She dreamt of this day since she wore pigtails and jelly shoes on her way to elementary school. The rolling fields of soybean, wheat, and corn passed by outside the yellow bus, as she tucked into the brown seat, leafing through a tattered book titled The Ocean. Turning the pages slowly, her eyes glued to the photos and words inside, she arrived at her favorite page with quiet excitement. Her delicate finger traced the shape of a large fin emerging from the water. She lifted her head from the image and stared out the window, past her reflection, and wondered if she’d ever see that in the wild, right in front of her.
The boat tossed back and forth as the cold waves crashed against it, bobbing like a buoy in the North Atlantic’s gray waters. The glistening black skin of the Humpback whale’s flukes rose like a flower reaching for the sun, opening its petals for the first time. The white underbelly stretched on each fin like an illuminated shadow, pausing, then splashing back into the water. She no longer wore pigtails or jelly shoes. Instead, she was covered in rain gear with a vinyl satchel draped over her shoulder. Her smile raised her cheeks while the chilly mist reddened them. The excitement of the moment warmed her beyond the layers of clothes that protected her. She still couldn’t believe she was here.
Reaching under the flap of her satchel, she pulled out a tattered book titled The Ocean. Her aging hands opened it to the page with the rising fin. Sitting in the fold was a photograph with ripped edges and a fading image of a man with a round face, balding hair, and a contagious smile. One that when you saw it, you couldn’t help but smile back. A grin ran across her face as her thumb dragged it across the page to an iron grip between it and her index finger. She looked out at the ocean, then back down at the picture. The man was no longer around and never will be. That smile was forever left to the annals of time.
She thought back to the people she tried to help heal over the years as a counselor. All the trauma that bestowed people, stunting them, leaving them vulnerable to the vices and habits that hinder coping. An inability to find happiness because they can never forget. Or forgive. And with each person, she taught forgiveness and the grace it would bring them in their journey. She studied every aspect and step of forgiveness, building a curriculum designed to open minds and hearts for a better existence. However, teaching and practicing it were two different matters, and there was one person she could never reach.
Now she asked the question, one she answered for so many, how do I forgive you? How do I forgive myself? How do I atone for cutting ties with you, letting you die alone, and leaving your ashes at the funeral home? I needed the man that sat at that table before all that. The one who protected me. The one who put my brother through a wall for what he did to me. The one who encouraged me to be great and do the things I love, whatever that might be. And the one that told that forgiveness is the most crucial part.
The smacking of the waves on the boat penetrated her ears, only interrupted by the loud splash of the whale resurfacing. The majestic beast pulled its massive body from the waves and crash down with an explosion of water. Then she paused and inhaled the chilly air, it stinging her nostrils as her lips tasted the salty water. Her eyes watched the rocky water hit the gray horizon like it was trying to spill out of the earth into the universe. The memories formed in her mind like a film reel clattering around a vintage projector. The antiqued scene of a little girl in pigtails and jelly shoes sitting across from her father, watching thick cigarette smoke curl up around his face. Mesmerized by the sight, she chattered to him about her desire to help people like doctors do. His endearing grin told her the pride he felt for his bright-eyed daughter, knowing she could save the world if she wanted. He’d smile, take a drag, and say, “I believe you will. But I think you will be a doctor of the mind. I think you will help people who are struggling to understand this life. Those hurting from things they've seen and had to go through. Those who are scared of their thoughts, or afraid to face their demons. I think that's the kind of doctor you will be. And when you are, I know you’ll be great at it. But first, you must know the key. The key is the most important part. And that is forgiveness. We must learn to forgive those who have hurt us. Those who have wronged us. And those who brought us pain. If we can do that, then we can forgive ourselves. And if you, my darling can do that, you’ve done it.”
The waves continued to crash against the boat as a second whale appeared in the distance, its body gently rising and falling. Gripping the picture, she glared at it, squeezing it until her pink cuticles turned white. Questions raced through her brain intended for the man in the image. Well, then why couldn’t you forgive yourself for the things that happened when you were a medic in Vietnam? Why couldn’t you forgive mom and me for running away when we had to. Why can't I forgive you for letting the alcohol really take over? For holding a gun to my mother's head as she pleaded with you not to kill her. For making us sleep on old couches and dirty floors of friends’ places. My face was buried in a stained pillow with no case, staring at the door, terrified it would burst open and that would be my last night on earth. And after we settled in our own place, I still worried about you and wanted to spend time with you. But you could only see me when you wanted, making me come to the bar, and listen to you slur profanities about mom. Then my brother died, and at his funeral, you told me I should be in the casket instead. I hated him, and you knew that. You knew what he did to me. Yet you still said that. Did you mean it?
She pulled her swollen eyes from the photo, wet hair clinging to her face, and stared at the magnificent creatures rising from the water. It seemed impossible, but her dad said she could do whatever she wanted as long as she worked hard and wasn’t scared. You will be given everything you need, then you just have to decide what you want. If you want to see whales, you will see whales. Then he flashed that smile, and she couldn’t help but smile back.
Her eyes rose, and she felt small in the middle of the vast ocean. This experience should set her free, validating that she made good choices. That she escaped the years covered her in shame and fear. A release from the darkness. The memories clicked away as the projector spun it off the reel.
At that moment, with all the splendor of the universe upon her, she forgave the man in the picture. She forgave him because through his pain, she gathered strength, and through that, she built her life. A life that gave her this experience. This moment. Releasing her grip, the photo wafted into the air and disappeared into the ocean.