It’s Only Water

We’re parked on the side of the highway a couple miles south of Crescent City and I’m scared of the ocean but trying to hide it.

We’re here because my sister Lydia loves the ocean. She loves torpedoing through the swell of the waves, feeling the rush of cold water meet warm skin, and finding the traces of salt that linger on her body and in her hair. She loves how the ocean works her muscles, while also making them feel weightless. She loves how the ocean, vast and unpredictable, lets her feel free.  

When we were younger, my sister would seize any chance she’d have to head to the ocean. She’d get the itch as soon as the first rays of summer broke through the veil of cloudy spring skies. We’d make the two-and-a-half-hour trip to the blustery coast and she’d walk into the frigid water while onlookers, clad in windbreakers, tilted their heads. Since I was the designated towel-holder, still rooted in the sand, bystanders often directed their exclamations at me. “It’s so cold!” they would call out. “I know, I know!” I’d shout back over the drum of the waves.

Now, like then, wind whips through Crescent City, a fishing town in the northern-most corner of California, just twenty miles south of the Oregon border. Tourist season has begun and the motels scattered along the oceanfront advertise revamped restaurant menus and newly renovated rooms. I’m in the driver’s seat, keys still in the ignition, when a light rain begins to fall. The taps on the windshield become a metronome, measuring the time we sit, suspended, listening to the melody of the raindrops contend with the deep churn of the ocean.

We watch cars pull into the motels—travelers coming to terms with the worsening weather. I feel the urge to bury my face in the hood of my sweatshirt and stay in the warm sanctuary of the car. My sister must feel the opposite urge. She grabs her swimsuit, still drying on the dashboard, and reaches for a towel from the back seat. “Ready?” she asks.

Ready? It’s the same question the nurse asks as he examines the tip of the needle before sinking it into the nook of Lydia’s elbow to test her white blood cell count. Her arms, extended gently, palms facing upwards, are pale and thin. They are arms used to having blood drawn from them, arms used to resting on the sides of hospital chairs and beds. We’re here in Crescent City because Lydia loves the ocean, but we’re also here because she’s sick. The town is a rest stop between the hospital in San Francisco and our home in Seattle, between her doctors and the rest of her life. We drive north because, with the cocktail of drugs surging through her body, she’d rather do anything other than get on a plane.  

Lydia gets out of the car and slips into her swimsuit, wrapping a towel around her body as she changes roadside. We have wetsuits, but she doesn’t need one. Grinning, she turns to me and tells me that she can’t wait for the cup of hot chicken soup we’ll get from the Safeway on our way out of Crescent City.

I stare at the whitecaps, so cold and unwelcoming to me, yet so invigorating to my sister. I find my swimsuit in the backseat because as much as I want to stay sheltered from the darkening clouds, I don’t want Lydia to be alone in the ocean. I pull on my fleece-lined lifeguarding parka, shut the car door, and follow her to the shore.

We are two specks dotting a stretch of mostly empty coastline. Further along the beach, a surfer returns from the waves. He gives us a slight nod as he tugs at the zipper of his wetsuit.

Lydia doesn’t idle. She wades confidently into the frigid water as if it were no colder than a stale bath. Only a moment passes before she’s waist deep and then completely submerged—there, and then suddenly not. It’s here, standing at the foot of the ocean, where my sister, six years older than me, seems as young as I was when I rode a bike for the first time and she stood by watching. It’s here, breathing in the salty air, where I am the older sister, anxiously watching her thin arms slice through the surface of the water while her cheeks flush with youthful defiance.

In my lifeguard’s parka, I keep watch over my sister’s invincibility.

I think about everything that has changed since our trips to the coast when we were younger. Back then we’d sit in the backseat playing I-Spy, our parents driving us to and from the ocean. We’d spill out of the car and run back and forth on the wet sand, pretending the waves were going to eat our toes if we couldn’t dart away fast enough. We’d beg for chicken soup on the drive home. Then we’d doze off in the car, our tongues tingling and our stomachs warm. I thought that once Lydia was old enough, we’d be able to head to the coast whenever we wanted to. But Lydia got cancer the year before she got her driver’s license and we stopped going to the ocean for a while. Sandy beaches became linoleum floors and the lull of waves became the thunder of hospital pagers and medical carts.

Now, I have my driver’s license and we both sit in the front of the car. During long stretches of our journey, we fall in and out of light conversation. I am eighteen years old, gripping the steering wheel of the family car, but I am also eight years old, asking my older sister questions with impish persistence. I ask her why she thinks dogs have dog names and humans have human names. I ask her why parents name their kids after certain cities and seasons, but not others. We don’t talk about it explicitly, but reminiscence for our early childhood—a time when we were dauntless—reverberates through the car. I sit on the border of nostalgia and reality, wondering how to recover the past.

My sister seems to have found one solution. The ocean. That old itch to head to the coast and swim is still there because it never left. Sometimes I think the itch intensifies when she’s sick. Maybe it’s because those feelings that the water brings—the exhilaration, the weightlessness, and the freedom—don’t change even when everything else wavers. Bad days at the coast are still good days. The ocean is reliable that way.

It’s still hard for me to reconcile the fragility of her body, fighting both cancer and its cure, with how healthy she looks sculling through the surf, her head bobbing confidently over the surface. After years of agonizing chemo cycles and drug trials, it seems as if the only medicine that remains constant borders the side of the road we’ve parked on, a treatment that substitutes water for needles and waves for pills. In search of this remedy, we’ve embarked upon our own take on the quintessential American road trip. I hug the curves of the scenic coastal roads just as my sister leans into the waves—thankful for the freedom they bring on a journey otherwise dictated by necessity.

As we head north on the 101, Lydia keeps checking the weather. She wants to know if there is a best time to go to the ocean.

But in Crescent City, it’s clear we haven’t found the best time. The light rain escalates into a steady shower and the misty air above the water obscures the magnitude of the incoming waves. I’m scared of the ocean because the ocean doesn’t know that my sister is sick. I’m scared of the ocean because the ocean doesn’t care that my sister’s body already has so much else to fight. I let my gaze travel along the shore and I find the surfer, who now cleans his board atop a piece of driftwood. I think of how, unknowingly, he is a witness. In front of him is the rebellion. Holding the towel on the shore, I am just the accomplice. It is my sister Lydia who is lawless, swimming in the storm, defying everything the ocean and its vastness are supposed to make us feel.

My sister loves the ocean. I love the ocean because I love my sister. Maybe we haven’t found the best time here in Crescent City, but it’s time.


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