Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
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At the beginning of the season, the community-center pool was a waving mass of brightly colored flotation devices. Now it is full of splashing bodies plunging through the gleaming water. A six-year-old who wouldn’t get her face wet in June is trying out her freestyle, and all are diving for weighted toys — pink and yellow and blue shadows just visible beneath three feet of water. My daughter turns a bizarre frog face to me, her upper lip dragged out of shape by the nosepiece of her goggles. I am sitting in my damp swimsuit on the edge of the pool, throwing a plastic shark for her to retrieve over and over again. Her older brother is over in the deep end. The other mothers and I flinch from the splashes as we talk about work, school, and car repairs, dangling our feet in the water and trying to have conversations interrupted by calls for attention.
These women and I have known each other since our children were three or four years old. We were at our most frazzled in those preschool years. Now that the kids are school-age, we’re all remembering ourselves again.
The community center is a mile outside of a college town. Tall pines will shade the water by dinnertime. White clouds and a few gray ones drift over, the sun breaking through from time to time. The pool is filled with water from a nearby farmer’s pond, topped off by a hose connected to a well, and minimally treated: I once saw a little water boatman — a beetle with oar-like arms — diving near my thigh underwater. The concrete walkway around the pool is bordered by battered grass and weeds, thinning to mud in patches, shaded by sun-damaged umbrellas and canopies with rusting poles. Faded plastic lawn furniture is piled high with towels and bags and half-eaten lunches and water bottles.
Two older boys spot a dead toad on the bottom of the pool. The lifeguard tries for it with the long-handled net, but he can’t quite reach. A boy has to retrieve it with a gloved hand. He tosses the little body into the net, where it lands with its pale belly up, stiff legs reaching out to the four directions, tiny webbed toes spread wide, having failed to find anything to grasp, to climb, to rest upon and breathe.
We are all briefly sad for the toad. At least, I think we all are. A couple of us may just be revolted by dead wildlife in the water. There is some discussion with the children of toads’ habits, how they crawl into any dark crevice to spend the day, how they can swim but get tired after a while.
Then my son appears out of the pool, water pouring down his skinny brown torso and draining out of his flowered swim trunks. He’s coming toward me with a purpose, holding out his hand to show me a big green insect, apparently drowned — a lacy, delicate creature with antennae and long back legs. A grasshopper? No, say two friends at once; it’s a katydid.
All my life I’ve been saving bugs. It’s been embarrassing, but never enough to stop me. I have waded many yards to deposit a ladybug on a beach. I have cupped my hands around struggling, waterlogged honeybees and tossed them out to dry in the sun. I’ve even hunted for branches to support wasps. And it’s not just bugs. As a child I tended several cat-mangled robins until they died or my dad had to dispatch them. I once nursed a pigeon with an injured wing back to flight, and another time rescued a toad from a grass snake too small to finish swallowing it. I have cured myself of the urge to bring home damaged human beings, however, and I try to curb my rescuing impulse in general these days, sometimes letting nature take its course. But my son has my number, as always.
We admire the insect lying on its side on the warm concrete: delicate, precise, unmoving. Everyone assumes it’s dead, but it’s still as green as a young leaf with the sun behind it. I lean over to get a closer look and notice that its legs are not pulling up in the insect clutch of death. I touch a hind leg, and it still has some give. It might even have pulled back a little. I blow gently on the katydid, and it seems to react — no, it does react, all its moving parts flexing faintly, almost imperceptibly.
I remember how they breathe: the long abdomen, green and hard on top, is gray white and slightly spongy underneath, with holes in deep grooves all along the sides. My son is watching me expectantly. Wondering if I can help the insect breathe, I touch the underbelly — it’s disturbingly soft — and press with a fingertip, very gently, imagining minute organs inside easily bruised. I blow on the katydid again, and it reacts.
“Are you giving CPR to a bug?” jokes a friend next to me, who has been taking an artistic interest in the katydid’s form and color.
I smile but then try blowing again on the abdomen, to dry out the breathing holes. I press again with a fingertip, then blow. Now all its legs are moving, its mouth parts are opening and closing, and its front legs reach out in a weak, reflexive grab. I press and blow a few more times, and the abdomen is flexing, fluttering, moving in and out. It’s breathing. But then the abdomen starts curling up in what looks like pain, and my friend suggests with veiled unease that I’ve just prolonged its agony; it’s too soaked in chlorine to survive.
But I remember the diving beetle in the pool. My patient’s back knees are now positioned high above its body, as they should be, and its smaller front legs grope for a hold. I pick it up cautiously and set it on a yellow plastic sea horse, the only stretcher handy. Then I carry it over to the wire fence and find a clearing in the grass where the children won’t step on it. I lay the katydid down and watch it breathe for a moment. It grips a few blades of grass, then presses its head against a pine cone as if it has a headache. My friend may be right; it may just die more slowly now. I walk back to the pool. After a minute, though, I return and find the insect standing on all six legs, moving slowly forward.
I’ve always said that death is a part of life; it’s suffering that bothers me. So why revive this inscrutable little creature? I saw my grandmother revived a few more times than was kind, and I can’t forget how she said to us, straight and clear out of the depths of her dementia: “Don’t ever let yourself get to this point.” There is no end to suffering, and there is no evolution without death. But this urge to preserve life, whether selfish or altruistic, is why life exists at all. How else have we survived this long? When death walks in, our impulse is to resist, even when death offers peace or feeds life. I’m not sure there’s anything moral about it.
I go and sit on the edge of the pool and become engrossed in a conversation about used cars. When I come back to check on the katydid, it’s gone.
Sara Catterall [“Katydid,” July 2012] is not alone in saving bugs. I, too, will go out of my way to place a beetle on safe ground, rescue an inchworm from the hood of my car, or hold open a door for a moth caught in a building. (I am irrationally afraid of spiders, so my husband is the one to put them in a safe place.) If I can, in any way, mitigate some of the suffering in this world, then I’ll feel my time here has been well spent.
A tiny correction to Sara Catterall’s charming essay “Katydid” [July 2012]: water boatmen are true bugs (order Hemiptera, family Corixidae), not beetles. There are at least three common aquatic beetle families, but I shall refrain from any further entomological pedantry.