Island and we always called it the Dismal Swamp, though in this picture it's quite pretty. A group of us were hanging out at the lake and I was standing on the outside of the railing alongside the road at the edge of the lake when I slipped on the rock I was standing on and went completely under the water. I didn't know how to swim (I still don't) and so I had to be pulled out of the water by someone else. I think it was one of my siblings, though I'm not sure. All I know is that it terrified me and left me phobic about water for many years after this traumatic event occurred.

My fear of water made taking baths a constant ordeal and I didn't take a shower till I was a teenager because having water even touch my face seized me with terror even years later. If my face went under water in any circumstance I was panic stricken. It took my cousin Betsy in North Carolina to finally get me to overcome my fear and step into a shower for the first time. I think the only reason she could get me to take such a drastic step (to me at least) was because I had a serious crush on her.

Scene 2: Baptism
When I was twenty one years old in the summer of 1986 I was baptized in the Atlantic Ocean at New Dorp Beach by a Messianic Rabbi/Pastor as jellyfish floated menacingly nearby. My heart was pounding, not only because of the spectacle of being publicly baptized in a rather crowded venue, but because being forcibly submerged under water three times in a row (Father,Son and Holy Spirit, remember?) scared me to death. It's a good thing I didn't know about the jelly fish floating nearby till only after the baptism or I never would have gone through with it. Even now I only half jokingly tell my baptism story as being nearly a baptism of fire if I'd been stung. But my fear of water was overcome by my sense of calling to be identified with Christ's death and resurrection, symbolized by baptism.

Scene 3: Death
It was July 27, 1998 and I had worked at Project Hospitality that day on nearly no sleep because I had spent the previous night till 5am with Gwenn who lived next door to me in our apartment building. We had talked, wept, held each other, and struggled through a long night of trying to figure out who she wanted to be. I had my own struggle of loving her more than anyone I had ever known, and yet knowing that she was involved with someone else. And yet we loved each other deeply in our own way. In some ways deeper than even her other relationships. We saw into each other's souls.

Well, when I came home from work I found police cars swarmed around our apartment building. As I walked around the side to walk up the three flights of stairs cops were along the whole way, each looking at me with eyes of suspicion. When I got to the top steps, halfway between my apartment and hers, with her door open and cops standing guard, I asked what was going on to no avail till Gwenn's father heard my voice and cried out that she's dead. She's dead. She had drowned in their back yard in-ground pool just a little bit earlier. Her mom had discovered her in the pool. Apparently she had taken her car to their house but had run out of gas on the way (her gas gauge was broken) so she had to walk about a mile to the house in high heat and high humidity. All while wearing her dancing outfit underneath her outer clothes because she was a dancer and had planned on going to dance class that day. When she got to the house, she couldn't get the front door lock to work. We know this because her key was still in the lock after she was found. She then went around back to get in through the back door, but that was locked as well. She must have sat at the edge of the pool to cool off. Apparently the coolness of the water combined with her exertion from the long walk and heat retaining outfit she was wearing was enough to cause her to faint. She fell into the water and drowned.

When I was driven to their house, she was still there. I collapsed once in the front driveway, but made it to the back and saw her lying, stiff, at the side of the pool, covered to protect her dignity. I staggered towards her lifeless body and knelt down beside her and touched her hair. She still had the most beautiful hair in the world. In the days that followed, hazy as they were, I sat Shiva with her family, attended the funeral, which was a traditional orthodox funeral. I was allowed to see her even though I'm a goy, because her family saw me as family. She had clay tablets on her eyes from Israel so that in the resurrection she'll see Israel first. I gave her my Star of David necklace that lies with her to this day because she held it that last night in her hands as I wore it and told me how much she liked it. I knew it had to be with her as a piece of me since when she died a part of me died too. And I wanted to be with her, even in burial.

These three scenes, all involving water, have deeply shaped me. To this day water exercises a primordial power over me. It both terrifies me and enchants me. In my darker moments of depression, when Darkness Itself stares me in the face, water beckons, both as friend and foe. Feared enemy and comforting friend. This September I wrote a poem where water played a vital if only a seemingly supporting role:

Dancing on the Cliff

When depression and addiction
do their deadly dance
the waves beckon below
as the melancholy music plays.

In each others grip
we dance and twirl and spin about
laughing and crying
ourselves to death.

The fog horn blows
and the train whistle sings
as the night descends
and the dance begins.

The wind blows in our hair
and sings a tune blue and true.
A lulling tune that grips us tight
and sees the pebbles fall below.

The ocean below roars
and sings its own song
low and deep forever
lapping at my heels.

And we dance and dance again
to a tune that plays every day.
I know the tune all too well
in its sultry slippery notes.

Cold soil against my feet
warm my soul and keep
me grounded knowing that
the Earth is my friend.

So we dance
and twirl about
in a moonlit sky
as waves and wind blow.

So we dance
and twirl about
in a moonlit sky
as waves and wind blow.

Pebbles and rocks
call out to each other
as our steps intermingle
with ocean spray.

So water still plays its part in my life, even today. It rises up and calls my name over and over again, beckoning me both to death and life. These liquid demons need to be redeemed by a drowning savior.

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