Nonfiction from John Proctor

Meditating Underwater

Image by Shawn Hoke via Flickr, CC.

Image by Shawn Hoke via Flickr, CC.

At 8:00 this morning, I am on a dock in Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina, crabbing with my daughter and my nephew. The same time in Kansas, my mother is beginning back fusion surgery. At 2:00 p.m., I’ll call my stepfather to check up, and tell him to call me when the surgery is over. “I have a long list of people to call,” he’ll say. I won’t be able to blame him. When he married my mother, she was a thirty-five-year-old woman who looked twenty-five; now she’s fifty-five and looks sixty-five.

My mother, when she was getting to know my wife, said my greatest betrayal of her came in the line at Taco John’s when I was four years old. She’d told me I could only have one taco, but I wanted two. So I kicked her in the shin. She says it was the only time I’ve ever tried to hurt her. But she’s wrong. She never brings up the time when I was sixteen and she was divorcing her abusive husband of eleven years, and had just taken a second job as a housekeeper. I was first meeting the man who’d gotten her pregnant when they were eighteen, then left her for prison. We were sitting in the car in line at a bank drive-through, and she asked me what he was doing now. I told her he owned a furniture store. “When I grow up,” she said sarcastically,  “I want to work in a furniture store.” “When I grow up,” I replied, looking out the window and sulking, “I want to clean other people’s houses.”

Last night my mother called me to apologize. In our conversation the night before, she’d told me that when her surgeon asked if her children would be at the surgery she joked, “Two will. The other one decided to go on vacation.”

By 11:00 this morning, I’m on the beach outside Corolla with my wife’s family. The previous evening, before my mother called, I was fishing in the surf when I noticed a funnel to the south connecting the sea and the sky. From at least twenty miles away, it was one of the most crushingly beautiful things I’d ever seen. This morning my father-in-law, who has an answer for everything, many of them correct, told me he’d noticed clouds stacking over the Albemarle Sound since we’d arrived Sunday. They always seemed to break up and dissipate by the time they reached the more coastal beaches of Duck and Corolla. A commercial crabber I know who works the Albemarle has texted me pictures of these funnels—he calls them waterspouts—that sometimes roar up near his boat while he’s doing his morning rounds. Wikipedia says, “They normally develop in moisture-laden environments as their parent clouds are in the process of development.” He says they are caused whenever a major sea change occurs and the water temperatures either rise or drop drastically. He agrees that they’re both crushing and beautiful.

My mother’s body, between the hours of 8 a.m. and 6 p.m. today, is undergoing a drastic and permanent sea change. Every major organ in her body is being removed and set on a table as a team of doctors inserts screws and cement into her spinal column in order to correct her rapidly advancing late-onset scoliosis. “The doctor sounds more like a mechanic than a surgeon,” my stepfather chuckles. From half a country away, at a beach house with a family most of whom my mother hasn’t met, I try to gather the strands together and make something meaningful, even beautiful, out of the destruction of her body. This is perhaps my greatest betrayal of my mother.

Before we left Brooklyn for North Carolina, my wife said to me, “You know she’s being unreasonable, right? She’s put off this surgery for years, and now she arranges it for a day she knows you’ll be away, and expects you to drop everything with your family here. This is a power play.” I agreed with her. I agree with her. At 3:30 p.m. I sit typing with our newborn baby in my lap and our three-year-old daughter napping in bed beside me, and I don’t want to be in a hospital with my stepfather who can’t wait to finish up and fly back to Pennsylvania, my sister who steals our mother’s painkillers so routinely that our mother now keeps them in a safe when she visits, and my Jehovah’s Witness brother who won’t even admit her life is in danger because he doesn’t believe in death. But I want to be sitting at the dinner table with them, twenty years ago, when I was a college junior home for the summer, right before I broke up a perfectly pleasant conversation about whatever it was we were talking about to tell them all that I wouldn’t be going to church with them the next morning because I no longer believed in a loving god—before my stepfather told me I had no respect for him or my mother, before my thirteen-year-old sister asked me who would sit with her in the pew now, before my mother looked into her lap silently. I want to tell them all I’m sorry—sorry that I am who I am and they are who they are, sorry I’m leaving them, I’ve already left them actually, and I can’t come home again.

I want, more than anything, to tell them I love them. I love them all—my mother, my sister, my brother, my daughters, my wife, even my stepdad. And I’ve never felt so alone.

During these ten hours and for this entire week, I’ve been and will be hyperaware of my wife’s family’s happiness. My wife loves me intensely, more intensely than I can sometimes bear, and constantly shows me off to them. My nephews called me Uncle John before I even married their aunt. My father-in-law is CEO of a major corporation, probably the only person with that distinction that I both know and like. My mother-in-law donates to the arts and always wants to read my work, even the piece I wrote about my brother J.P. who hung himself by a bed sheet thirteen years ago. “You never told me about that,” she said after reading it, seeming a little put out that I was keeping something like that from her. But she didn’t ask any further. The entire family rents a beach house on the Outer Banks for the first week of every August, where they all sit in the beach and read while the children play in the surf, and eat lunch and dinner together at a big table. I tell them funny stories and they chuckle, and they tell me how great a father I am.

My father, the one I didn’t know until I was sixteen, called me last week when I was driving home from fishing on Sheepshead Bay. He said he was sorry he hadn’t called in a few weeks, but he just couldn’t shake this black cloud of depression. He can’t stop thinking lately about J.P. I was surprised to hear him say this. Unlike my mother, he’s uncomfortable talking about being depressed. I too am uncomfortable talking about being depressed, or scared, or hollow inside like my mother is on a metal table somewhere in Kansas. I don’t tell people that I frequently hate myself, then hate myself even more because, all considered, I have a pretty great life. Like my father, I smile. I do things. I’m calm. I invite people to talk about themselves, and I answer quickly and jovially when they ask the same of me. Most of the people sharing this beach house with me—cousins, aunts, uncles, my blissfully unaware daughters—don’t even know my mother is having surgery, or that I’m secretly terrified that she’ll die today, with me half a country away at a beach house with a bunch of people she doesn’t even know.

“Look!” my nephew says on the beach at 5:00, letting a wave crash over him while holding his hands as if in prayer. “I’m meditating underwater!” I’m tempted to infer more from this than he probably intended, but after a few seconds I just want him to come up. I look at the shore, and my daughter is sitting next to her cousin, the two little girls letting the foam wash over them and giggling. My wife walks back from the house with the baby in a sling and two Coronas in her hand. My first impulse is to make a joke about Coronas and the beach, but instead I just grab it and take a long, hard, smiling drink. I want to be part of this family. I am part of this family.

At 6:00 p.m. I don’t call my sister. I don’t call my brother. I won’t hear about my mother’s condition until hours later, presumably after my stepfather has gone through his long list of whoever he has to call before me. People are gathering for dinner upstairs, and I’m sitting alone on the bed. My stepfather and sister will exchange words as soon as my mother emerges from her anesthesia. I won’t know what they are, but I’ll know from my stepfather that her first words will be, “Stop fighting.” At this moment, I won’t want to fight, or to eat dinner. I’ll just want my mother, whose first task will be learning how to walk again.

John Proctor lives in Brooklyn, New York with his wife, two daughters, and Chihuahua. His work has been published recently in The Weeklings, Essay Daily, The Normal School, and The Austin Review, and is forthcoming in an international anthology of microfiction. He serves as Online Editor for Hunger Mountain Journal of the Arts and Dad for All Seasons columnist for the blog A Child Grows in Brooklyn. You can find him online at



  1. Anne says:

    This is an incredibly moving essay

  1. […] featured writing: “Meditating Underwater” published at Atlas & […]

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