“Mommy, I’m a big boy now. I can take a bath by myself,” my eight-year-old son says as he slingshots his Batman underwear into the hamper and dumps a bin of Lego into the tub. I wish I could say out loud — explain to him like I would to a reasonable adult — why this is maybe the hardest thing he will ever ask of me. Instead, I take a deep breath, go into my room. And listen.
My friend Angie and I were perched at the edge of the pool, our sunburned legs dangling in the cool water. She was teaching me the alphabet in sign language, as The Doobie Brothers sang about Jesus from the 8-track player in the snack shack. Everything smelled like coconut suntan lotion and Kool cigarettes.
“H, I, J, K, L, M, N, O, P—” No, that’s not ‘P.’ Remember? It’s like ‘K’ but pointed down. Like this.” Angie fixed my fingers and we started again.
“Do you know what drowning is?” Angie asked after we got to the end of the alphabet.
“Yeah. I learned about it in swim lessons,” I said. “It’s when your tummy gets full of water and you sink to the bottom and die. Let’s start over from the beginning, okay?”
“Okay. Ready?” she said.
“Ready. A, B, C, D, E, F, G…”
On Monday, November 28, 1988, a thunderstorm swept into my hometown, uprooted trees, flipped shingles through the air, and beat against the windows of the library on campus where I was writing a paper I’d left to the last minute. Again. I tried to focus, to scratch out a few sentences from my notes, but my mind kept getting pulled under into a dream I had had the night before:
My boyfriend and his father are being chased through the woods by two men with shotguns. I want to help them, but I am hiding behind a bush, trying to be as small as possible. I can hear their heavy boots slamming into the ground as they run, and I can feel their fear all over my body. I wake up to the sound of a gunshot wondering if it was a hit or a miss.
Even though I told myself it was just a dream, it was just a dream, it was just a dream, I dialed my boyfriend’s number while biting and twisting the phone cord, stretching it out, and wrapping it around my finger.
I could tell him later at lunch, I thought.
“Max?” I call, as I spit out a small bit of cuticle I’d been chewing on.
“Chicken butt? You’re weird, Mom,” he says, with a smile I can hear from the next room.
My boyfriend didn’t show up for lunch, didn’t call. Nothing. His mother told me he decided to go with his dad on their bass boat to hunt for mistletoe on a small island to shoot out of the trees to sell. It was a Christmas tradition. But, so were our Monday lunches.
The next day rain shimmied back up toward the sky from the pavement as I walked across campus to turn in my paper and slump into class. I was there for maybe ten minutes when the Dean’s assistant knocked and said I had a phone call. It was my mother telling me to come home. Right away.
Somewhere in the middle of the alphabet, a girl in ruffled bikini bottoms floated toward the center of the shallow end. She had been playing in the water on a donut with sprinkles, but it was gone and she was doing a weird dog paddle thing and grabbing at the water.
“Is she—?” asks Angie.
“Maybe? I don’t know.”
We looked at her and at each other. Her. Each other. Her. Seconds pass. Minutes. Days? It didn’t feel real. The little girl was blinking and flailing and coughing and grabbing and kicking and flailing and blinking and kicking and sinking and I want to scream but my words are gone. I wanted to jump in. Angie too; I could see it in her eyes, but her very mean mom told us not to. Told us it would be very very dangerous to do that after we had just eaten lunch. And so I bang bang banged my hands together and waved my arms and banged and waved until Angie, Angie sweet Angie, shrieked, “SOMEBODY HELP!”
In the summer of 2002, I was at a conference at a hotel in San Diego trying to talk to someone on a cell phone with lousy reception. I paced back and forth, back and forth in shoes that were a half size too small (but super cute) until I finally went outside. The only person in the pool was a four-year-old red head with corkscrew curls, who was clinging to the side and singing, “Yellow Submarine,” while her mother read Self Magazine in a deck chair several feet away. She wasn’t wearing any water wings, had no float at all, just a song and her mother’s faith to keep her afloat. When she started to beat at the water, her mother did not notice.
I have never saved anyone from drowning. Not my boyfriend—he died with his father. Not the little girl in the yellow bikini—one of the people chicken fighting pulled her from the pool. And not the red-headed four-year-old—a man in a three-piece suit came out of nowhere and dove in to rescue her.
I often wonder why I’ve been so close to saving someone but never close enough.
“Mo-om? What are you doing in here?”
“Nothing, sweetie, just cleaning up a bit. Pretend I’m invisible.”