A fifth-grade bully, a blossoming romance, a late-night crash
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It is always someone’s fault. A drowning is rarely blameless. At the very least, there’s a lingering feeling that it could have been prevented. Your friend recommends a good vacation spot in the Bahamas to her neighbors; they go, and the husband drowns. But there were warning signs posted everywhere, your friend explains to you, and you know that she has said the same thing to herself, over and over. . . .
My son Patrick and I were a safe distance from shore. Then we were too far out. I’d been concentrating on breathing calmly through my snorkel and keeping my eyes open behind the mask. The previous day, I’d nearly hyperventilated from the effort of sucking air through a tube. Now we were swept out to sea just as I was starting to relax.
Patrick wanted to head for the safety of some rocks. His face crumpled at the sound of my fake-cheery voice saying no. I was afraid we’d hit our heads, get caught in an undertow. He tried to climb onto me, but I shoved him away. At thirteen, he was too big for me. I’m a weak swimmer at best, barely able to keep myself afloat. I tried to push his slick body toward shore while I kicked my feet, struggling to maintain a reassuring tone. We wore flippers and snorkels, but no life jackets. (Why didn’t we have life jackets?) We made no progress whatsoever. In fact, we were being pulled farther out, and my son was starting to flounder and gasp.
All I could think of were the statistics I’d read and then forgotten. How many drowning deaths a year in Costa Rican waters? How many of them due to tricky currents and tides? The snorkeling gear, the warm water, and the soft, deceptive sky had fooled me into thinking we were exempt. This is how it happens. The idea filled my brain and made my body weak with a kind of apathy. This is how the story goes.
Ten years earlier, I’d spent hours in the moist, warm pool room of the local health club, watching Patrick learn to swim. I sat in a plastic deck chair next to the other mothers and occasional dad, most of us dulled by sleep deprivation. I was pregnant. In the background, the Jacuzzi pulsed and churned like an upset stomach.
I felt the weight of gravity as I sat in my chair, my eyes on my son’s eyes — the only part of him that moved as he searched me out on his slow cruise around the pool, dutifully hauled along by Cindy, the instructor. Patrick’s face, framed by yellow water wings, was tilted toward the ceiling, like a flower toward the sun, but his body was frozen, a wooden object topped with wisps of wet hair.
I willed him to be buoyant and joyful, or at least willing. And he was. He didn’t resist Cindy’s guidance and would even begin his stunned float with a quick, stiff plunge from the second pool step into her arms. He was willing, but never relaxed. His eyes would seek me out and ask silently if all was going as expected.
One day, soon after my second son was born, I was sitting poolside as usual, my baby tucked into his carrier at my feet. I had my hand over my eyes, my elbow on the chair’s armrest, feigning attention but actually, momentarily, asleep. I jerked awake and, instead of finding Patrick or checking on the sleeping baby, looked at the bubbling Jacuzzi. I was convinced that I saw a child drowning. I know I saw dark, buzz-cut hair underwater and a short body, upright, but with feet that apparently had lost their mooring — the little legs churning dreamily, like those of a runner in a slow-motion clip.
I plunged in immediately, thinking: This is what you’re supposed to do, no hesitating. I was wearing new leather sandals. I jumped right in with them on and felt the boy’s slippery body between my bare legs. If he hadn’t been fully submerged before, he was now. If he’d been only playing, dunking himself on purpose, maybe retrieving toys from the bottom, he was now flailing his arms and gulping water. Wallowing in the waist-deep bubbles, I tried to get a grip on him, finally hauling him up by his swim trunks. He sputtered, coughed, and then cried, as befits a victim of a near drowning.
To this day, I don’t know if I saved that little boy from tragedy or brought him perilously close to it. The other grown-ups in the pool room — the boy’s teenage baby sitter, the tired parents, Cindy the swimming instructor — regarded me with quizzical concern. In the days after the incident, I waited for the child’s mother to call and thank me, but she never did.
The only ocean I experienced much growing up was at the Oregon coast, a long day’s drive from my home in Montana. Though I loved how the freezing water surged and crashed, like an active intelligence, I also found it frightening. A high-school friend of mine drowned there. He was two years ahead of me in school. It happened the summer after his graduation. He was filled with the zing of release, ready for the world. Then he drowned. He’d been on a road trip with some friends, just for fun, a postgraduation fling. They could have gone anywhere, but they went to the coast.
I imagine his mother asking about his plans: Were his tires good? Were his friends sensible? Had he had enough sleep? Did he have enough money? Did he know the way, the weather? I’d have asked those questions, laced them with warnings, laid them on like amulets. But would I have thought to warn him about drowning? How can one know everything there is to fear?
Last year, three employees of Yellowstone Park, two boys and a girl, were out walking on a summer night when they stumbled into a scalding thermal pool. There are spots in the park where the ground is nothing more than a thin mineral crust over boiling water. Perhaps they missed the warning signs in the dark. Or maybe they thought it was just another soothing hot spring, one of several they’d probably already discovered that summer, marveling at the lucky circumstances of their employment. A free Jacuzzi: nature’s gift.
Their skin peeled from their bodies as if they were wax dolls thrown on a fire. Amazingly, they were able to pull themselves out. The boys spent months in a hospital burn unit. The girl, though — after being held in a cold creek by rescuers for what must have seemed a long, long time — died an excruciating death.
Before she set off for her summer job, her parents may have thought to warn her about highway accidents, drinking (they weren’t), grizzly bears, and even drowning. Did they think to say, “Watch out for hot pools at night”?
A year or so before that, a college boy and his girlfriend, both athletes, were out for an early-morning run. It was February in Montana, the dullest time of year. He stepped out on a shelf of ice on the edge of a partially frozen river, lost his footing, and fell in. Maybe he slid off the ice, or maybe he broke through it. Maybe he jumped in on a dare. Whether by accident or impulse, out of idiocy or love, he entered the river and was immediately sucked in and funneled under the next shelf of ice. When he didn’t surface, his girlfriend ran up and down the riverbank, searching for him. Then she ran all the way home to call 911 — a delay for which she was later criticized. She should have done . . . what? It wouldn’t have made any difference. Bulldozers, scuba divers, a devastated father, and a shifting group of friends and gawkers could be seen on the banks of the river for days. They never found his body.
They never found my friend’s body, either. His name was Powell. He went by his last name, as high-school boys sometimes do. We acted together in Riders to the Sea, John Millington Synge’s short Irish drama of drowning and grief. My brother, who is no longer alive, was in this play, too. We won first place at the state high-school drama festival.
Powell came to visit us at our family’s ranch the summer of his death. He wore a tattered T-shirt with the inscription Y.P. sucks — a reference to a job he’d held the previous summer at Yellowstone Park (where he didn’t fall into a thermal pool at night). I don’t know what his complaint with the park was, but my dad made him change his shirt, suck being a bad word back then. At this, Powell, who’d been on a traveler’s high, lapsed into a subdued brooding. He was at odds with the adult world; we all were, but for most of us, the alienation was merely obligatory. For Powell, a capacity to be really hurt lurked just below the surface. It had something to do with his family: his mother, his stepdad. He was an odd-looking kid, and when the animation left his crooked face, it appeared bleak. I was never clear on the details of his home life. Maybe if he hadn’t died that summer, the difficulties could have been resolved.
When my dad heard about the drowning, he said he was sorry, as if he were to blame. Then we both felt an acute and awkward embarrassment. I thought I should be aloof, for Powell’s sake, so I responded with restraint, blinking back tears.
Sometimes it’s the would-be rescuer who drowns. This was the case in the summer of 1977, when a friend of my housemate Jane got caught in rough waters off the coast of Taiwan.
It was the day after a typhoon. No one should have been swimming, but Jane’s friends were not worriers; they were beautiful expatriates on motorcycles. They imagined their beauty would protect them. The typhoon had been a lark, the casualties few, and now the streets were littered with broken signs and downed palm branches, like the aftermath of a Mardi Gras parade. We’d spent the storm cooped up in our student hovels listening to Armed Forces Radio, eventually growing bored of the banshee wind and the lashing rain. When it stopped and the sun came out and business resumed, Jane and her friends set off on their motorcycles for a day trip to a small fishing village on the northern coast. The air of the city they left behind was thick with incense, every shop owner and noodle vendor burning offerings to placate the hungry ghosts.
Jane told me the story later, but I can picture how it must have happened: A French woman and her American boyfriend — a tall, handsome basketball player — arrived at the village first, the others having stopped to buy food. He ran into the surf, probably showing off, and was quickly in trouble. The typhoon had churned up the water, and there were all kinds of whirlpool currents, more dangerous than riptides, which one can usually escape by swimming parallel to shore. (There had been no storm on shore that day in Costa Rica, when my son and I swam in water that was similarly spiraling, beyond the first three yards of bathtub bliss. Toward evening, though, a malevolent-looking waterspout was seen twisting out at sea.)
The French woman became hysterical. “He’s drowning, he’s drowning!” she screamed when the others pulled up. Jane was the assertive one of the bunch. She grabbed the only other person out walking on the seashore that morning, a young Chinese man — a medical student on vacation, as it turned out. Jane clutched his shirt and pleaded, “He’s drowning! Our friend’s drowning! Do something!” — as if it took a local expert to perform a rescue.
Maybe this young Chinese man was surprised and flustered suddenly to have such direct contact with a blond-haired, blue-eyed American woman. Foreigners were relatively scarce in Taiwan in the seventies, and travel for Taiwanese was restricted. The Republic of China was a semiclosed police state. The locals were constantly sidling up to any foreigner at a bus stop and wanting to practice English or simply have some kind of cosmopolitan contact. Mastering English was viewed as a possible ticket off the island, and everyone was hungry for the wider world.
“He’s drowning!” Jane cried. “Do something!” The lanky and fit basketball player went under again. “You’ve got to save him!”
I picture the med student as short and slightly pudgy, with glasses. Maybe he carried his lunch in a plastic shopping bag. Maybe he wore socks with sandals. He took a deep breath and sloshed his way into the surf. With the women’s screaming in his ears, he pushed into the water until it took hold of him, buoyed him gently upward, and then pulled him down.
The American struggled in on his own and lay in his circle of friends, gasping and coughing. The Chinese student was nowhere to be seen. He washed up soon enough, dead. The sea grabbed one body and spit the other back. I doubt the two swimmers even saw each other out there in the churning surf.
Was it Jane’s fault the medical student drowned? Was it the fault of the incautious American basketball player? Maybe the Chinese man himself was to blame, for showing poor judgment. (“He made a bad choice” was the language recommended by my son’s middle-school teachers recently, to address a student’s suicide.) Maybe he was overeager to please a foreigner. Was it the fault of the Taiwanese government for minimizing its citizens’ contact with the outside world? Or was it the work of the hungry ghosts, dissatisfied with the few deaths the typhoon had already delivered?
Near the end of Riders to the Sea (our high-school acting success), Bartley — the sixth and last son of the matriarch Maurya — rides to his drowning fate, the fate of all his brothers. Maurya is still mourning Michael, the most recent victim. She begs Bartley to stay at home — because she loves him, and he’s the last son, and she and her two daughters depend on him. But he feels compelled to go. With her wailing in his ears, he sets off for the boat to Galway, where he hopes to do some horse trading. He leaves, “riding on the red mare and the gray pony behind him.”
Reluctantly, Maurya reaches out and gives Bartley her blessing, which he tersely returns as he rides by. Then she sees a dreadful specter: the drowned Michael, dressed in fine clothes, astride the gray pony. Bartley is soon drowned, too, knocked into the water by the gray pony and “washed out where there is a great surf by the white rocks.”
My brother played Bartley in Riders to the Sea. I played one of his sisters, Cathleen. My brother didn’t die by drowning, but he died young and unexpectedly, fifteen years after Powell disappeared into the ocean. In a sense, Powell’s death foreshadowed his. Powell’s part in Riders to the Sea was small but important; he played a nameless fisherman who brought Bartley’s body onstage, draped in a sail.
It is the dead who push and pull and carry us to our deaths. That’s a conviction held by both Irish and Chinese. Nowhere does this belief seem more manifest than in moving water.
© Ellen Wallenstein
My friends and I willfully decided to blame Powell’s mother. In the play, Maurya’s love for her sons hadn’t saved even one of them, but that point was lost on us. Irrationally, cruelly, and out of fear, we blamed Powell’s mother for his death. She had not been loving — at least, not loving enough. Once, she had even locked Powell out of the house. If she hadn’t done that, he wouldn’t have drowned.
At the memorial service, we sang “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” and other songs — the same ones we’d sung with an innocent solemnity on the bus going to drama meets. My brother, a fine guitar player, was asked to play and sing Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Boxer,” but at the last minute he declined. So someone just recited the words:
“When I left my home and my family, / I was no more than a boy / In the company of strangers.”
We all glared at Powell’s mother as she sat there in her fur coat, feeling . . . what?
“ ‘I am leaving, I am leaving.’ / But the fighter still remains.”
Two strangers witnessed Powell’s drowning: a pair of hip Catholic priests who went by their first names, the inverse of Powell’s last-name version of cool. They cut short their vacation to officiate at Powell’s memorial service. One of the priests gave a eulogy in which he described Powell’s last moments, even his last words: “Watch out!” That’s what Powell said, trapped in the cold water, as the two priests reached for him from the rocks.
At the time, I accepted the priest’s conclusion that “Powell was thinking of others, even at the time of his death.” Thirty years later, I wonder what Powell was really thinking. Was he embarrassed for having gotten himself into this predicament? Was he angry? It is odd how, even in states of immediate crisis, we can still feel the deep, slow emotions: apathy, self-consciousness, shame. Maybe he was saying it defensively: Watch out! This could happen to anyone.
I gave Patrick my brother’s middle name, and then I worried about the connection. Maybe I should have named him something else, so death would not be reminded. We take precautions, deliver warnings, burn incense, say prayers. But death isn’t fooled, and death doesn’t care. Those we love will die, no matter what we name them. They’ll die whether we love them well or not. All deaths are connected, because death is constant and capricious. No one’s to blame.
Patrick didn’t drown that day, and neither did I. My husband, still wearing his hat and glasses, frantically paddled out to us on a child-size surfboard our other son fortunately had brought down to the beach. We three clung to the board and, for a seemingly endless stretch, inched our way back.
I should never have let Patrick get that close to death. I thought this over and over in the ensuing weeks. I can’t help thinking it still. I feel a choking guilt that Patrick experienced his own near-drowning. I’m telling these stories in part to lay that feeling to rest. Maybe his close call will keep him far away from dangerous water. I can’t help thinking that, either. But I don’t say it aloud.