It’s supposed to be fiction, but sometimes it’s memoir.
She was beginning to fear drowning in a way she hadn’t before. Certainly the concept of drowning was not new. She’d spent enough time underwater, tumbling and temporarily unable to surface, that the idea of not being able to surface wasn’t wholly foreign. And right now, she couldn’t breathe.
Never panic in the water, she’d ordered her children. Never! I don’t care what happens, what is happening, you never, ever get to panic. Once you get to shore and are safe, panic all you need, but not in the water. That’s how people die. They needed to understand this, to absorb it into their tiny psyches. Never panic. At least not until the danger has passed.
One time she’d been surfing at Pismo Beach, caught some waist-high wave that sent her left and then right, nearly to the beach. As she kicked out, she’d noticed a guy floating nearby, his standup paddle board bouncing in the whitewater, the same foam washing over his face. Was he reveling in the day? she wondered. Being one with the sea? Sometimes surfers did that, flopped into the ocean and opened their arms wide to embrace the moment. The floating guy did not have that look. She paddled over to him, hopped off her board as the waves lapped at her thighs. “Help,” he said. “Help.”
“Help!” she yelled, cradling his head. “Help!” She tried to keep his head above water without hurting him, and she yelled. They came, the others. A teenager barreled toward them, surfboard under his arm. “What happened?” he cried. “This is my dad!”
Her heart lurches again at the memory.
The man’s eyes found his son. “I’ll be okay,” he’d said. He’d fallen, he said, off his paddleboard, and hit bottom in such a way that his neck had bent so that he couldn’t move. The helpers slid the father onto his paddleboard like it was a stretcher, lifted it. An ambulance was on the way, someone said. Her arms hurt. Her back hurt. Her biceps trembled and she imagined her hold on the board slipping, everyone staggering, the injured man tumbling into the sand. She did not let go. The ambulance took him away. Someone else got his son’s name, number, called him at the hospital later and found out that while the father’s spine was bruised, it was not broken and so hopes for recovery were high.
Two hours into the conference, after the surf and the rescue and the shower and the signing in and the clipping of her name badge to her shirt, the shaking started. She was going to throw up. She couldn’t throw up. Not during the presentation at which she was so carefully taking notes. She needed to throw up, but her legs shook so hard she feared she would fall if she tried to stand. She breathed. And breathed. And breathed. And made her legs steady. Steady enough, anyway, so that she did not fall as she wobbled to the restroom, where the conference breakfast she’d wolfed down came back up and “He’s my dad!” echoed through her mind.
When her children had been in the ER – and all her children had been in the ER – she hadn’t panicked. Not during the admittance, not while she’d queried the doctors, “What do we need to do?”
With her oldest, it had been the croup. A week under an oxygen tent and an IV. She hadn’t left the hospital, except for that one time, you couldn’t call it leaving, exactly, but the crisis had passed, her daughter was breathing normally, they’d be able to leave the next day and, weight lifted for the moment, she’d snuck out a door onto a fire escape, the city sprawled before her, moon rising, sun setting, lights twinkling, the salt of the ocean brought to her on the onshore breeze and she’d burst into tears, oh my god, her tiny daughter.
Dehydration, not her fault, had sent her next daughter into the hospital at four months old. They’d placed her in a bed next to a child with TB. Five nights in a chair by her daughter’s side, not sleeping, listening to the coughing, the beeping, and then they were allowed to go home. She tucked her baby in, left her husband to watch her, climbed into her Volkswagen Beetle and drove and drove and screamed and screamed. The next morning she put honey in her tea and shrugged off her sore throat, smiled as she tucked baby to breast.
And then the shark attack. She tired of the story. They’d had the kids out at a break where the waves rolled in a foot high, gentle, playful, perfect. A week of no wind and days of sunshine created a sense of magic, of wondrous times. The ocean shone like glass, blue, so blue, the color of the sky above, whitewater brilliant like the edges of a frosted cake. Everyone was surfing. Everyone was at the beach. When the children tired, they’d shifted slightly north. She’d been behind her friend when the shark hit, had sat up, tired of paddling. A swell had come between them, so at first all she heard was the sound. She’d pulled off her hood to figure it out and as the swell passed under her, she’d understood.
There was her friend screaming, his head bobbing in the ocean, his board floating nearby, he shouldn’t be off his board, especially in that churning, churning water, she would never forget the violence of the water, and that fin, what was that, she knew and yet could not believe, but clearly. And so she turned to sight her husband, saw he was close to shore and safe, turned back to see Brian on his board, seemingly okay and paddling like mad, and so she paddled like mad, too, and eventually they got to shore and it turned out Brian was hurt, she felt terrible, but he was loaded into a truck and taken away to the hospital and she drove to the radio station where she was supposed to talk about what bands were playing in town this week and instead talked about the shark attack and her mouth went dry and her face went white and the host DJ said, “Do you need some water?” and she gulped it down and breathed and breathed.
One day, during her eldest daughter’s teenage years, she’d fled the yelling at home and found herself sobbing along ocean’s edge, one foot in front of the other, the beach sprawling out like a promise of peace. Except she’d ignored the surf forecast, despite knowing it, despite understanding what a 14-foot-at-17-second swell meant. When the waves crashed in, it picked her up off her feet in a blink, lifted her off the sand – she was kicking at nothing as the water engulfed her. She turned her face toward the sky, mouth seeking air, finding only foam and she thought, she really thought, this is it. This is how I am going to die. But she made circles with her arms, tread water, waited a few beats, a person could hold her breath longer than they thought, she’d read once. And as the wave receded, she did not get sucked out to sea, but found her footing on the sand. Gravity returned, world stabilized, she ran and ran until she reached the higher dunes, at which point she slipped on the ice plant covering the top and slid down the other side. She sat there for several minutes, shivered in her wet clothes, let the air fill her lungs.
When they flew her son to UCSF on the medical plane, she wanted him to know how cool the plane was, sharp and bright red like a Matchbox toy. She wanted to show him the view. He’d never flown before and even as the nurse’s nonchalant diagnosis, “Oh, he’s got diabetes” sat in her brain waiting for direction, she wanted to show her son the City brilliant below them. This time no cure awaited at the end of the week. So she set her alarm for 3 a.m. to check his blood sugar night after night, week after week, month after month, year after year, and he turned into a teenager and still she did not panic. She could not panic. Even when he moved out and she woke up at 3 a.m. she did not panic. She worried. Constantly. But worry was one thing. A person could worry. Worry provided a reason to assess things, make decisions. “Do not panic until the danger has passed,” she’d ingrained in her children. This danger had not, would not, pass. So she flipped her pillow over, shoved her headphones in her ears, listened to meditation apps, wrapped her body around her husband’s, breathed. Reminded herself that like the great James Baldwin said, deep water and drowning are not the same thing.
The wave smashed her down. Another wave smashed her down. She spun and tumbled, the spinning nauseating her. She had a lot to do today. Two conference calls, a letter supporting a coastal project, a letter opposing a coastal project, two email updates to send, social media to project, the car insurance headache, her daughter’s financial aid was still messed up, the health insurance needed sorting out, therapy appointments should be made, the scene on the home front attended to, god, she was forgetting some stuff on the checklist she called her life. She reached out for her ankle, felt the leash attaching her to her surfboard. With her right hand, she pulled it toward her, clasped her left just above. One hand and then the other, she felt her way to the surface. Something bubbled just under her heart. Not panic. She could not panic. She knew better. But she also knew, as her face broke the surface and air filled her lungs, that she was beginning to fear drowning in a way she never had.