The Ocean

by James Heaton

You can call me Christian. My full name is Christian Andres Stone, and I am the son of Samuel Stone and the grandson of Andres Stone. My family comes from the Bahamas and up until I was twenty-four, I had never seen the beauty that is the ocean.

My story begins with my grandfather, Andres Stone, who worked the waters of the islands as a conch farmer. He grew up collecting conch as did his father who was well versed in the art of fishing. It seems my entire family was born fisherman, all but me. I guess looking back my father wanted the best for me. Maybe he thought the fishing life was hard and that he could give his son a better life, and that he did. He gave me everything.

When my grandfather was forty-five, my father was a mere twelve-year-old boy, and he watched my grandfather die in a knife fight trying to protect my father and defend himself. The man stabbed him thirteen times and papa watched every time the knife went in, he watched his entire world die. To say it was traumatizing is an understatement, even up until he died my father would still have the nightmares. He would wake up sweating and screaming for the man to stop. My grandmother had died in childbirth and my father had no family to go to. The next-door neighbor, Mama Smith watched my father after the murder until his next of kin was to be found. It was a horrible tragedy, and it was all over a few dollars. If my grandfather had given the man his money, he would have lived another day. But he needed that money to survive, and he was simply protecting his livelihood. I can’t say I blame him, but I would have probably just given the man the money. But I never had it hard growing up, I never really had to worry about feeding anyone or making sure they had a roof over their head.

His decision to fight back cost him his life, and more than that it traumatized my father. No child should have to see their own parent murdered.

My father’s closest kin, his aunt, had moved to Idaho to become a farmer with her husband. They had a plot of land and a home in the mountains and that was where my father was to be moved too. Believe me when I say he did not want to leave the Bahamas, it was all he had ever known. But Aunt Cara and Uncle Richard had been farmers in the Bahamas, and they longed for a life on an American farm after seeing one on a television show. They wanted the green pastures and the wooden fence and the cattle in the field. They fell in love with the idea of working the land and building a family. Their home was in a valley surrounded by mountains. It was all they had dreamed of, and they were as content in the mountains as my father was the islands. He had to adapt and that he did.

When they took my father in, they had to buy him all new clothes because all he had were shorts and short-sleeved shirts and a pair of sandals. Not the kind of clothing a young boy needs for Idaho. And that first winter when the snow came down, my father was in love with the idea of living in such a magical place. He had never seen snow and the first night it came down he was as happy as any other kid on Christmas. And that was another new thing for him, a winter country Christmas. To say Aunt Cara and Uncle Richard spoiled my father is an understatement. They couldn’t have children themselves and all their love went to my father, as if he were their own. They gave him everything and in turn he worked extra hard on the farm. He was thankful for the home he had and the love they gave. Over time he grew to love the farm, the cows that he milked, the chickens he fed, he loved it all very much and slowly he forgot about conch farming. He forgot about the blue waters and the soft white sand. It seemed like another life to him.

He eventually went to high school and found it hard to fit in as the only Black kid in an all-White school. Growing up in the Bahamas he didn’t know about segregation as his village was mostly Black. But there was one girl who made him feel like he wasn’t alone. Rebecca Morrell, she was a White girl whose family owned a pig farm and were friendly with Aunt Cara and Uncle Richard. The Morrell’s didn’t see a Black family they simply saw three people trying to get by. It was a rarity in those days for Whites to befriend Blacks, the race wars were hitting hard in the big cities but in the country, it really didn’t make a lot of difference. People were kinder in the country, if you respected them they respected you.

Dad and his new girlfriend got serious in their senior year when my father got his draft notice for Vietnam.  He was a Bahamian kid, raised in Idaho being sent to Vietnam to fight a war he didn’t even understand. Rebecca said she would wait on him, and he was sure that she would. They had such a pure and innocent love. Dad spent three years in the Army, fighting a group of people he knew nothing about. All he saw were men, all of them fighting for something and who was he to say who was right and who was wrong.

He took a bullet to the back of the leg, shattering his knee in the summer of 1969 and was shipped back home with a medal and his discharge papers, he was a war hero. His leg had been shot when he was carrying supplies to a group of men stuck in a trench who were out of ammo, my father got them their ammo and they won the battle, but not the war. Nobody won that war. Along with the nightmares that my father had of seeing his father murdered in front of him, he saw the images of the dead soldiers every night in his dreams. He never rested good after that, never slept a single good night, always with the dreams. The war messed up a lot of good men, some never recovered. Dad pulled through; he was strong like that. Stronger than I could ever be.

Rebecca was waiting on his front porch when he arrived home. He was wearing his dress uniform and carrying a duffle bag full of memories. She jumped up and hugged him so tight he laughed. He knew she would be there and that her love was true. Two years later they were married, and Aunt Cara and Uncle Richard gave the farm to my father and took their savings and moved to California. They moved to Pasadena, bought a small house, and lived out their days in style. Uncle Richard bought a Cadillac and drove his wife around town like a movie star. They had grown tired of farming and wanted a simple life. Uncle Richard got a job at a hardware store and Aunt Cara made a living selling her pies, she made the best pies.

Dad and mom had me in the summer of 1974, and it wasn’t easy for a bi-racial couple to live in America in the seventies, not to mention that they had a bi-racial baby. I was noticeably light skinned and had brownish blond hair, full of curls. I looked like my mom, and my dad fell in love with me even more. Somehow, I got blue eyes from mom’s genes, and all the nurses called me the most beautiful baby they had ever seen. My momma said I was a beautiful baby, and she was so happy to have me. From the time they brought me home they spoiled me like my aunt and uncle had spoiled my father. I grew up with farm animals as friends and I learned to love the mountains and the winters with all their cold.

I went to the same schools my father went to and I had to deal with the racism that every Black kid in the United States had to deal with, only at times it seemed worse because I was bi-racial. I heard all the words, those ugly words. They hurt, they always hurt. People I thought were friendly only did so to my face, but they spoke differently when I wasn’t around. I learned who to trust and who to simply be kind to, I learned everyone had something different to say behind my back. But I had a good friend, a White kid named John Brown whose family were cattle farmers on the outskirts of the county. John had to ride the bus for ten miles before he got to his property and then he rode a horse from the edge of the property to his house. The Browns had lots of property and they knew my dad. They were good people, never saying anything that would hurt my feelings, or make me feel less of a person. They told me that God made everyone and that he loved everyone the same, regardless of color or creed. They told me I was just as important as any of those mean racist kids and to stay strong. It felt good knowing that they were in my corner. One time I was with John, and someone called me a horrible name, John’s mother slapped them and forced them to apologize. I never told her how much that meant to me.

Mom and dad had it rough for a few years with the economy and a few summers when the crops didn’t do so good. In the summer of 1982 mom developed a lump on her breast. The cancer spread fast, and I watched my father lose his great love. He had seen his father murdered in front of his eyes, fought nasty battles in Vietnam and now he had to bury the love of his life. That summer he spent a lot of time on the porch at night. I remember our talks the most. Somehow a good cigar and the night sky just fixed things for him, he found calm in the storm of life.

I told him I wanted to see the ocean and for the first time he realized that I had never been to a beach or stepped foot in the ocean. It was as if I had opened a door for him in his mind. He was ashamed of himself for never taking me to the coast, but more than that he said I was a fisherman, that it was my birthright. That night, late summer when there was just a slight chill in the night air, he made a promise to me that he would take me to his village and let me see where he grew up.

But dad struggled with the farm, he took on some workers from Mexico who lived in the barn for a while until they had enough to get their own space. They helped dad out through the worst times, and he helped them become citizens. He taught them English and helped them with their citizen exams. He was a good-hearted man and he helped anyone that needed it. That was how I wanted to remember him.

Years went by and I was ready for college. It was time to leave the farm.

I was good with computers. I spent my time building computers and learning how to code on an old Texas Instruments computer, and by the time I graduated high school I had an offer for a job in California as a coder for a company called Microsoft.  I left Dad and Idaho to move to California where I helped write code for some of the biggest projects in the business. And the world of computers was just booming in the ninety’s, I was making money like nobody’s business and sticking it all back in my savings account. I lived off ramen and cans of spaghetti. I saved every dime I could because I wanted to make enough money to take my father to his old village and spend at least a month in the islands. I never thought I would move there permanently.

When I hit thirty, I had still never been to the ocean, but I had finally saved enough to take dad back to the islands. I caught a red eye flight from Cali to Idaho and headed home. Coming home was strange to me, I had gotten so used to California that I forgot the feel of the mountains surrounding you with their snowcapped peaks. When I got back, I learned that dad had a stroke that he had overlooked to tell me about. The old man’s stubborn pride would be the death of him. I was able to do my job remotely with the connection of a modem to the old man’s home. I told him I was taking him home and he didn’t believe me at first. I couldn’t tell if he was scared or happy. Part of him remembered his father dying but the other part of him, the kid in him, wanted to see his old home again.

“It’s not nice to make such promises if you can’t make good on them.” He said to me, but little did he know I had already booked passage aboard a plane for three days from that moment and he was going with me. I had planned the entire trip, even bought him a new suitcase to pack. When I laid it all out in front of him, the tickets, and the passports, he started to cry. He was so moved at this that he broke down and told me he thought he would die without ever getting back to the islands, to his home.

In between the time I arrived home and the time we left for the trip; I ran into the doctor one day coming out of the house as I was returning from the store. He told me my dad’s heart was bad and that if he had to give him a time limit, it would be a year before he passed away. I was devastated. The doctor said all he could do was put him on new meds and put him on the list for a heart transplant, but his age was a huge factor.

This only made me want to get him back home faster. If I had an internet connection and my laptop I could work anywhere. I had my roommate in California pack up my belongings and ship them to Idaho, they would be waiting for me if I ever decided to return home. My priority now was to see the ocean with my father.

It was a Tuesday, and we got the neighbors to drive us to the airport, they had said they would look in on the farm. Dad had sold his cows and chickens to another neighbor and left nothing living that needed to be tended over. I thought he would be upset, but he was happy to see them go, he said he was tired of that life. I guess he felt the same way my aunt and uncle felt when they gave him the farm. It was a hard life.

We boarded the plane and made all the transfers to Atlanta and then down to Fort Lauderdale where the air was humid, and the sun was brighter. Dad was tired from all the moving from terminal to terminal. We boarded a small plane and took off across the ocean. I had never seen anything quite so amazing. I was like a little school kid and dad seemed ten years younger as he looked out the window and saw the amazing blue water of the Atlantic Ocean. He just lit up. The glow of the ocean transferred to him, and he let off a mighty glow of happiness. It was worth it just to see that.

We arrived in Nassau and took a boat to my father’s old village; it didn’t take much for him to remember the home he had left many years ago. He told me that it was a shame he had never returned. He just felt safe in Idaho, in the old farmhouse. Watching his father’s murder had really shaken him up and left him afraid of the place he called home. But the island had a magic about it that purged the bad thoughts from his mind and made him whole again. Somehow those memories washed away with the tide.

For the first three days we spent the entire time on the beach. My father eating fish and rice and smoking Cuban cigars. We literally occupied two chairs on the beach for three days before he was ready to explore. He just wanted to sit and look at the ocean, like a man at church being reverent to the altar, sitting in the presence of God. He was recharging the battery that had been depleted so long ago. He was filling himself with the glory of the ocean. I didn’t understand this until years later when I felt the same feeling, the ocean just has a power that no one can explain. It heals the heart.

The first time I saw the ocean I felt like I was visiting another world. The first time I touched the water, and then the sand, it was a religious experience for me. I felt my family connecting through me and out into the depths of the great and powerful ocean. The water was crystal clear, and the sand was soft and felt good on my feet. I think at first, I was more worried about getting the old man to the beach than I was seeing it for the first time. On the fourth day my father showed up in our room at the hotel with mask and snorkels. He told me we were going to dive for conch, and he was going to cook it up for me that night.

We walked down the sand, and he showed me how to put the dive mask on and we walked into the sea. When I put my head in the water the first thing, I noticed was that there was truly extraordinarily little sound, just a roar from the water. Is this what space sounded like? Just a deep roar. I could see forever in front of me, and I was weightless, just floating in the magic liquid. It was like floating in space, I was weightless for the first time in my life. Sure, I had been in fresh water, but in salt water I was weightless for the first time. There was water all around me and fish swimming under me. As we swam to the reef, I remind you I had learned to swim back in Idaho in a fishing pond which was nothing like this, here I saw sharks and anemones with little clown fish weaving in and out. I saw the beauty of the coral and how it was this massive organism that created an entire world in the depths of the ocean. Big fish ate little fish, little fish learned tricks to hide as they ate the algae off the reef. Turtles cruised in and out of the reef like spaceships soaring in the void. There was danger all around masked in beauty. My father signaled not to touch. To my surprise he wasn’t afraid of the sharks and even ran his hand across the back of one to show me they were gentle when they wanted to be.

A week went by, and we had grown together, he wasn’t my father anymore, he was another man that I was enjoying spending time with. We talked about manly things, he told me about how much he loved my mom, we talked about food and the farm. We were just two grown men who loved each other. It was as if the father and son relationship had transformed into a beautiful friendship. I had wanted this my entire life. To be friends with my father.

I found a small house in the village to rent, and my father and I moved in within a week of our visit. Since dad had dual citizenship, he could stay as long as he wanted, I was given a six-month visa and the opportunity to reapply as needed, but as the child of a citizen I could apply to live full time, and that I did.

I never wanted to leave. And dad, he was content to live out his life right here, and that is what he would do. Dad would catch fish and we would have conch fritters and fish and rice with black beans. He would catch lobster and shrimp and he seemed more alive than I had ever seen him. For the first month I don’t think the man even wore a shirt. He would bounce around like a five-year-old in his trunks and sandals. He was genuinely happy.

One night sitting under the starry sky, cigar smoke swirling around us, he said to me, “Son, we’ve both had hard lives. Seeing my father murdered gave me a rocky start, moving twelve hours away to Idaho and planting myself in someone else’s garden was tough. Hell, the war was tough and losing your momma was the hardest of them all. But you had it harder than me, growing up the way you did, dealing with the name calling, losing your momma, you just had it so hard. I apologize for not getting you into the ocean earlier. I got caught up with life and I forgot to live. What you’ve done for me, I can never repay you. You were my son, and my best friend. Just know, you have made me genuinely happy. And with all the shit I’ve dealt with happiness is a rare commodity. You gave me enough happiness to last two lifetimes.”

I continued my work, sending my projects back to California via the internet and I made enough for us to put money down on a little house at the end of the island. There were only two beds and one bath, but it was enough for us. And man, was dad happy. We had our own house. And we had our own beach.

It was one hundred and twelve steps to the ocean’s edge from our house and dad was up early every morning out fishing. He used a spear gun, and we ate like kings. He stayed on the beach during the days while I sat at a little make-shift desk on the laptop writing code for a new software company that had just hired me. With this salary we could stay here indefinitely.

At night dad liked to sit on the beach and smoke his cigars and I sat beside him smoking my own. We talked about life and about the stars. He told me stories about his childhood. Over the next year I learned everything about his life. But he wasn’t doing as well as I suspected. It was an hour-long boat ride to the hospital in Nassau and we made that trip once a month for him to see his cardiologist. He was too old for a heart transplant, at least too old to make it to the top of the list for a donor heart. Priority was given to the youngest patients and those that were critical. The doctors just said that dad had lived a good life and that one day or night his heart would just stop and there was nothing they could do about it besides give him pills.

I did my best to give him a few good years, longer than the doctor in Idaho was willing to give. We spent every day on the beach, the only time we didn’t go out was when it rained, on those days he sat in his rocking chair and enjoyed a rum drink or a Bahamian beer. He told me the story of the name for the beer, it was called Kalik and he said it was named after the sound a cow bell made, Kalik, Kalik. I laughed and enjoyed our nightly smoke and drink. Afterall he was already dying, what kind of man would I be to keep him from what made him happy.

Then the dark time came.

He took a turn for the worst and was confined to the bed. I was able to get a doctor to come out and check on him. They brought a travel size EKG machine and ran a few tests. The doctor pulled me onto the front porch, where he lit up a cigarette and began to tell me what I did not want to hear.

“Your father doesn’t have much time left. His heart disease is taking its toll on him. The best thing you could do now is to make him happy. Whatever he wants, if you can give it to him. Just make him comfortable, I know this hurts to hear but he won’t be with us much longer.”

And he was right, it was tough to hear, it was the hardest to hear. So, every day I fished the reef and fed him the conch fritters, gave him a Kalik beer and let him smoke all the cigars he wanted. Then came the final day when he woke up early and told me that he knew today was his last. I asked him what he wanted most, and he said he wanted to die in the ocean, floating in the crystal clear water that he grew up in.

I couldn’t deny him this, so I helped him get his trunks on and we walked down to the water. We sat in our chairs and watched the sun rise. It was a brilliant sunrise, the water turning bright yellow as the sky was a deep shade of purple and pink. Slowly the sun made its way over the edge of the water and into the sky. The blue sky took over and the sun found its place. Its warmth was brilliant, and he took my hand. He looked at me and I could see that young boy who had lost his father, his eyes were so young.

“It’s time.” He said as I helped him up and we walked into the water.

My father laid out in the water on his back, and I crouched beneath him and cradled his back against my chest. And we stayed like that for over two hours, just floating in the ocean.

“This water is full of life, and you gave it back to me. I’m sorry we waited so long to do this. Idaho is a long way off and I don’t miss it. But I wish I could have raised you here, I wish I could have given you this when you were just a boy.”

“But you gave it to me when I needed it most.”

Slowly his breathing stopped, and his eyes closed. I reached up and felt for a pulse, there was none. I cradled my father for what seemed like hours, but it was only for a fleeting time. We sat in the shallows, his body lying on me, for once I was the one holding him up. His arms outstretched like Christ on the cross. We had this last minute together before I pulled him onto shore and called for an ambulance to come and take him away.

He was cremated two days later, and I spread his ashes over the reef the way he asked me to.

That night I sat on the beach in our chairs, drinking a Kalik and smoking one of his Cuban cigars. I looked up at the stars and I could see his childlike eyes looking down from the sky and I felt at peace with the world. I absolutely loved my father.

I never left the island, I never needed to. Everything I loved was right there.


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