A few weeks before that visit to the beach, Grace had watched her father don a plain white robe and walk onto the large stage of an evangelical church – one of those tented ones that sprang up overnight. As the crowd cheered, she’d watched him step into a deep bath, followed by a robed preacher. The preacher embraced him and held him like a father holds a newborn, in a most tender embrace. Then he submerged Patrick’s head under the water, holding him there for a few nerve-racking seconds.
“I baptise you in the name of the Father, the Son and Holy Spirit,” the pastor declared.
Patrick submitted. It was the first time Grace had seen him submit to any earthly force. Then he broke the water’s surface and raised his fist in a gesture of victory. Tears of joy streamed down his face, mixed with the water of the baptismal font. He was saved – saved! He believed it; Grace believed it. He would never drink again, squander his money, mistreat them.
Grace was ecstatic – happy for the new future the three of them would have together. Her father was now a man reborn, a man who would face the world sober, who would love her. They’d do father and daughter things like go for walks, sit on the beach. So far it had been good. Life had been good with this newly born man, this kinder version of his old self. Grace watched him cut through the water and smiled a smile that spread all the way inside of her, touching her heart in a way that she had not let it be touched by her father before. Mary had seen this Damascus moment too many times before to harbour anything but slight hope.
On that day, years ago, Grace had watched Patrick swim far out past the breakers and dirty foam, to the quiet calm of the open ocean. Once there, he stopped and turned to face them. Once again, a triumphal fist shot up through the water, puncturing the air with hope, waving at them, reassuring Mary and Grace that everything was okay. In that beautiful moment, the perfect conflation of all of their happiness, Grace caught herself wishing for a huge wave to engulf her father and drag him under.
The thought had shamed her. She’d tried to wipe it from her mind but it lingered. How beautiful and strange and tragic would her father’s death be, right there in that moment of supreme strength and mastery. He would die young, at his physical peak. He would have been saved, in a state of grace, right with God. He would have died a kind, loving man who had taken his family to the beach one sunny afternoon, not the cruel raging monster they had known too intimately.
Mary and Grace would have had the memory of him having been saved, baptised, sins repented for and being new and happy in the world. His death, so soon after his baptism, would have provided the perfect arc to a brief, tumultuous life, finally at peace before its untimely end.
But Patrick had lived on, at the expense of Mary. He’d lived on to kill her. And here he was, asking with innocent wonder, “Do you remember that beach, Grace? Hey, Grace? The one we used to go to?”
She had loved him then, and now this memory of love flooded back. How tenuous and unpredictable is memory, a traitor sidling up to you, surprising you with thoughts of love for a man you have told yourself you hate. What did she feel for him now? As the outskirts of the town blurred and melted into sand dunes outside the car window, Grace scanned her heart. There was nothing. She felt nothing for her father: not hate, not disdain, not contempt. Even fear had left at the sight of him. All that remained was a cavernous nothing, an emptiness sitting in the middle of her chest where a heart should have been.
They arrived at the deserted beach parking lot. Grace got out while Johnny helped Patrick from the back seat, then walked over to her and whispered something about giving them some time alone. He climbed back into the car as Grace and Patrick made their way down a foot-worn path from the parking lot. Before them the beach stretched like a supple spine, curving in front of them, drenched with light. The sea was calm. Waves rolled in, spending themselves in foamy spray on the shore. Grace drank in the heavy, salty air and relaxed. She sank her bare feet comfortingly into wet sand. Patrick hobbled along next to her, quiet, deep in thought. They reached a rock and sat down. Grace held her box of cigarettes out to Patrick and they both lit up. She took a good look at him, for the first time, without flinching. A serene smile played on his face as he sampled the air.
“I love this place. It’s a shame I haven’t been able to come for years.”
Grace smiled. Something about the sea air had calmed her. “You remember it, don’t you? How I used to chase you around? I would let you get just far enough away to think you were going to escape, then I’d catch you and plop your little feet in the water, again and again, and you’d laugh. Laugh and scream. My little Grace. Tell me you remember?”
“Yes, I remember.”
They sat in silence for a few minutes, taking in the vastness of the ocean, each in a capsule of private thought.
She thought again about the day he had swum out into the distance. It seemed like yesterday. And suddenly Mary was there too, her laughter just under the breath of the ocean, audible to anyone who cared to listen just a little deeper. He had swung Mary like that too, in the water. He couldn’t understand them then: where he loved the sea they were both afraid of it, preferring land under their feet.
Grace thought about that day, the day her father got baptised in the tented church.
“So, Patrick, did you ever find Jesus again?”
“Jesus?” He looked bemused. “No. He left me for good after Mary…. And good riddance. All my life, the idea of Jesus was used to punish me. The threat of him always hanging over me. He was a punishment, that’s all. I learned nothing about love from those who said they knew him. Or about forgiveness.”
Forgiveness. There it was. Was this his way of asking for it? She had come here wanting to confront, scream at him, tear into him. She had wanted this to be a day of reckoning, but all she could do now was sit and look at the shadow her father had become, and humour his trip down memory lane. Somewhere between the township and the beach, the will to fight him had evaporated.
“All these years, all these years, Grace, I’ve been praying, hoping that you’d have something good left of me, something of love to remember. I loved her, you know? I loved her. And she loved me too. I want you to know that. I was so scared that you’d think I was a monster. What you remember… I don’t know…” His voice trailed off into insignificance. He tried again. “I’m not a monster, you know. I loved you both very much.
I thought you would hate me, but when I saw you this morning getting out of that car, it was like she came back to me, my Mary. She was looking at me with your face. I knew right then that you wouldn’t hate me, couldn’t hate me, not coming to me like that, wearing Mary’s face. No, you couldn’t. Mary loved me. You know, she loved me.”
He was talking more to himself now than to Grace. She listened, bearing witness to his great testimony of love.
“She was my Mary, and she was beautiful, the most beautiful that I’ve ever seen. And the miracle was that she loved me, that she saw anything in me at all. If only I hadn’t tried to cling so tight. I didn’t believe it, you know. That she could love me. And so I was always waiting for the day she’d leave. I was jealous and small. It choked me. I wish I had just loved her better.”
A single tear rolled down his sunken cheek. His pain was palpable, engulfing Grace like the spray-filled air, clinging to her hair and skin. What about me, she thought. She had come here for judgement, condemnation. She had wanted to tell Patrick about her fucked up life, about the nightmares that still caused her to wake in a sweat, wishing for the sweet release of death. She had pictured him screaming, begging for forgiveness. Instead, here she was, listening to a soppy love story, moist like the back of the cigarette he was sucking. What about her pain? It dawned on her that her pain didn’t matter, didn’t exist for her father. She was merely a vessel, a receptacle for his.
“If you loved her so much, why the hell did you kill her?
Answer me that.”
Patrick fixed his gaze on her and held her with weepy eyes.
“I don’t know, Grace. I don’t know.”
There it was. He didn’t know why he’d done it. Wasn’t thinking, didn’t plan it. Just like every other time he’d hurt Mary. Tears coursed down his cheeks. For a moment Grace felt sympathy and wanted to fold him against her the way she did Sindi. But she hardened herself. He was pathetic.
“I snapped. I went mad. Honestly, I don’t even remember. I just snapped.”
She stared at him incredulously. “That’s it? You just snapped?”
She wanted to scream and unleash the years of pain and longing for her onto his tiny frame, rain curses down on him until he broke under the burden of her rage. But with a hollow feeling, Grace realised that this wouldn’t change a thing. He would never be able to feel her pain; he was incapable of it.
Patrick’s eyes told Grace that his own pain was so large, so all- consuming, stretching back so far into an abyss of misery that preceded her own life and that of her mother’s that it blocked even the tiniest glimmer of empathy he might have had for someone else. In that moment, looking at his gaunt face, bearing his pain, clarity flashed through her. This is who he is. A mortally wounded human being. Something bigger than both of them, bigger than his drinking, had hurt him like this, had damaged him to the point where all he could feel was his enormous, oppressive pain. There was no room for anything else. It struck her like a gong. Anger fled her chest and in its place came a deep sadness.
Patrick had looked away, but now he turned back to Grace, his gaze imploring. “Please take off your sunglasses, Grace,” he said. “I want to see Mary’s eyes one more time, before I die.”
She smiled, sincerely this time. She moved her hands up to her face and removed the shades. Recognition jolted both of them, an electric current – him seeing her, his daughter, for the first time, fully; she, watching the reaction of his seeing, his witnessing. She didn’t want to cause him more hurt, didn’t want to wound. But through Grace’s eyes, which were also Mary’s, she wanted to see her father completely. She wanted him to fully understand. She had to press on. And with Mary’s face, with Mary’s lips, she had to ask.
“How did you become that way?”
His tears were falling freely, but the words could not come out. They were swallowed by the wind, the ocean and the sky. All he could do was rock softly back and forth, back and forth, back and forth, as she asked, again: “How did you come to be this way?”
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