Finalist, 2019 Remember in November Contest for Creative Nonfiction
The day I went to see the whale, I was on the deck of a small vessel off the coast of Kaikōura, New Zealand. The waves were powerful and I kept losing my footing, even with my fingers wrapped around the cold rail. My guts lurched around inside my skin and I breathed in and out slowly, focusing on the horizon and pinching my earlobe to try to take the edge off the nausea. There was a crowd of strangers on the deck but I stood alone. My husband of one year sat inside the boat and did not come out, complaining of seasickness.
Still, I waited on the deck, praying that the whale would appear. I felt pulled to this place, pulled to this experience, in a way I could not describe with logic. I grew up hearing and reading about whales at home in New Bedford, Massachusetts, a city filled with images of their massive tails pointed towards the sky. Yet I had never seen one in real life, because the only place on earth to reliably see a sperm whale year-round was on the other side of the planet, in Kaikōura.
Standing on the boat, I sensed that something was about to emerge, something I had worked hard for many years to suppress. I hoped I could be brave enough to reach out my hand and grab it. The whale might be underwater for a long time, but sooner or later, she would have to surface.
New Bedford is best known for its history as the United States’ most significant port in the whaling industry in the nineteenth century. Now, it’s the sort of beautiful early industrial city that’s said to be on the cusp of a renaissance.
The whaling industry was carnage. Ships would leave from New Bedford and sail off to the faraway seas where the whales lived. Men would row out into the churning waves in small boats and spear the whales with their harpoons. The men would boil down their massive bodies, use their bones for women’s corsets, their teeth for etching, and their oil for light. And oh, the light. Sperm whales were particularly prized for their spermaceti, a substance in their heads that could be boiled down and turned into clean-burning oil. This oil was used as a lighting source around the world: It’s how people navigated their cities at night and read books in the evening and sailed into safe harbors after dark. It’s how the days were extended so that more hours could be filled with possibility and it all came through New Bedford, my home.
This history is everywhere in New Bedford, in its cobblestone streets and iron lamp posts (now electric). It is in the city’s beautiful little jewel box of a Whaling Museum, full of scrimshaw and paintings and skeletons of whales. I grew up in a warehouse built in 1822 that my parents had converted into our home. In one corner of my bedroom was a wooden Dutch door that was originally used to load goods onto the second floor of the warehouse. As a child, I could open the top and lean out and see the fishing boats at the end of my street. They were rusted and bright and floating in the water where the whaling ships used to dock.
The city’s history was one of the guiding beacons in my family. My mother is a preservation architect who made a name for herself in the region by restoring historic buildings. Even now, when visitors come from out of town, we get into my mother’s 20-year-old Mercedes sedan and drive around looking at the 200-year-old buildings she saved.
My father was equally passionate about New Bedford’s history. When I was really little, his business was real estate investment, but he was too invested in his city to be very successful at it. He fell in love with an old grand mansion that belonged to a whaling merchant and turned it into commercial office space that had had a hard time renting out. In his free time, he served on the boards of several historic preservation organizations. He even had a cassette tape of sea shanties he’d play in his car. He was committed — although he’d grown up in the Midwest, New Bedford had become his home. I believe he saw himself as a steward of this place he loved so much. His love was a responsibility he took seriously.
As a child, I found it all unbearably dull. I wanted to live in a two-story house with a big grassy yard, to be able to grab my bike off the front lawn and ride around my neighborhood with other kids. I did not want to spend my Saturday mornings reading a book on the staircase of a musty old building while my dad argued on the phone with electricians about historic lighting fixtures.
Still, the love my parents had for the city started to seep into me. Sometimes, my dad would take me to a seafood restaurant on the wharf. We would sit at the bar, and he would order a cocktail for himself and a shrimp cocktail for me. We would walk back to our house and I would navigate the cobblestone without twisting my ankle and I would hear the seagulls scream overhead and I would smell the rot rust brine smell on the breeze and I would hold his hand.
The first few chapters of Moby-Dick take place in New Bedford, and since 1995, the Whaling Museum has hosted an annual read-aloud marathon of the entire book. In early January of the year I was seven, the first year of the event, my dad signed us up for a shift at four in the morning. He took the night shift because he was on the board of the museum and was a firm believer in leading by example. “We’ll split up the section,” he said to reassure me. “You can just look over at me when you want me to help you.” He probably thought it was better not to mention Melville’s ornate prose and intricate sentence structure to his seven-year-old daughter.
He got me out of bed that morning, and we made our way across the street in a haze. When it came time for our section, my dad and I were positioned at two podiums on either side of a huge hall. We stood in front of a small group of dedicated people, lying in sleeping bags on the wooden floor. Behind us was a half-scale indoor replica of the Lagoda, a whaling vessel built in 1826.
I remember reading aloud from a section where Ishmael, the book’s narrator, describes breaking down spermaceti with his hands, squishing it between his fingers to make the oil. “Such an abounding, affectionate, friendly, loving feeling did this avocation beget,” he says, describing the connectedness he feels to the other men working beside him. At the time, I didn’t understand what I was reading. It was my first time speaking in public and I felt completely lost.
But I turned my head to look at my dad, and he was looking right at me, ready to carry on, ready to be my strength. I felt a little braver. Like I was standing on the prow of a great ship next to him, sea winds in our faces and eyes looking out for whales. Like we were ready for any adventure, all the adventures we would have for years and years to come.
One morning in early January of the year I was fourteen, my dad didn’t come to wake me up as he usually did. I crept down the hall to his room and found him in his bed, still and cold and dead from a heart attack.
I went back to school five days later. By September I was able to say the phrase “my father died” aloud without bursting into tears. People would tell me the grief would always be a part of me. But over the years, it shifted and changed.
I met my husband online nine years after my father died, when I was 23 and living in New York City. When he walked into the bar on for our first date, he wore a leather jacket and a crooked smile. We sipped beer and argued about the Metropolitan Opera’s new production of Wagner’s Ring Cycle — he hated it, I loved it. We were planning our second date before the first was done.
Five weeks after we met, I cooked him dinner in my apartment. While we were cleaning up, he pulled me close to him in my kitchen. I felt his heart pounding against my chest and he told me he loved me. I had never experienced such a fast and powerful expression of devotion from another human being. There was nothing to do in the face of it but throw my arms up and let it carry me out to sea.
The first Thanksgiving we were together, we went to visit New Bedford so I could show him where I grew up. We walked past my old house toward the water. He wrinkled his nose when the smell of the port first hit him, a look of total revulsion. “I know, it’s an intense smell,” I said, trying to smooth things over.
“It’s awful.” I didn’t know if he meant the smell or the city.
He loved the mountains, and his plan was always to move back to his home state out west. He was far away from home living in New York and he longed to build a life close to his family and friends. “That’s where my future is,” he would say.
Growing up in New Bedford had cemented in me a sense of feeling at home on the East Coast. Of course, my relationships were part of that; my mother had moved to a town adjacent to New Bedford, and most of my friends were in New York and Boston and Halifax and Washington. But there’s also a feeling I have always had on the East Coast: It is the feeling of a cold oyster shell resting on my bottom lip as I tilt my head back. It is the chill and the brine and the anticipation that thrums in my veins when I am within sight of the sea.
But that was a feeling, not a life; I had a man who loved me and he needed to be in the mountains, so we would go to the mountains. I worried that if I stayed in the East, it would be because I was irrational and guided by emotions, and I knew I was supposed to combat that impulse. When I changed my mind about something, even small things like what restaurant I wanted to go to or what dress I wanted to wear, my husband would sing to me “La donna è mobile,” an aria from Rigoletto: “Woman is flighty.”
Deep inside, I was a churning sea, emotional and volatile and full of unmet needs that I had no idea how to articulate verbally. Sometimes they would burst through in small acts of rebellion. My husband would complain about anything he deemed not to make sense, like the idea of buying flowers. “It’s pointless,” he would say, “They just die.” I started to buy myself flowers every week, sometimes two bouquets at a time.
In the months after we were married, we started fighting — about the move out west, about his family, about money. We fought in dark bars and on subway platforms and in our apartment in Manhattan, maneuvering around stacks of boxes that we were slowly filling with paperbacks and sweaters and glassware. I fought broadly, swiping at him with big, unsteady “I always” and “you never” statements because I refused to acknowledge even to myself that I was starting to doubt the life we had planned would make me happy.
Around the same time, I began to feel physically unwell. My heart fluttered like I had just climbed a staircase, even while I was sitting at my desk. I developed a pain on the right side of my face from clenching my jaw all the time. Every time I felt it come on, I would open my mouth wide, massage my cheek, anything to try to expel the ache. I approached my problems with precision, looking for a medical solution that would explain why I was suddenly ill. I went to doctors and nurses who took my blood and threw out various ideas: thyroid issues, chronic lyme, adrenal fatigue. The last theory required a saliva test, which meant that several times a day, I left my desk to go to my office break room at the humanitarian organization where I worked and spat into a vial that I tucked into the freezer next to my coworker’s frozen burritos.
But none of the tests I took or experts I saw pointed to anything major that would explain my symptoms. Still, I believed something was out of place. Somewhere inside, I was broken, and it was breaking us.
I went to a therapist twice a week. I told her about all of the ways in which I was deficient and all of the ways that my husband had been unfailingly supportive of me. “He has been so patient with me,” I said in my first visit to her as I fidgeted with the beanie that I had pulled on to hide my unwashed depression hair. I told her about our plan to move out west, our excitement for the future, my need to be fixed. The words tumbled out of me, a practiced narrative. It was easy to say because it was what I believed at the time. She would nod, and I would try to pretend I didn’t see the question in her eyes: “Is this really what you believe?”
Over the months I saw her, I started talking about my dad. Along with all of my physical symptoms, I had been experiencing a fresh wave of grief over his loss. I had tried talking to my husband about it, but the grief felt too enormous, too primal, to be confined by the boundaries of rational explanation. I was 28 by then, nearly to the point of living more of my life without my father than with him. I’d become obsessed with the idea that there was something powerful about the crossing of this particular threshold, like a dark velvet curtain would thud to the ground and I would no longer be able to reach back in time and touch my father’s outstretched hand.
We left New York in the spring. Before getting an apartment and starting our life together in the mountains, we blocked out a month for a trip to New Zealand, a delayed honeymoon after our wedding almost a year before. My husband was an avid hiker and was eager to tackle the Routeburn Track, one of the country’s famous Great Walks. In the five years that we had been together, I had been good at pretending, for his sake, that I liked hiking.
I resisted going on the Routeburn hike for weeks, appealing to my husband’s logic by expressing concern about the weather and my lack of endurance. We talked about it over dinner in our apartment, and he responded a few days later by forwarding an email exchange he’d had with a local guide, including her response that the hike “shouldn’t be a problem if we were fit.” I had no data that could express my unease and no capacity to set a boundary. I relented.
After visiting the North Island, we flew to Queenstown and drove into the wilderness. It was beautiful, but I was miserable all three days we were on the trail. It was cold and wet and my body ached and I couldn’t sleep in the crowded huts full of snoring people. I hated myself for not enjoying what everyone had told me would be an extraordinary experience. By the second day, I was so exhausted and furious with my husband for convincing me to go on the hike that I petulantly did not speak to him for several hours. We stopped for a snack at one of the summits, and I struck up a conversation with another hiker and mentioned to him my wish to be dry and well-rested as soon as possible. “Don’t rush this,” the stranger scolded, gesturing to the incredible view. “You have to savor this experience.”
I did not want to savor the experience, because I did not want to have to be quiet and tune into the thoughts that had started bubbling to the surface of my mind. After lunch, we hiked on, and each time my foot hit the earth, I felt a thought pulse up my leg and into my head: I don’t want to be married to you. It was ridiculous. There were no logical reasons why I should divorce my husband. We’d been married less than a year and already he had proven his devotion by putting up with my mysterious health problems. And anyway, I had just left my job and apartment in New York and all of my possessions were in boxes thousands of miles away, ready to be unpacked so we could start the new life we’d been planning together for years, the life that I had insisted I wanted. The thought that I didn’t want to be married to him was just an impulse; it would recede as it came in, pulling back from the shore of my mind. I stifled it, walked on, rolling the inside of my bottom lip between my front teeth until I tasted blood.
Toward the end of the trip, we went to Kaikōura. As soon as I heard about the whale watches there, I had been desperate to go, though I could not describe why in any way that came close to capturing the magnitude of my wanting. I told my husband I was interested in Kaikōura’s history and unique marine environment, that I wanted to learn more about the Māori ancestor Paikea, the Whale Rider, who was brought to Aotearoa (New Zealand) by the whale Tohorā. All of the explanations I gave him were incomplete, but at the time, they were all that I could imagine saying to him. There was nothing concrete about the small flicker inside me pushing me to go to this place almost precisely on the other side of the planet from where I grew up. There was no logic in my deep knowing that the experience of seeing a whale would connect me to my home, the city that my father loved. My desire was so delicate that I wrapped it in a protective shell of logic to keep it alive.
I hoped that we would both love Kaikōura. In the weeks before we left for New Zealand, I looked at pictures online, breathtaking images of this beautiful place where the mountains pitched down and softly kissed the edge of the sea. I thought, maybe this place is like us: he is the mountain and I am the sea. I thought, maybe there is something for us here. I thought, maybe this place will fix what has broken in me.
Kaikōura felt like an enchanted place. The night we arrived, we drove down to a parking lot at the edge of town because we’d heard that it had a good vantage point for looking at seals. The stories we’d heard were not exaggerated: There were seals dozing at the water’s edge but also in parking spaces, their enormous bodies pooling on the warm concrete. The air smelled like wet fur and the briny rot of seaweed. The sun was setting and the sky was deep blue and gold. I looked out across the water and I felt I was standing at the edge of heaven. I looked at my husband with tears in my eyes. He shrugged.
The next day we were scheduled for the whale watch. At first, my husband wasn’t going to go because he would get too seasick and it just wasn’t worth it to him. For once, I insisted: I was going, even if he stayed on dry land. Just before the ticket deadline, he changed his mind. We sat inside the cabin while the captain rattled off the safety announcements. He explained the sonar technology they used to locate the whales but stressed that there was no guarantee one would surface during our trip. I jiggled my leg and looked out the window, praying that we would be lucky.
As soon as we got out into the open water, my husband started to sway in his seat, breathing in and out, eyeing the vomit bag in the pouch in front of him. He looked at me queasily. “Maybe this was a mistake,” he said. I think he meant that it was a mistake for him to get on the boat. I felt the wave rush in, ferocious and undeniable. I decided not to suppress it. “Maybe this was a mistake,” I said. I meant that it was a mistake to marry him, this person who wanted a life completely different from the one I wanted, this person who didn’t understand me because up until that point, I hadn’t been willing to understand myself.
I left him inside and went out on the deck, heeding for once the light inside me, the light that pulsed, “Go, go, go.” I stood by myself, listening to the chattering of the other tourists next to me as they fumbled with their intricate cameras. But I kept my eyes fixed on the sea.
I looked at the boiling waves from behind the rail. I saw a sort of wisdom in their powerful movement. They did not move in any sort of pattern as they cut back and forth against one another, churning with white foam. The salt spray hit my skin and I vibrated with the connectedness of things. I looked at the water’s surface and saw that it was magnificent. The ocean did not conform to any sort of logic — the water went where it had to go, and so would I.
When the whale broke the surface of the water, I lost my breath and tears started to pour out of me. At first, I only saw a sliver of her, but I felt the magnitude of all that was underneath. I felt the sea winds in my face. I felt ready for any adventure, all the adventures I would have for years and years to come. When she dove back down, her powerful tail unfurled into the air like a great banner. And I felt the light inside, bright as an oil lamp, burning brighter and brighter with each breath.
STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/Vilmos Vincze