I called the sea my home for nearly six years. We sailed from one country to the next, and every morning I would pull on my scrubs and run down the three flights of stairs to the hospital in my basement, ready to open my heart to the mamas and papas and children and babies who had gathered up all their courage and walked or been carried or led blindly by the hand up the gangway with nothing but the desperate hope of a new life ahead.
I sat beside those mamas in that low-ceilinged room, explaining through translators what the surgeon would be doing behind the closed doors across the hallway. I paced the floors with their hungry babies on my back, my steps falling into an unconscious rhythm as I bounced and swayed, anything to help us all make it to the appointed time without too many tears. And then I sat on the wooden bench outside the operating rooms, looked into those mamas’ eyes, and tried to make them believe that it was going to be okay while a masked figure took their little ones and disappeared while the heavy steel slid shut with a dull thud.
“I could never do this,” I thought to myself, over and over and over while I walked slowly back to the ward carrying a child’s empty shoes in one hand, a quietly stoic mother’s hand clasped in the other. “I could never be this kind of mama. I’m not brave enough.”
Weeks turned into months and months rolled into years marked by the ports where we dropped anchor and the patients I cared for. I met a man, fell in love and married him. We welcomed our firstborn, a little girl whose name means ‘life,’ and we watched her grow into a stubborn, inquisitive, funny little toddler alongside friends from every corner of the world.
You were the missing piece, my boy. The son we so desperately hoped to welcome to our family, the one we planned to take back to the ship as soon as your passport arrived, the one who would make us complete. Before we ever knew it was you, I dreamed of watching you take your first, wobbly steps on the rocking deck, just like your big sister before you. I pictured the four of us out on the bow at sunset, the wind in our hair and the dolphins playing in the spray below us, and I couldn’t wait to bring you home.
But then, without warning, the storm split the sky around me. Your broken heart danced on that screen in front of my tear-filled eyes while they told me in soft, sympathetic voices that nothing would ever be the same again. That everything I held dear had just sunk beneath the raging sea. That I would never go home again.
I had no idea how much the ship had become a part of my soul, how much I had come to rely on the slight roll of the deck under my feet or the way the sun looks as it slips behind the Harmattan haze. You never really see the things you take for granted, not until they’re wrenched from you in that jarring, exquisitely cruel moment. I laid awake in the long nights following your diagnosis, feeling you kick and roll inside me, tasting the salt that poured down my cheeks and praying that it was all some horrible mistake, that I’d wake up and look out my porthole to see the morning sun reflecting off the waves while the fishermen paddled their canoes into deeper waters.
Every time they showed me your heart, all hollow and hooked up so wrong, I drifted further out, drowning in the possibilities and the probabilities until I was sure that I’d never breathe normally again. How could I, with this weight sunk hard into my own chest? “I can’t do this. I can’t be this kind of mama. I’m not brave enough.” The fear washed over me, spun me around and spit me out, sobbing, again and again.
I believed it, you know, the lie that I had to be something special before I could be your mama. I drove it deep into my bones and let it sit there like a millstone around my neck, pulling me further and further under the surface. I believed it right up until the moment when I reached down and lifted you onto my chest for the first time. You were smaller than your sister, but you met my eyes in a blaze of squalling strength, and I knew that you were here to take the world by storm. The weight of that moment was staggering. I held you for those incandescent few seconds before they took you away to hook you up to the machines and medications that would keep you alive until they cut into your chest for the first time, and that’s when I knew that I was going to be whoever you needed me to be. That’s when I knew that I already was.
Because of you, I am that kind of mama. Not because I was strong, and certainly not because I was brave. But because you have shown me with every milestone you weren’t supposed to meet, with every morning of laughter shared with your sister and every afternoon spent with your ear pressed to my back while you sleep, that there are no waves wild enough to overwhelm my love.
Don’t you see? You might be the reason I’m out here at all, so far from the life I used to know, but every day with you is one that brings me closer to shore. Loving you has stripped me of everything I used to know and left me with nothing but this:
The only ocean I need is the one we sail on together. The only home I need is where you are.
You anchor me, my love.
Stunning photography by Cayla Carapezza