When my mother was dying last year, I prayed to the ocean, not God. At night, outside the hospital in London, I would stand in the orangey swill of the sodium streetlight, close my eyes, and put myself by the ocean where I live in California.
"Can you give her back or receive her, please?"
Then I would listen for the swish of the waves, see myself diving in and swimming long, sure strokes under the water. I would repeat my entreaty in a gargled blurb, just to make sure it was really heard.
The ocean is a very practical deity with only a few prescriptions as its credo: swim, surf, float, dive, sail, perish, survive. My love for it is similarly uncomplicated.
I realise I have been taking all the different parts of my life to the ocean since I was very small. It has always felt both comforting and dispassionate. Somewhere to play, to escape; a place that was big enough to accommodate unwieldy emotions and didn’t mind being a repository for them either. My mother taught me to swim in the sea at West Wittering on the Sussex coast when I was about two. The grey sand gave way to grey water only once you’d walked the endless stretch of low tide. It was cold and windy, but my mother was smiling and radiant, pointing with excitement at the murky chop up ahead, holding my hand as we ran. I knew that however grizzly the sea looked (and it did), it must be something great because I could see the joy my mother felt for it. Maybe that’s where it started. The ignition of my unconditional ocean love was my mother’s glee.
When I moved to New York at 24, I put a whole ocean between me and a family I loved and didn’t particularly need to get away from. Sometimes in the first year, overwhelmed and homesick, I would take a bus out to Long Island and stand on the beach with the flinty Atlantic and feel calmer. My panic having run out with the land, I’d stand there with the obvious, and not profound, idea that the ocean will get you to stop.
I have now found my way to living beside the Pacific, which, in my opinion, is the greatest and kindest of all the oceans. When you swim a lot, different bodies of water feel like trying on a new skin, and from the moment I dived into the waves in California it felt oddly like coming home. It felt as powerful as a mother; as wonderful as my own.
‘Managing Expectations’ by Minnie Driver is published on 12 May.
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