Taylor St. Ogne

September 26, 2016


Drowning Inside the Self

My Norwegian grandmother tells me that I have “Viking blood” within me. She says it makes me stubborn and it makes me strong. When she tells me this I fidget uncomfortably in the wooden chair I am sitting on in her dining room because I do not know how to tell her that I rarely feel strong so I sit back and nod my head and tuck a falling strand of hair behind my ear.

For as long as I can remember my grandmother has always had one health issue or another. Her stroke risk. Her high blood pressure. Her poor kidneys. Her balance. Her memory. Within the past year, she was diagnosed with congestive heart failure.

Viking blood was definitely pumping through her veins at a very high velocity when she locked her pale blue eyes onto mine and said that she would “rather die than eat a low salt diet.”

God turned Lot’s wife into a pillar of salt when she twisted her head back to watch Sodom as it burned to the ground.

If you eat too much salt, your body begins to retain water. This is why cardiac patients oftentimes have swollen ankles.

When there is fluid (including sodium, potassium, water) in your body, your kidneys are required to filter and balance it out. When there is extra fluid in your blood, your kidneys use osmosis in an attempt to pull the surplus water out. The water then travels to your bladder, where it is removed from your body through your urine. Simple as that: this is how your body stays in equilibrium. But if too much salt is consumed, the amount of sodium in your blood increases. When this happens, your kidneys are not able to pull out the water from your blood because it is needed to stay and dilute the sodium.

Surplus water in your blood increases your blood volume. This extra volume puts extra pressure on your heart and arteries, which then become stronger and thicker in response. Sounds like that’d be good, right, having stronger arteries? No. Bad. Very bad. Through this process, the amount of space inside the blood vessels is reduced and your blood pressure increases. The heart then pumps harder than it should, which may lead to an increased risk of heart failure and stroke.

When my grandmother eats too much salt, the water retains in her lungs. She has trouble breathing and experiences a tingling sort of chest pain that radiates down her arms (much like one of the symptoms for heart attacks in women). A croupy and raspy shift occurs in her voice when she gets frustrated about being cooped up in the hospital; she barks at my blinding grandfather to bring her this or get her that or to do this when he gets home because it really should have been done yesterday.

My grandmother is not a woman who can be restrained easily. One hundred percent Norwegian, lefse in the fridge, baptized in the Lutheran Church, Amen. I swear it is the Viking that lives inside her veins that makes her behave in this foul, irate way towards my grandfather. My stepfather disagrees; he says that it’s only brought on from her past strokes.

My mother used to be a cardiac nurse and would take care of patients with congestive heart failure, much like my grandmother.

Now that she is gone, I wonder if this is the real reason my grandmother refuses to lessen her salt consumption—it is something she can control. She was unable to control the departure of my mother. Or maybe this is my grandmother lashing out in anger at her only child for leaving the world before her—her heart failure is something her daughter could have worked to fix, but without her around anymore, my grandmother is sad and outraged and frustrated with the situation. But the simplest explanation, I think, lies within the fact that it is far easier for her to maintain the diet she has had her entire life, rather than changing it so suddenly and abruptly to coincide with her body’s demands.

I know my grandmother thinks of her only child often; there is rarely a time when she will not tell our family’s life story to a waitress at Olive Garden or to the boy or girl checking her out at the supermarket. She sits in her front living room on her tan rocking chair, newspaper open and lying precariously on her lap, Brewers game playing on the large television my grandparents own so that my grandfather with macular degeneration can attempt to see the pitches and the hits, and she will reminisce with my grandfather, consistently saying, “Remember that time when Debbie . . .” until both she and my grandfather are both crying something awful. Then she will change the channel to FOX 6, see something on the news that scares her, and will call me and ask me if I am doing heroin because, you know, it’s on the rise again in the suburbs, and am I OK because there are a lot of carjackings happening in Milwaukee right now and she hopes that it isn’t like that in Chicago, too. Am I making sure that I always have someone with me when I travel at night?  I don’t take the CTA alone, do I?

My grandmother will tell me that I sound an awful lot like my mother on the phone and I will ignore the comment and ask her how she is doing, about how her low salt diet is going, and if she’s remembering to weigh herself every day. She’ll reply and then go on to tell me every aspect of her day, right down to the ham sandwich she had for lunch.

The human body is made up of about 63% water. Blood is made up of 92%, the brain and muscles within the body contain 75%, and bones consist of 22% water. If too much salt is consumed, more water is retained into the body, and the numbers rise.

I wonder if it is possible for a human being to be made up entirely of water, or if that right is reserved for oceans and seas and lakes and ponds and rivers and puddles? Do you really have to die to be completely, 100% water?

We used to drive down to Florida for vacation over spring break. This went on every year, for three years, until my stepfather’s job as a project coordinator at Columbia St. Mary’s Hospital got eliminated and his money, along with my social security survivor benefits money, dried up.

The first year we went was when my mother was still alive. I was in seventh grade and we stayed at some ornate hotel on St. Pete Beach. It was the first time I really swam in the ocean, not just dipped my feet or wadded in the water up to my hips. Full­fledged swimming in the ocean. Freestyle, backstroke, breaststroke.  My head fully submerged, traveling diagonally so I didn’t get caught in the waves, only lifting and opening my mouth for a breath of salty air, my arms dunked and splashed in and out of the Gulf of Mexico.

I will not swim in lakes or ponds but I will not hesitate to swim in the ocean. The feeling of getting lost in something infinitely bigger than me, the strong, lulling arms of the tide pushing and pulling me down only to crash its fishy arms around me, the layer of brine that covers my

body like a second skin: this is why I would rather get stung by a jellyfish than have a walleye brush me with its fin as it swims past. Salt water, I think, is much nicer than fresh water. Much cleaner. More holy.

The second time we drove down, it was without my mother (who had died of a subarachnoid hemorrhage about ten months prior). Instead, my stepfather’s mildly schizophrenic daughter, Catie, made the journey with us because she had never seen the ocean. We stayed at the same hotel and ate at the same restaurants and went to the same beaches. I brought along my white seal hand puppet and my brown Sadie dog that I slept with every night since the ages of four and three, respectively. My mother had bought me both of them and my stepfather did not understand why I was so upset and why I was in such a rush to find the missing toys. This trip was ruined for me.

The third year we traveled to Florida, I was adamant that we did not stay at the same hotel again. My sister’s then­boyfriend, now­fiancé, Brad, came with us to Sanibel Island. The beach was too rocky and had too many shells. The ocean didn’t feel the same farther south. It felt cold and boring and sad without my mother. The whole trip I was in the midst of a teen angst fit and I was upset that everything was so different from two years prior.

Salt water and beaches, I think, will always remember my mother. I would sprinkle her ashes in the Gulf of Mexico if we hadn’t buried her in the cold, unforgiving soil of the Midwest.

Nothing lives in the Dead Sea. It is 9.6 times as salty as the ocean, and although there are few saltier bodies of water in the word, it is still 997 feet deep, which makes it the deepest hypersaline lake in the world.

Rinsing with saltwater can help clean out wounds. After my wisdom teeth surgery, I was instructed to gargle one cup of water mixed with one teaspoon of salt after each meal for about three days post-extraction.

If you drink too much water from the Dead Sea, will you die or will you become purified in some sort of way?  Will you become cured from your sins? Cleansed, from the inside out?

Baptized? The Jordan River feeds into the Dead Sea so I suppose that you’re close enough to atonement just by soaking in the water.

(Science says that even a few swallows of Dead Sea water will effectively destroy the electrolyte balance within the body. The amount of salt in the water will poison the human body by damaging the heart and the kidneys, eventually causing the body to shut down. Is this the same or similar to swallowing too much God?)

My grandmother goes to a local Lutheran church almost every Sunday. She sits in the third pew from the front, stage right, and bathes in the sunlight that pours through the stained glass windows in front of her that depict pictures of crosses and bread and wine goblets and scrolls. My grandfather comes with, even though he is Catholic and even though he usually falls asleep during the “message” from Pastor Myron, and sits next to her throughout the whole sermon.

When my sister and I were young, in order to keep us quiet and entertained during church, my grandmother would pack a green bag with coloring books and word searches and gel pens and snacks like green grapes and dry Cheerios.This was our Sunday Bag. (Similar to my reddish­pink set of Out­To­Eat­Silverware that I insisted we bring to restaurants until the age of six or seven). This was tradition.

Until the end of sixth grade, my mother and grandmother pushed me into going to Sunday School every week. Of course, there was a time in fourth or fifth grade when I rebelled and slept through church instead, but I ended up feeling bad about skipping class by the next year. During sixth grade, my grandmother began talking to me more about the Bible. She told me that Psalms was her favorite book, although she wouldn’t say why, or maybe it’s that I cannot remember, beyond that the prayers inside of it were “pretty.” I said that I knew if I opened any Bible, I would find it smack­dab in the middle. This is as in­depth as we ever spoke about the Bible. Perhaps this is because, after losing my mother rather suddenly, the idea of religion now makes my hands go clammy and my stomach to churn uneasily.

But my grandmother says that anyone who is an atheist, agnostic, or anything but God-fearing is as “dumb as a rock,” so maybe I finally have met my unintentional goal of becoming as disconnected and as clinically detached from my more powerful emotions after all.

Maybe I have finally managed to turn myself to stone without even noticing. Or maybe rocks are a lot smarter than we had originally thought.

There is a pillar of salt named “Lot’s Wife” near the Dead Sea at Mount Sodom in Israel.

One Jewish historian claims that it is the same salt pillar that Lot’s Wife was turned into, although only a few early church leaders attest this.

Sometimes I think that instead of being the salt pillar itself, my grandmother is actually Lot’s Wife. She is looking back at Sodom burning, burning, burning to the ground, to ashes; at her daughter lying pale and sweaty in an ICU bed, tubes spilling from her mouth, her arms, her head; she is frozen in the moment. My grandmother knows the repercussions of not following her low­salt diet. She knows she could very easily die by drowning herself with too much sodium. She is taking the risk; she is whirling around in time, thinking longingly of my mother, of her daughter, and turning herself into that pillar of salt. She is becoming strong and immovable by wind nor rain nor logic. She will stand tall against God and Mother Nature and nuclear explosions. I fear that my grandmother is beginning to think that salt will cure all, will save all, and I dread that she will never live to understand the falsity of this.

My grandmother says that before every surgery she has ever underwent, while she is being wheeled down to the operating room, she utters Psalm 23 while she clutches onto her bleached­clean bedsheets. Her short white hair (that is normally curled with a small brass iron) flattened from fitful sleep on the lumpy hospital mattress, her green and blue gown falling down to her bare feet that are tucked inside white sheets that someone has probably died wrapped in; she closes her eyes, leans back into the uncomfortable padding beneath her and utters:

The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures,

He leads me beside quiet waters, He restores my soul.

He guides me in paths of righteousness for His name’s sake. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for You are with me;

Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.

You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.

You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.

Surely goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, And I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.


Because of its high salt content, the Dead Sea is unusually dense. Unlike fresh water, where a person can sink underwater if they don’t tread their arms and legs, in hypersaline bodies of water, most of the human body will float and stay out of the water, like a cork bobbing in the waves.

That is not to say that it is impossible to drown in the Dead Sea.  It is.  Named the number two most dangerous place to swim in in Israel, the possibility of drowning is overwhelming.  When someone is floating on their back in the Dead Sea, their face is lifted out of the water and they do not have a problem with finding oxygen. The issue is when they turn over onto their stomachs when their entire body is clear of the surface, but their faces are pushed down into the sea. In fresh water, the easiest way to solve this issue is to lift your head and to force your feet and lower body down into the water; in salt water, because of the density forcing your body up, it is more difficult to push an arm into the water and turn your body over. It’s like drowning face down in a really big puddle that you just can’t push yourself out of.

I wonder if you wake up during surgery, but find yourself paralyzed and unable to alert your doctor, if the feeling is similar? I wonder if my grandmother has ever experienced this, and if she has, I can see why she has not told me. I wonder if she feels this sense of drowning within herself as she shakes more and more salt onto her plate? If the Dead Sea could drown, I bet it would look a lot like how my grandmother looks after she has gained two pounds of water weight within twenty-four hours and has found breathing to suddenly become difficult.

“It’s not a no salt diet.  It’s a low salt diet,” I remind my grandmother on the phone.

She makes a frustrated click in the back of her throat and changes the subject to something about how her day went and how she’s tired of being trapped at home with nothing to do all day.  I do not press the issue because I know it will make her even angrier.

If you cut my grandmother open, I wonder how much water would come splashing out onto the ground, and how many pillars of salt she could make?

Taylor St. Onge is a writer that works within hybrid experimental poetry and creative nonfiction. Her work lies within the realms of grief, loss, uncertainty, the body, and how these things relate to the living and the dead. She lives and works in Chicago, and is currently finishing her BA in Poetry at Columbia College.  Her work can also be found in Habitat, The Lab Review, and Hair Trigger.

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