With a broken-down oven, in a hotel kitchen, on an uninhabited island
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— For Rachael
Panic is not an emotion. That’s the first error that people make.
If you feel your heart begin to pound in your chest and your fingertips go numb. If your vision blurs and you have trouble getting air into your lungs. If suddenly the world seems to collapse into a single thought or collection of thoughts all related to the same thing, so that there is nothing else but that thing — as if you were seeing it all through a gun barrel. If you feel dizzy or nauseous and start to sweat. If the ground begins to slip away beneath you, and you think, I’m dying. Right now, I’m dying — then you know panic.
And you know what I felt as a boy when my head went underwater.
My students know my story. They know about the death of my first wife, Susan, and older son, Cyrus; they know how it happened. I have walked into classes to find them passing around an essay of mine someone found on the Internet or photocopied from the library. Sometimes they come clean — praising me for the work or congratulating me on the publication. More often the pages will slip into a folder or beneath other papers, secreted away like pornography. There is silence, awkwardness. They stare at me, not knowing what to say. When you find out that someone has lost half his family in an accident, the dynamics change. The ground shifts.
So they don’t always know how to react — the ones who know my story — when I tell a joke or show up in class laughing at myself because the goggles and snorkel I wear while swimming laps have left bright-red circles around my eyes and pink creases stretching back to my temples. “The really funny part of it is,” I tell them, “I’m terrified of water.”
My oldest and most enduring fear is of submersion.
In the early seventies my mother and father started working at a summer camp for boys in Oakland, Maine, called Camp Manitou. The camp is set into a wooded hillside abutting East Pond, which is actually a lake, the easternmost in the chain of lakes that stretches all the way from Belgrade to Smithfield. Dad was the new athletic director. My parents arrived at the camp with two daughters — my sisters Lisa, four, and Tina, two — and a boy on the way. I can imagine my mother, six months pregnant with me, living in a room without air conditioning or heat, in a building that tilted alarmingly to one side. The roof leaked. Electrical wires were stapled along the walls. She could hear the directors in other rooms laughing over a game of poker, bringing girls in from the bars in Waterville, playing their music too loud and smoking marijuana late into the evening. A small bathroom contained a shower stall with a rusted floor. The laundry facility was a two-hundred-yard walk uphill on a gravel road. But my parents were young and poor. And with student loans and a single high-school teaching position to sustain them, any income was a blessing.
To my blue-collar father Camp Manitou seemed like a five-star resort: basketball and tennis courts, baseball and soccer fields, three free meals a day, beer by the fire at night under the stars, water-skiing. When he was a boy, summer camp had been beyond his means — someplace wealthier families would send their children when the parents felt like taking a cruise or the kids were too great a burden. He’d heard about camp only from the “What I Did over My Summer Vacation” essays his classmates would read aloud in early September. Camp was something he’d seen in brochures at the barbershop.
My mother was less enthusiastic about the experience. She’d gone to camp as a girl, so the novelty had passed for her, and she was not accustomed to roughing it or to the testosterone-filled atmosphere of two hundred boys and men living together. Thin and blond, she had the refined good looks of a real New England lady, and though she’d never been rich, she had the manner of the wealthy — that set chin and taut-skinned regality. Her wedding photos remind me of Hollywood stills. But she managed. She adapted and, like all of us, came to love the place.
My parents were enchanted by the lake. Each morning the water, shrouded in mist, emerged into sunlight, becoming a glassy mirror for the firs that lined its banks, the blue sky, and the egrets gliding over it. It had a clean, sandy bottom near the shore and was home to fish, freshwater clams, and all kinds of birds. By 9 AM the Boston Whalers’ outboard motors would cough to life, then settle into a steady purr, and the fishermen would glide out, soon to be joined by water-skiers and sailboats. When storms came in over the distant mountains, they were fast and fierce, churning the lake’s surface into whitecaps. And when the rain came, it fell in heavy curtains of water, soaking the earth, bending tree limbs, hammering the tin roofs of the lodge and surrounding cabins, penetrating the water with the patter and ring of a thousand tiny cymbals.
On a clear evening the sun would make a slow descent to meet its shimmering twin on the water’s surface. And if the day were cloudy, its color would split, shatter, and break through in streaming shafts of red and orange, forming pathways of light toward Birch Island a half mile from the beach.
As night came on, the mist would rise again on the cooling pond, and you would hear the loons warning each other off or calling to their mates with ghostly, long-vowelled voices.
The truth is, I love to be on the edges of lakes and rivers and oceans. My problem isn’t hydrophobia. I can stand on the rocking deck of any boat without anxiety. I am an aquaphobe. I fear being inside the water. Engulfed by it.
At the Clermont County YMCA the pool is clear and warm. But even after seven years of therapy, I need to work up the courage to get in the water. I do not enter like the old men and women here for their aerobics class, lowering themselves in, one joint at a time. The creep of the water up my legs, the tingling of the hair rising around my thighs, always causes a panic — a sense of the world closing around me like a fist. I do not dive either. The very idea feels insane and reckless, like leaping into pure space. You cannot breathe out there. Up is down; down, up. Instead I slide in quickly from the edge of the deep end, inserting myself with no splash, like an otter entering a river. Then I wait for my heart to slow, my body to adjust to the shock of this new element. Along my back I imagine each muscle loosening. I concentrate on not concentrating. I float.
After my mother became the water-skiing director at Camp Manitou, Lisa, Tina, and I practically lived in and around the lake. My sisters, already showing signs of the talented gymnasts and dancers they’d become as young women, took to the water like ducklings, splashing around and doing cartwheels on the hot docks. I’d sit in the shallows under the careful watch of whatever baby sitter my parents could find among the friends and daughters of the laundrywomen and cooks.
It’s possible I feared the water even then, before I had any real experience with it. Unlike a pool, a lake is murky, and things both living and dead can lurk in its shadows and silt. Mussels, standing on edge like knives protruding from the ground, wait for the foolish swimmer who jumps in feet first. Enormous boulders just beneath the surface can tear the hulls of boats. Snapping turtles appear and then are gone. It is almost impossible to judge the depth of the water by sight; you have to reach your foot down to find the bottom — if the bottom is there. Darkness and mystery. I never entered the lake willingly. I had to be coaxed, convinced, cajoled, and carried into the deeper water, where I’d cling frantically to whoever was within reach.
The most difficult challenge for me is breathing. Even when I use the Hydrex Superdry flex snorkel (a Christmas gift from my son, Darius), water inevitably makes its way into the tube. A single chlorinated drop will cause me to sputter and blow like a whale. Few members of the Y will take the lane beside me anymore. That’s fine. I don’t want them there.
No parent can or should relax around a body of water. A foot slips, a head strikes a hard surface, and in minutes one life is over, and another life is forever changed.
During swim periods at Manitou as many as fifty boys of various ages and sizes could be splashing around in the shallow water at the same time, wrestling and throwing tennis balls and wet lumps of clay. So easy to lose track of one little boy.
By the time I was six, my refusal to learn to swim had become a problem. So it was decided that I would take morning classes with the youngest campers each day. The waterfront director at that time was a barrel-chested ex–navy officer who doubled as our karate instructor. During evening activities he would entertain the boys by breaking cinder blocks and thick pieces of wood with various parts of his body.
He frightened me as much as the water did. And maybe in my mind he became the water — a force of nature, a dark Poseidon. Tufts of gray hair bloomed from his chest like small explosions, and his every word was just a little too loud, as if he were always speaking to the deaf. In my tight swim trunks I shook before him like a shepherd before God.
Hearing underwater is also difficult. My father lost his hearing in one ear as a result of a flu virus, and he told me it was as if he were always listening underwater, that combination of murmur and echo drifting in from nowhere and everywhere at once. I’ve read that what we “hear” beneath the water is pure vibration. The ears are useless: the sound is conducted through the skull. Omniphonic. And so we feel as if the sound came from within. The body — a breathing, beating concert hall.
One pool length is 25 yards.
One lap: 50 yards.
One mile: 1,760 yards.
Number of laps in a mile: 35.2.
I like the math of it, the geometry: the straight lane lines and rectangular pool. I like the feeling of speed when I swim toward the shallow end, the concrete bottom rising to meet my touch. I like the hard work of my body, the way the muscles stretch and move and pull. I see 1,760 yards as a number I can work with, chip away at. I love the back and forth as well, the repetition, each length a letting go and returning, each lap a finished thing, an act completed, mastered.
Learning to swim was not a problem. I could dog-paddle as well as anyone — albeit with my neck craned up like a turtle and my eyes to the clouds. The problem was putting my face in the water, which terrified me. “You’re going to have to learn rhythmic breathing,” the swim instructor commanded. I remember his strong, thick fingers clutching my hair at the back of the skull and forcing my face down, the water coming up toward me. I remember sunlight. Water. Air. Water. “Breathe! . . . Breathe! . . . Breathe!”
According to Archimedes’s principle, buoyancy is determined by displacement. The water pushes back against the human body to the exact measure of the weight of the water displaced. Skinny, muscular people will tend to sink more quickly. One can rest and float but not forever. You move or you drown. So when we swim, we push the water away from us, creating force and lift. Our bodies become foils, and we rise against it, and within it.
According to the International Lifesaving Federation, “1.2 million people around the world die by drowning every year. That is more than two persons per minute. More than half are children.”
The accident occurred in the desert, on a highway that runs along the Dead Sea. My family had been in Jordan only a month, waiting for the semester to begin at the university in Amman where Susan and I had Fulbright scholarships. I went swimming with our guide, Achmed. I had not brought a bathing suit, so I stripped down to my underwear and waded in while Susan, her mother, and the boys, Cyrus and Darius, watched. “Look,” Achmed said, still fully clothed out of respect for my wife, “you don’t have to swim. Just float. See?”
He was right. It hardly felt like floating in water at all. There was so much lift, as if the sea were holding me on its broad back. I laughed, delighted.
“Don’t let it near your eyes or mouth,” Achmed warned. “The salt can burn.”
I can only imagine what it might be like to drown, but I think I understand the pain of coming back from almost drowning. When I awoke in the ICU of the military hospital in Jordan, I remember the odd sensation of floating up. It wasn’t an out-of-body experience. I have no recollection of looking down at myself. In fact, the image of the place is mostly lost to memory. Rather it was a feeling of coming back — as if I had fallen into a dark place and had to swim up through my own body to my eyes and the light pouring into them. There was a tightness in my chest. Someone shouted, “He’s awake!”
The last thing I saw from my passenger seat in the back of the van, before we collided with the sand truck, was the lights of the resort reflected on the flat black water of the Dead Sea. I fell asleep.
Sometimes I remember waking up for a second on the road, but memory is a strange thing. What you think you remember is often only the story you have told yourself or that others have told you.
In dreams I have seen my older son, Cyrus, flying up and out of the van in a shower of glass, still holding his teddy bear, my son snatched from me as if pulled into the night by powerful hands.
I finally did learn to swim, getting by mostly with the breast stroke, which allowed me both to look like an athlete in the water and to keep my head mostly above it. The problem was that my mother was the water-skiing director, and by camp rules I had to reach the level of “Swimmer” to learn to ski, and that meant rhythmic breathing, swimming underwater, and — most terrifying — opening my eyes underwater. By twelve, most of my friends were already performing skiing tricks in the Visitors’ Day show: 360s, slaloms, ski carries, even pyramids. I don’t remember my parents ever making me feel ashamed of my fears. Maybe they didn’t know I was afraid. Maybe they thought, He’s just not a swimmer. Some people aren’t.
In the panic moment there is no ego, no rational self. The id takes over.
“Intellectually the phobic person can recognize that the degree of anxiety they are experiencing is not realistically tied to the actual facts of their situation,” write the authors of Coping with Phobias. “Phobias are excessive and irrational. Despite this, the person still feels impelled to avoid the feared circumstances. If they are not able to avoid it, they generally endure it only with great difficulty or through the use of medication. They may be able to drive to work, for example, but only with extreme tension, perspiration, and a high level of fear.”
On some level the fear of being submerged makes sense. People do drown. You can’t breathe water. Humans are not fish. Many phobias have their roots in common sense. We are often afraid of things that can indeed kill us. (But not always, of course. Take geniophobia, the fear of chins, for example, or linonophobia, the fear of string.) To the phobic person it is the rest of the world that operates irrationally, acting as if it were perfectly normal to fly thousands of feet above the earth, stand on top of a tall building, or travel through a tunnel with thousands of pounds of earth above you. To the phobic, “normal” people dream their way through their lives: washing dishes, doing the laundry, driving to work, paying bills, and eating fast food, all the while acting as if death were not right around the corner; as if the people they love couldn’t be taken from them in an instant; as if the world were a safe place where planes don’t fly into buildings and tremors don’t shake the ground; as if, while you are driving home, the truck coming at you from the other lane couldn’t cross the median and hit you head-on.
Normal people are blessed with a semiwillful capacity to ignore the wolf at the door, to live as if trouble were not always pressing in from all sides. And they can manage to believe in their safety even in the presence of evidence that anything can and does happen to people all the time. They will slow down to gawk at the accident on the side of the road, backing up traffic for miles. They might wonder whether the passengers were wearing their seat belts or if anyone survived. If there is blood or a body on a stretcher or a fire, they might remember that image. It might trouble their dreams. But once they’ve driven past, they pick up speed, pushing the needle past seventy-five, maybe even texting a friend a photo of what they saw.
What did they see, the one or two travelers who came upon the wreckage that night in the desert? The emergency crew? The police?
My mother-in-law screaming and crying in three languages — Farsi, English, and French — shouting at the van’s driver, at the elderly sand-truck operator, at God. One arm gripping my younger son to her chest, his face pressed into her neck as he whimpered from pain and fear, his hair matted, damp with sweat and his mother’s blood. Her other hand gesturing to the van, the men, the sky.
I know the van’s roof was torn and crushed, the windshield shattered, the right side of the vehicle collapsed into itself.
The driver was uninjured. Did he sit on the side of the road, his head in his hands? Did he wander about as if drunk, swaying, unable to get his mind around it? Did he think, This is not happening? Did he look back at the van, where Susan lay trapped and dying? Where was I? Unconscious on the floor between the seats? Pulled out — by whose hands? On a stretcher, laid out on the highway? Was there blood on the road? Whose blood? How long did it take to pull Susan out, and who did the pulling? Did the driver help? Could he tell the sky from the road, from his own body; tell where things began and ended? Did he pray for forgiveness?
And the bodies of Achmed and Cyrus: Where were they? How did they lie? Together or apart? Ten feet from the van? Fifteen? Thirty? How far did the bodies fly through air that could not buoy them up, that parted as it would for any bird? Where did they fall? On the road or the sand? Did they touch? Or were they curled into themselves, alone, embryonic?
For some time after the accident I could not ride in a car without sweating and gripping the handle above the passenger door until my fingers went numb. I’d see something out of the corner of my eye and shout at the driver, “Look out! Stop! Oh, my God!” I’d press my still-healing leg into the floor as if stomping on some imaginary brake. My arms would fly out to the dashboard to brace myself. Most often there was literally nothing there — a shadow, a trick of the light. At one point my father, in exasperation, pulled off the road and into the parking lot of a convenience store, almost skidding to a halt.
“Joel,” he said, “this isn’t going to work. You have to get ahold of yourself.”
He looked more frightened than I was.
I learned to swim by force of will, not by getting a handle on my fear but by plowing through it. While my friends at camp were off mountain biking, riding go-carts, and playing touch football, I pulled my still-damp trunks off the clothesline and yanked them on, hating the shock of cold on the groin, the shrinking back of the testicles — ominous portents of things to come.
Fear is a kind of indignity. It humbles us. Even when we puff up the chest and resort to gallows humor, what is most noticeable is the effort to do so, the hollowness behind the words. I didn’t say much as I stood on the dock for my lessons in a line of much younger children. Every once in a while there’d be a boy who’d scream and kick and flail to avoid going into the frigid lake. You might think I’d feel sympathy, but really I hated those boys. They had no right. Shut up, I wanted to say. I’m trying to breathe.
By this time the waterfront director was Mel, a tall, long-haired man with the body of an Olympic diver — a man who would go on a three-day cleansing fast and break it with a six-pack of beer. He was kind and patient with me. I was a dogged student, but I didn’t so much swim as survive, slapping and slamming my arms against the surface of the lake as if fighting it off, careening from one side of the lane to the other, not breathing so much as gasping for air, groaning loudly each time I lifted my arm for a stroke, my head craning for oxygen. And when I reached the end of the pool, I’d spit and cough. Mel would shake his head. “That was very good, Jo Jo. Now try to relax this time. Take it slow. Find your rhythm. Move with the water, not against it. Swim in it, not on top of it. Let it do some of the work. Remember, people are mostly water. We come from water. We are born swimmers.”
Not all phobias are caused by trauma, and trauma will not necessarily result in an irrational fear. It takes a mind-set already prone to anxiety for any experience to cause a debilitating fear — the kind that makes it hard to get out of bed, leave the house, drive to work; the kind that shrinks the world around you to the edges of your own skin.
My fear of swimming can be only partly explained by my having had my head physically thrust into the water at a young age.
Am I more fearful than the average person? I know that much of what I do, I do out of fear: fear of loss, fear of humiliation, fear of failure, fear of disappointing others. I can know only my own mind (and then only so far as I am able to plumb its depths), and I am left to imagine how other people think, what their motivations are.
I’ve always believed that most of us move through life both chased and chasing, driven as much by fear as by desire. The natural state of humankind is restlessness. We spend our days determined to get from one place to another.
But most people seem to find a way to keep pushing through. We keep going even when we don’t know the destination.
We come from water. Born swimmers.
I have heard of birthing techniques in which the mother is half submerged, the idea being that the movement from the womb to the warm birthing pool is less stressful on the child, making birth literally a fluid experience, a gentle passage from one state of being to another.
To dive into a pool should be an ecstatic return to peace and familiarity. To swim should be to find oneself in a natural equilibrium, devoid of the burden of gravity, in which the heaviness of life can be given over, given up, if only for a little while. It should be to know that we are not only part of something but always in it. Completely surrounded by it on all sides. Not smothered but enveloped. Touched.
There was a time, in the months following the accident in Jordan, when putting on my own socks or taking a shower by myself was a reason for small celebration. My parents had converted their split-level ranch in Massachusetts into a kind of recovery center. New handrails were bolted to the walls of the stairwell. I was moved into my sister Lisa’s old room, with the queen-size bed. Someone was always home to check on me and keep an eye on Darius, and everyone took turns bringing me my meals, taking me to therapy, and making sure I took my pills. The surgeons at Mass General told me that I would probably have to live with the burning sensation in my right foot for most of my life as a result of a crushed sciatic nerve, caused when the femoral head of my leg crashed through the acetabular socket of the pelvis — one of the hardest bones in the body to break. And no one knew how well the joint itself would heal or whether the nauseating ache that radiated from the center of my body would subside or grow in time.
The nights were harder than the days. I had to learn how to sleep with pain. Soon I was walking with the help of crutches but functioning only by taking four Percocets and four Tramadols a day. I was thankful for the narcotic haze. Dark thoughts would come and go. Images would shimmer into view, then slide off again. Sometimes I would reach for them, trying to follow them back to where they began: Cyrus in a Buzz Lightyear T-shirt, playing in the sand of the resort beach near Amman, drawing words in Arabic and English; Susan wading toward me, wrapped in a blue sarong. Sometimes I’d try to hold my wife and son in place, stare into the darkened tunnels of their eyes. But more often I let them go, focused on trying to get out of bed on my own, put on my pants, breathe out slowly, take the breath back in, sleep, wake up again. The future became the next step, the next wave of pain, the next attempt to stand and not pass out. I lay in bed with Darius, the cast on his leg rough and hard against my stomach, and read to him, one word at a time, one page at a time, remembering to breathe between sentences, to turn one page and then the next. To think of the past was to suffer; to think of the future was to suffer. How was I going to parent this child? How would I pay the bills? Cook meals? Go to work and come home again? Sometimes I’d listen to him playing board games with my mother in the kitchen: Chutes and Ladders, Sorry, Candyland. “Are you going to be my new mommy?” he’d ask her. And I’d grab a pill, a glass of water, and swallow.
After the accident I wasn’t swimming, but I wasn’t drowning either. Treading water maybe? Holding my breath and going under, coming back up when I had to. Metaphors fall apart. They always do.
A few times every summer, Camp Manitou would have an “island swim” in which campers could breast-stroke, crawl, and dog-paddle the half mile to Birch Island and back again. This was in the early eighties, before fears of litigation halted so many dangerous camp traditions. I often think about how insulated my own son’s life has become in comparison. When I was a kid, we didn’t wear helmets when we rode bikes. We played “touch” football games with bone-crushing fervor. We sledded down suburban hills and stationed lookouts in the road at the bottom to watch for cars. We played street hockey literally in the middle of the street. I think we accepted danger as a natural part of our lives back then. Or perhaps we simply didn’t want to face the reality of danger.
Of course, at Manitou there were attempts to keep the campers safe. Counselors would paddle in canoes and kayaks to protect the swimmers from errant ski and fishing boats, pulling boys out if they looked exhausted. But with as many as fifty boys swimming at the same time in dark, murky water as deep as twenty-seven feet in some places, there was no guarantee of safety. The swimmers’ abilities varied. Not everyone even made it out to the island, never mind the return trip. And pulling an exhausted, weeping fourteen-year-old into a canoe could often result in both man and boy holding on to an overturned boat while waiting for help. “We’ve got three more floaters,” Mel would broadcast on his bullhorn, and the Whaler would lurch out after them, slowly picking its way through the boys, trying not to swamp them with its wake.
Even crazier than the event itself was the fact that so many of us signed up for it. Other than an achievement patch and certificate, there was no reward for having finished the swim.
But most kids aren’t afraid of drowning. They can’t imagine death at all, can’t imagine not being, because for a boy the world does not exist without him in it. The camp itself came into being only when we stepped off the bus in June, and though we had changed over nine months of school — accumulating zits and hair in private places, having our first wet dream and maybe even our first kiss — the camp magically stayed the same.
From the shore, the island, like the moon on a clear night, seems closer than it is, as if you could reach a hand out and touch the egret’s nest tilting in the highest tree. It’s not that far, you tell yourself. I can make it easily. But then you swim two hundred yards, and your arms start to hurt, and your back. You switch strokes and begin to feel it in your abdominals and your neck. Muscles you don’t use on the ball field begin to ache and cramp. And that island just looms out there. You stop believing there is an end to all this water. You pick your head up after three hundred yards, and some asshole guitar instructor says from his kayak, “Come on, Joel. Only, like, a thousand more yards to go.”
I remember sitting on the rocks of the island with my best friend, Neil, staring at the boys spread out all over the lake, some still paddling toward us and some back toward the beaches and the lodge.
“That,” Neil said, laughing, “is a long fucking swim.”
What am I afraid of? Well, there’s swimming. I don’t like heights much, either. I’m terrified of driving at night. And, of course, there’s what might happen. The what ifs. Darius does not ride his bike without his helmet, and then only as far as my eyes can follow from the front steps of our house. And he goes sledding only at the park — with me watching. I’ve gotten remarried, to Rachael, a beautiful, kind woman who tries each day to pull me into the future with her, rubbing the pain out of my legs, encouraging me to write, to live. But when she’s late coming home from a night class, when she gets angry with me and storms out for a walk, I sweat; I gasp for air.
Sometimes I fear the past, the memory of those moments when I felt lost, when I wanted to take all the Percocet in the bottle by the bed and simply float off. I know those times could come again. There is no exemption from trouble for any of us.
But that’s not the greatest fear. Death is not the greatest fear. Neither is loss.
A long fucking swim.
Summary of the drowning process (found in an online article by Joel Sutcliffe):
• Panic and violent struggle to return to surface
• Period of calmness
• Swallowing of fluid, followed by vomiting
• Terminal gasp
• Possible seizures
“I don’t want to get better,” the woman said, gasping, alternating between defiance — her hands clawing the air or squeezing what flesh there was around her bony knees — and a deflated calm. The Compassionate Friends bereavement group met in a small reading room at the back of Saint Mary’s Catholic Church once a month. I was relatively new. It had been only a little over a month since the accident. My sister Tina would help me out of bed, belt me into the car, and drive me out there, then sit with me as we listened to the stories of other parents who had lost children. Tina thought that it would be therapeutic, and in a way it was. The first time it was my turn to speak was the first time I had told the story. It was the first time I’d been able to speak of it at all. But in this moment, even as I drifted in and out of the fog of narcotics, this frantic woman’s words reached me, stung me awake.
“Why do I have to get better? For who?” she said. “Oh, sure, for the first few months everyone was willing to listen, but then it was like, ‘OK, it’s time to get on with it. Get back to your life.’ What life?”
The other parents in the bereavement group nodded supportively. Some leaned into the words, as if walking into a strong wind. Some settled back into metal chairs, arms crossed, staring up at the ceiling or at the crucifixes on the walls. I remember one man who never said anything, just moved his lips, silently mouthing the prayers and psalms that hung everywhere. A young couple who had lost a baby to cancer grasped each other’s hands as if at any moment they might lose their grip and be pulled out of the room and down the hall into the night. My sister rubbed the back of my neck.
The woman went on talking. As best as I can remember, this is what she said: “My husband used to come here with me, hold my hand.” She pointed to the chair next to her, where she had placed a flowered pocketbook, as if reserving the seat. “But even he is done with it. ‘We have to move on,’ he says. ‘Let go,’ he says. I tell him he’s not living either — he’s just pretending, just going through the motions. He says, ‘You go through the motions long enough, maybe you can start remembering how to live. Maybe it becomes living.’ But it doesn’t work that way. Or maybe it does for other people, but for me there’s no getting past it or through it. It’s everywhere. He’s everywhere. Except he isn’t.”
Her son was eighteen. She woke in the middle of the night to strange sounds from the den — like a cat coughing up a hairball, but they didn’t own a cat. And there was a shuddering sound. She got her husband up, and they crept in. When they found the boy, he was already having convulsions, frothing at the mouth.
“So it’s been ten years,” she said at the meeting. “So what? Every day you wake up, and nothing changes. His room’s still empty. He’s still dead. Family, friends, they act disgusted, like it’s indecent to grieve your own child for too long. After all, he was an addict, right? But everyone’s addicted to something. He was my boy, and people act like there’s a stopwatch or an hourglass, and you only have so much time. They tell you it’s all part of God’s plan. That’s indecent.” She stared hard at the priest who mediated the group. “I’m sorry, but it’s true. And one day becomes another, and each day it’s like you move farther away. It’s like you were walking together with someone on a path, and he’s stopped walking, and you want to go back, but you can’t. You just keep moving away, and it goes on like that until he’s so far back you can’t even see him anymore. Can’t remember his face without looking at a picture. Can’t hear his voice in your head. I should be a grandmother by now. You know what’s indecent? Expecting me to get out of bed, make breakfast, and act like everything is normal. Like I never had a son at all.”
I think about Susan and Cyrus all the time.
Many people who suffer from physical or emotional pain, or both, spend much of their lives wishing to return to “normal,” as if it were this magical place they could get back to with a click of the heels, if only God weren’t so cruel. Many become addicted to pills or doctors or new treatments.
When understood this way, normalcy is almost always destructive. Not only does it delegitimize experiences and people who exist outside the norm, and label much of what we don’t understand as deviant; it sets up a standard profile that no one quite fits. The only useful concept of normal is an individual one. If you can find your normal and live within it, that’s recovery.
There is the physical: Right now my right leg itches from just below the knee to about halfway down the toes. It used to burn, though what sufferers of neuropathy call “burning” is not quite the burn you feel when you place your hand on a hot stove. In my case it felt as if my blood were made of minute shards of glass. In the seven years since the accident, that burning has become a constant itch. When I can’t sleep, when I get tired, when I am weakened by sickness or sadness or stress, I’ll start to claw at it. Of course, you can’t scratch an itch like this. You’d have to scratch the nerve itself. But I scratch anyway until my toes bleed and the phantom pain becomes a real one, something for my wife to worry over, rubbing ointments into the skin, scolding me.
But most days I just deal with it. It’s my normal. My foot itches, and sometimes I recognize it only because the other one doesn’t. The trick is getting over the wish to have the right leg feel like the left — or not to feel it at all. And once I get my mind around the fact that my normal might never change, I can almost deal with the pain.
The emotional normal is harder to write about, because I have no point of reference any longer. It’s hard to remember or even imagine (and isn’t all memory really an act of imagination?) what it was like not to be the way I am.
I sit on the bench against the wall at the YMCA for thirty minutes or more, waiting for a lane to clear, watching the water-aerobics classes move in time with oldies dance remixes: Buddy Holly, the Big Bopper, Martha Reeves, Aretha Franklin. There is a circle of elderly men who laugh at me. “Come on in!” one shouts. I smile and wait. But some days I can’t wait long enough and will have to share a lane, and that means paying attention, concentrating on swimming in a perfectly straight line, trusting that the other swimmer will do so too.
Feeling less alone — in the pool, in my grief — should be a comfort, but it robs you of something. We are possessive even of our pain. We become it, and even the suggestion that it could be shared is frightening. We want to be alone with it, to caress it and learn to love it like a child, saying, This is mine and mine only.
But there are other people in the pool.
At some point as I swim, the ache in my back and in my shoulders gives way to something else: a churning rhythm that is both mine and the pool’s. The muscles go fluid, my jaw relaxes, and I am in it, not fighting it. My mind does not go blank. There is still the pain. The images. The burning. But they are a part of something larger now. And if there are others in the water with me, they are a part of it too. Their aching joints and mine, all our breaks and repairs blending into strokes, running like fingertips along my back and stomach as my hands slice out in front of me, leaving contrails of bubbles. I breathe without thought or labor. Thirty laps go by.
In the dream I am swimming toward the island. It is night, and the stars are reflected in the water. I am not afraid. Each stroke is smooth and practiced, and I move as if I was born to do it, as if I were flying. I am not cold, though a thin mist rises. The cry of a loon does not begin or end but always is and echoes everywhere. And somewhere out in front of me I know he’s there, a pale and glistening body bobbing in the distance. I cannot tell if he can see me. He does not wave or call. I cannot reach him. I will not hold his hand. I am not meant to. I know this, and somehow I also know that I will never reach the island but will cross an endless chain of lakes, drawn after him and out from him like a shaft of light toward the looming moon. I take in all the air my lungs will hold, turn my face down into darkness, breathe out. And I swim.
“Swimming,” by Joel Peckham, is one of the finest memoirs I’ve read in the more than twenty-five years I’ve been subscribing to The Sun. The rigor of Peckham’s writing — its economy, specificity, and restraint — allowed me to share in an experience that is, by nature, private and solitary. This paradox is, perhaps, Peckham’s real subject.
“Feeling less alone — in the pool, in my grief — should be a comfort,” he writes, “but it robs you of something. We are possessive even of our pain. We become it, and even the suggestion that it could be shared is frightening. We want to be alone with it, to caress it, saying, This is mine and mine only.
“But there are other people in the pool.”
I also enjoyed Sy Safransky’s Notebook in February. Apparently he and I were born within a month of each other in 1945, and I had a similar experience at my last doctor visit. I used to be six foot seven, and they told me I’d settled to six foot five and a half. Somehow that measly inch and a half cuts to the core of my identity.
I thank Safransky and Peckham and the scores of other writers in The Sun who remind me once a month that there are other people in the pool.
I was profoundly moved by Joel Peckham’s memoir “Swimming” [February 2013]. By sharing his terror of the water, he invites us into his phobia and helps us comprehend rather than judge it. His description of the accident that took the lives of his first wife and son Cyrus brought me to tears.
As a psychotherapist, I have sat with parents who have lost children, siblings who have lost brothers, wives who have lost husbands, daughters who have lost fathers. Peckham reminded me that we each live with the death of a family member in our own way. There is no normal, except perhaps that grief may change form as we swim through it.
I just finished Joel Peckham’s “Swimming” and am trying to come up for air. I have two young children and am occasionally rendered immobile by the thought of them being ripped from me. And yet I still cruise along at seventy miles per hour with them in the car. I still let them recklessly ride their scooters down a steep hill and swim and surf and paddle boats and jump from the dock into that chilly, salty heaven. That Peckham so totally embraces what renders him immobile — swimming and living his life after tragedy — is a testament to the durability of the human spirit.