My foot is cut in three places. Three identical slices on the inside of my heel, where the skin is wrinkly and a little tough. The water was choppy the day I was swimming, and the beach was nearly abandoned as the sea rolled and slammed against the coast. I had gone to a broad, flat rock under a cliff where locals like to sunbathe away from the tourists. There are normally dozens of bronzed and bronzing Italians stretched underneath the sun, but this day there were only three people scattered on the stone— one of whom was me.
I stood at the edge of the rock for a long time, evaluating the size of the waves, feeling the salty spray on my skin as the rolling water crashed into the craggy coast beneath me, and tried to determine if I could go out and return safely. I was alone, after all, and didn’t want to be la pazza bionda who had to be rescued after her body was pummeled against the rock. But as I looked beyond the crags at my feet, and eyed the waves that had turned the turquoise water gray with churning, my back arched in anticipation. The normally quiet water was rolling, and I wanted to be suspended in its rage, feel its electricity roar around me. So with another glance at the oncoming waves, I turned and climbed down the metal ladder that descended into the sea.
As soon as I reached the surf, a wave crashed and I pushed away from the coast. I swam as hard and fast as I could, ducking as water sprayed all around me. The waves were more powerful than they looked and though normally the sea was a kind and yielding companion, carrying me softly in its gentle roll, now it fought back. I had to actively participate, kicking my legs and fighting to stay upright, always with an eye on the horizon. I felt more alive with each push, and stayed out there for a long time, bobbing and rolling in the preamble to each crashing wave.
When I eventually decided to swim back in, reaching the ladder safely had become an issue. The waves had increased in size and frequency while I’d been gone, and now there seemed to be very little time that the rocks weren’t being pummeled. I waited and waited, shifting my attention back and forth from the nearly-submerged ladder to the advancing water. Finally I decided to go for it, swimming toward my exit, but a wave rose and carried me forward too fast, surging into the rock. I kicked my feet in front of me to keep from being thrown against the coast, bracing myself against sharp submerged crags, and as soon as the water went out, I swam away with it. I tried this a few more times, but there seemed to be no time when the water would rest long enough for me to get to the ladder safely. I was stuck.
I looked up and saw Aldo, an old local man who is a fixture on that rock, iconic with his closely cropped white hair, deep, leathery skin, and trademark blue speedo, standing at the edge of the cliff looking down on me. We had never spoken, but I knew he had come because he was worried about me. He knew how high the water was, and that I was probably trying to do something stupid, and as he stood there, hands on hips, silently watching, I wondered myself how I was going to get ashore.
Eventually I realized that there was a small sandy beach behind the rock, and if I could just swim there I could climb to safety. So that’s what I did. Paddling past Aldo, I navigated the waves until I reached the quiet inlet and walked out of the water. Aldo returned to his towel.
It wasn’t until a few minutes later that I looked down and saw blood pooling underneath my foot. Three small gashes cut into the soft flesh of my heel. Three bites from my dance with the waves on the coast.
Once cleaned with seawater, these cuts calmed and I liked looking down and seeing them glaring back at me; they made me feel tough and wild and served as a vivid reminder of the roaring water that day. As wounds tend to do, they stung at first— a slight, warm pang every time I took to step. But the soft, oozing flesh started to scab and eventually toughened up, leaving only silent red dashes on the side of my foot.
In the last few days the wounds have continued to heal; the gashes are closing and the deep red slices are fading as my skin grows to cover the gap. I’ve been struck with a certain sadness. I don’t want them to go away. They remind me of Amalfi, and the sea, and my summer so far from home. They remind me of Aldo and long talks with friends on the rock, and make me think that I may be braver than I often feel.
My mom has been dead for nine years as of this morning. I normally say “passed away” but today she feels dead. When I first went to Italy I was in Florence, walking by the river late at night. It was early summer, and the burnt, amber yellows of the city’s bridges were set against a deep, inky turquoise sky, and the thought came that my mother will never see this— any of this. She never traveled to Europe, and I wondered if she ever wanted to. What would she think of my life now? Maybe she’d be worried, or excited, or scared, or thrilled that some of her wildness had found a root in me. But I realized, more than anything, that she’d be proud. And that made me cry.
When I think about my mom now, I usually don’t cry. Those tender, inflamed parts of my heart have calmed and the open wounds are closing. The pain of my mother’s loss is less acute now. It doesn’t sting or weigh heavy in my chest the way it used to. I still miss her, and think of all the ways I wish she could be here, and how I’d do almost anything to have her advice, but mostly that sting has given way to something deeper. That electric pain has nearly burned itself out, and I’ve been fertilized by the burning— a rich blackness in the soil of my soul.
Now when I think of my mom, she seems somehow nearer and further away. Instead of having to return to the pain of her death in order to reach her, I’ve learned to carry her heart with mine, so she sees what I see. I can turn to the part of my heart she lives in any time, and hear her, sense her. She comes with me now.
Is it all right to mature in our pain? Nine years. I’ve been a grieving human, grieving daughter, for nine years. I remember being nine years old— a jumble of girlishness and confusion and newly-awakened awareness— am I now that girl in my grief? Unsure of what’s to come but sure that everything is changing.
This pain has served as memory and mark. But what happens when it goes away? As awful as grieving is, the ache serves as a reminder that something was here before it was taken. The pain takes the place of the thing, and fills the void with red hot anguish. But when gashes close and cuts heal, what do we get instead?
What do we have left when our wounds fade?