James Reimer — Tsunami Dream

When the great wave strikes the west coast of Vancouver Island, Clo-oose bay and the rest of the landmarks along the West Coast Trail will be obliterated. The massive force of the tsunami will make the great winter storms on the coast of the island seem trifling. Right now it is not unheard of to arrive at the cabin in Clo-oose bay and find that the storms have reached up with furious hands and torn away the lowest steps that lead up to the house itself. When the great wave strikes, the cabin, host to so many memories, will be blasted and scattered into the rainforest and then sucked back out into the Pacific. I think that only the great stone fireplace will be left standing. The old missionary church that stands on the next hill over will meet a similar fate, if it has not already collapsed into a rotten heap by the time of the earthquake and great wave. I wonder now if such devastation will uncover the buried history of this place; will the wave sweep away the overgrowth that has buried the old haunted colonial village?

The cabin stands in the place of the old village trading post. Before the First World War they had great plans for this area to be a future metropolis. Lots and boulevards were laid out on maps and settlers arrived in droves to homestead here. They brought barges full of cattle and chickens and building supplies and built a small community out of wood harvested from the dark rainforest. I imagine children playing in the forests there, parents worshiping in the missionary church, men engaged in a war of axes and saws against the rainforest. The Great War swept them all away and turned their dreams to dust. The men were shipped to the far away war and killed, and their families had to leave this wild place to seek comfort elsewhere. They left behind their skeletal homes with their iron woodstoves and clawfoot bathtubs, and their church slowly rotting away into the rainforest.

In the mid 80s, my parents joined a group of other families in purchasing shares of the old property, and started making trips there not long after I was born. We would drive in along the treacherous logging roads to the reserve at Nitinat Lake and pay the natives for a ride to our cabin in the herring skiff, or we would meet my father with his fishing boat, the Pescadero, at Port Renfrew and bob slowly up the coast with him, watching for whales and always stopping by the big rock that sits off Carmanah, where hundreds of sea lions bask and bellow in the sun as the sea crashes against the edifice below them. We would meet with the other families there, and while my father and other dads and uncles went fishing for salmon, halibut and rockfish, the kids would play with the dogs on the beach and in the forest.

My mother and father have great respect for the ocean and felt driven to educate the kids at the cabin on tsunami and tidal wave safety. My mother would point up the bay toward the part of the trail we call “the roots”, a heavily forested hill where hikers must climb 70 degree walls of mud and roots to get first up, and then back down the hump on their way north or south. From our cabin to the top of the roots would probably take us less than 10 minutes at a run. “If we think a tidal wave’s coming, that’s where we go! Up the roots and then inland!”

The respect I have for the ocean has always been combined with a healthy mix of fear and apprehension. I never learned to swim because of my lung disease and the risk of major infection at public pools. On the boat, I was always comforted in a swaddling life jacket. I played in the streams and ponds of our farm, but never went anywhere I couldn’t see bottom. Floating over the black, depthless waters of Nitinat Lake or the Pacific Ocean, my mind slithered with sea monsters. Even in high summer, the sea at Clo-oose would grasp my skinny feet with claws of ice, sending shocks up my legs. The native kids would swim in the sea like otters, but I would dance back and forth in the waves, trying not to be sucked away by the hypnotic pull of the breakers in the sand.

I do not know how old I was when the Tsunami dreams began, but they have been etched in my mind for decades. They start in different places, sometimes I am on the beach and sometimes I am already in the cabin. I am always alone, with no one to help me seek shelter, and it is already too late to do anything but brace myself as the water rises until it is pouring in through the front doors and windows of the cabin. I climb on to the mantle of the great stone fireplace and cling to it as the water tears at my legs and pulls the house apart. Wooden furniture and beach debris sweeps past me in the dark water, crashing out of the back wall of the house and pouring into the rainforest. I am helpless in the face of such forces, and always awaken with a sense of prophecy ringing in my mind. While I slept, did Clo-oose drown, or has it yet to happen?

For years before my transplant, I was too sick to visit the cabin. My lungs were far more damaged than the sea air could ever hope to help. I would never be able to pull my weak body up the roots, and even taking the boat in would be too risky for me with my massive bouts of nausea. If the trip were to be foggy and wet, I would never be able to get warm. So I stayed at home, growing sicker and pining for the place, until at last I ended up in Toronto, awaiting a double lung transplant. The moment I met my wife-to-be, I knew I must take her to Clo-oose, as the greatest gesture of love I could make. Unfortunately, it would take several years and two double lung transplants before I could make this dream a reality.

After the second transplant I was lost in a nightmarish hellscape. My dreams were full of horrifying violence and constant struggle. I feared I was dead and would be trapped forever. I seemed to travel in these nightmares for weeks, sick and staggering and exhausted, until at last I fell into oblivion.

Clo-oose bay was the place of my awakening. While I drifted slowly from the hellish torment of my hallucinations and my body was transitioned from death to recovery, my soul found its way into a dream version of Clo-oose. I was soaking wet, lost and alone and crawling up the beach. Like so many of my dreams, my body felt extremely weak and fatigued. My childhood dog Oly was there with me, stalwart Oly, my shadow from birth until his death at age 16. More of a brother and kindred spirit than pet. We had been washed ashore together, and with Oly’s help I was able to make my way up the seemingly endless wooden stairs to the cabin.

The world of the dream was like the saturating fog of a cold coastal morning. Everything was dripping and wet and grey. The cabin stood as a singular sanctuary for me, and I entered finding it already warming and welcoming. There was no dry wood by the fireplace, and I found myself searching for a way to keep warm. I searched the top floor of the dream cabin and found a secret room with its own fireplace, filled with dry, wonderful smelling cedar kindling. I remember the warmth and relief that poured into me from the blazing fire I summoned there.

Soon, Oly and I were revitalized. There was a sailboat adrift off the rocky point across the bay. I knew that I had to get on to the boat if I was going to survive and make it home. I didn’t know how to swim but I threw myself into the black water anyway and managed to swim to the sailboat and drag myself aboard. Oly was on the beach, barking, and I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to get him aboard, but I called for him and he swam to me, and I hauled him up beside me like my father had done countless times before.

I slowly surfaced from this ocean of dreams in an ICU room with my wife beside me and familiar nurses buzzing around, asking me questions. I had survived the great wave and made it home again. My rescuers told me that everything would be okay. My body was broken and my voice was lost; my vision was doubled and like a drowned man I coughed and choked on the fluid in my newly transplanted lungs. My heart soared, and I fell into a dreamless sleep as my body slowly mended. Later, I excitedly told my wife that as soon as we got out of the hospital and home again, I was going to take her to my sanctuary by the sea, and she had to slowly explain to me how much time had passed and that I still had an uncertain amount of recovery ahead of me.

The dreams of my youth came true and I was swept away by the tidal wave of my illness. I am living now beyond the extent of those terrible dreams. I am living in the aftermath, the sunshine and calm at the end of the storm. This season my wife and I will visit Clo-oose bay once again to feel the healing energy of this great place soak into our hearts. The cabin and I still stand.

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