Art As A Lifeboat
The sea bird reminded him of his grandmother’s paintings. It seemed to float in the haze above him, drifting slowly from one horizon of his periphery to the other in a gentle arch, his sleepy vision painting it impressionistically with the most soothing pastels as soft as his grandmother herself.
She lived beside the Outer Banks in a house so weathered and creaking his dad feared the slightest sea breeze would blow it to smithereens, though he knew, if he went back there right now, it was still standing proud and unbeaten, also like his grandmother. He remembered her callused hands that he would rub between his soft little boy palms while marveling at the rough texture. She never looked at him with less than a smile and warm affection. He and his brother would visit her for a month every summer. They would run amongst the dunes and dance in and out of the surf and sit up at night and gaze at the stars with the sound of the waves in their ears. He’d wake before his brother and find that his grandmother had awoken before him and gone straight to her paintings. She’d beam at him as he rounded the corner of her screened-in porch where she’d set her easel and say, “Come and look, dear.” She revealed such delightful scenes of the beach and the sea and the boats that worked there and the houses that inhabited its paradise. But mostly he remembered the sea birds; graceful, lithe creatures that seemed in her paintings to float with divine magic above the world. He knew he would look later in the bright day at the same scenes, but that his grandmother had made them look different; ethereal might be the term he’d use if he’d known that word then. “Would you like to try?” she would ask him, and he’d hesitantly take the brush and dip it into the color she suggested and point the brush at the part of the canvas she directed him to. “Just short strokes now, more like dots”, and he would do the best he could with no idea what he was trying to achieve. “That’s beautiful,” she would always tell him for those minutes he could stand to do something so reflective, “You are such a talented dear.” She would never touch up the part of the painting he’d worked. She touched up her own stuff all the time, and even seem to scold herself under her breath. But never his, and never a discouraging word to him. She didn’t remember his grandmother ever, ever saying a harsh word to him – at least didn’t remember such now.
Now, the waves tossed his tiny craft called a ‘life-raft’ which he shared with four companions. Actually, three companions and a corpse, but he didn’t know that yet. The sun had beat down on them now for, he thought, nine days. They’d exhausted water after the third, and exhausted food even before that, though rain had come in buckets twice and they’d held their mouths open to catch what they could as the sea violently tossed their rubber boat. Their skin had burned and blistered, and their bodies felt broiled beneath. Tongues in their mouths were swollen and dry from lack of water. Their empty stomachs ached. The blaring sun had near blinded them, like staring too long into a spotlight aimed straight at them, and no matter how they shifted they couldn’t seem to turn away from it. They were bruised and cut from their fight to escape their sinking ship. The sea bird came into his peripheral again, crossing this time from the other horizon; the hazy impressionism he saw it through was a product of his own delirium. It was closer this time and he could hear it’s calls. But they were funny calls. They didn’t sound like the sea birds he remembered.
He tried to become more alert, tried to follow the bird and listen more carefully. He squinted at it; not right, he thought. It’s too fat. He looked away and squeezed his eyes shut and slowly shook his head, trying to jostle up something resembling focus. He looked as it crossed again, even closer. Not a bird’s call, he thought, it’s a constant roar. And then a realization sprang, and he knew: it wasn’t a sea bird at all but a sea plane! A rescue plane and it had found them.
All my life I have had to learn to do things differently. To see the world differently.