My Heart Between the Seas

by | Jul 21, 2022

Amedeo Modigliani. Caryatid: Rose and Blue, 1912–1914. The Art Institute of Chicago.

I was the last child of four — and the hardest to deliver. I feel a little bad about this fact, but I was getting even for being the runt of the litter. Whichever part of me would turn difficult years later decided it’s best to get even before I could be scolded. It’s the good sort of pain, honey, she tacks on at the end every time she tells the story. Pain that’s not meaningless.

My dad was in the delivery room that time. A previous C-section — the birth of my next-oldest brother — had left him clammy and incapacitated on the tile floor. He was too heavy to carry out, so the nurses dragged him into the hallway by his feet. Later, after coming to slumped in a seat, he wandered back in only to find his wife’s insides — red, bulbous, and in tangles — on a steel surgical cart next to the delivery bed. He passed out again then and there, and the nurses dragged him back to his place in the hallway. He came to once more before abandoning his goal of being a good husband. Far more disoriented the third time he reawakened, he stumbled back into the delivery room. There he saw that the surgical cart was gone and his wife’s belly was intact. The doctors and nurses were in the heat of creating life but stopped when they noticed my father staring at them blankly. Unsure of why they too seemed confused, he stepped closer to the woman on the bed and saw a stranger, sweating and red-faced. At this realization, he fell to the floor one last time.

Thankfully, no C-section was required for my birth. But it was not without its complications in the classic Kelly family fashion. The doctors said I suffered from a nuchal cord, a situation where the umbilical cord wraps around the neck of the infant. It’s a rather benign condition, but the doctors had to perform a few extra steps, flipping me over in the womb, pushing me around until I would come out when I was free of the umbilical cord. This was the hard part, the most painful part. I imagine my mom thought I’d better be worth it.

Part of me thinks I wrapped that cord around my neck in an effort to escape reality. I’m not surprised the stunt didn’t work. And for that, I am now grateful. My mom and the doctors gave me a chance at life. In her self-indulgent and boastful manner, my mom can’t resist saying the world was not ready for me — a claim I have yet to verify. The world moves quickly, and I find myself chasing it.

Years after my mother held me in her arms for the first time, she told me one special detail: she could hear the waves crashing not far from the hospital. A swell came and left the coastlines unruly. Soft explosions kept sounding and fading, and when placing a hand against my tiny body, she felt my heartbeat for the first time. She spent a good while focusing on these two occurrences while my heart softly thumped and quieted while the waves crashed and receded until the two became synonymous, indistinguishable. As long as she’s by the sea she hears me; my tiny heart in each crash of water.

We lived not far from the sea for this reason. My parents loved the sea, they were coastal creatures. The home I grew up in was no more than 15 minutes from the beach. On most weekends, we found ourselves by the water, jumping in to save our broiling skin from the heat and sun.

My oldest brother Ryan would try his hand at surfing. He got quite good on his longboard. My dad would body surf, with me perched on his back. He would swim hard, catch a wave, and I would hold on to his shoulders like the rail of a roller coaster.

Other times, we’d all wade into the water. My dad would sprint into the waves and smash his big belly into the sea foam. When he came up from below the surface, he would comb the salt water out of his beard with his fingers and grab my mom around her waist, pull her close and splash water across her face. This is one of my first memories: my father grabbing my mother’s cheeks in his palms, kissing her nose, then dunking her into the saltwater. She would come up with a mouth full of sea and spray out of her lips a salty mist across his face. I saw how my mom was special, someone you felt a need to get to know because of how my dad looked at her. His attention did not fade. He never stopped studying her.

“A swell came and left the coastlines unruly. My parents loved the sea, they were coastal creatures…I grew up no more than 15 minutes from the beach.”

In second grade, I first felt at odds with the world. We did not agree on certain things, like the passing of my father. His death came on so slowly that I did not realize it was happening. My older siblings understood more than I did and hid from me what was coming. I heard the word cancer thrown around in hushed tones from behind thin walls and cracked doors.

Late in what would be my father’s surviving months, I found my sister Lucy crying at our dining room table alone. I asked her why she was upset. Instead of answering, she grabbed my hand and cried heavier, her tears dotting the placemat in front of her.

I understood more when our frequent trips to the hospital became more of a burden on our lives. After a while, we practically lived in the hospital. We ate so many apples and drank lots of orange juice. I made friends with a soft, old pilot in a wheelchair. He would come out of his room in the morning, wheel himself to the nurse’s desk on our floor to flirt with Jacey or Jessica, two of the nurses, if they were on duty. When he would get told to scram, he would find his way to me and my siblings, and we would play sticks with our fingers or spoons with chopsticks from the cafeteria.

On a day when my mother looked particularly sunken and pale, she brought each of us separately into the room where my father lay, bald and ashen and too skinny.

I was the last to go in, so I waited outside for the rest of them. Ryan came out first with his hands rubbing at his wet cheeks. Lucy went in then came out soon after, pacing directly down the hall with her head down and her arms stiff at her side. Patrick came out last then went directly to Ryan, sitting next to him and slouching into his shoulder. My mother walked out of the room and clasped my hand. She pushed me into the room then to my father’s side.

“My boy Doren, my little boy,” he said quietly, as my mother held and rubbed my shoulders. “Listen to me. You worry too much, okay? You’re like me, that is until I beat the worry.” A small smile fell upon his face at these words, a smile I have not seen a semblance of since that day. It was proud and sad but good in every way.

“Go out, my boy,” he said. “Go from your home, from where you were born. Tell your friends and family you need to go, that you need to take leave of obligations and responsibilities, to take leave of all that which you know, and find new things to learn. Find new things to wander through and mull over. Find love, find laughter, and find time to lose those things. In that emptiness, you’ll find you want it all the more. The world is too big to put yourself in a cell, to put yourself in a place where you think the pain of hiding is better than the pain of trying. I know you are young, but I will not be here to tell you this later. Too many people live worrying about pain. But it’s all pain. It’s all longing. So make meaning out of it.”

I held his hand and he held mine and it felt as though some fleck of the universe found its way in between our palms and warmed our hands.

“I love you,” he said, still holding my hand as a doctor stepped between us to help usher in something quiet and final.

Keaton Larson

Keaton Larson

Publab Fellow 2022

Keaton Larson was born and raised in Orange County, California. He attended Saddleback Community College before transferring and graduating from UCLA in 2021 with an English degree and a Professional Writing Minor. Outside of professional life, he loves running, Muay Thai boxing, photography, and a good meal–to which no distance is too far to find.

Instagram: @kkeatton