by Mary Patrick
“Float. Let the water hold you.” That’s what I told Jacob before we went boating. I grit my teeth. You will not die here. I breathe deep through my nose, exhale through my mouth. A wave slams into me, plunging me into the dark green waters of the bay. Exhausted, I surface coughing and gagging. I will survive.
Swimming saved me many times. Living near the YMCA, I learned to swim at a young age. Whenever stressed, I swam; after Dad hit Mom for selling his watch, when Mom tied my shoelace around her arm, and the day we moved into our car. Swimming is my salvation.
The line of green in the distance promises deliverance. Turning on my back into a backstroke, I lift my right arm, palm facing away from my journey’s goal. My pinkie hits the water first. Cupping my hand, it becomes a paddle that pulls me away from Jacob and Ray onboard Mini Me. My left arm mirrors the same motion, as my instructors taught me, letting me slice through the water. Widening the distance breaks my heart.
The one time we didn’t live near a public pool, I got pregnant with Jacob. At fifteen years old, I refused to listen to those who said I should give him up. Aunt Sue said I was a baby, having a baby. Who did she think raised my sisters? Dad worked long hours and preferred the bar to home. Mom couldn’t even take care of herself, sleeping all the time. I cared for Ann and Lori, making sure they ate and went to school.
I’m a survivor.
Just keep swimming. Just keep swimming, swimming, swimming. Jacob loved the movie ‘Finding Nemo’. I didn’t need my past overwhelming my present. Hang on baby; mommy is coming home. I can’t bear the thought of anyone thinking I’m hurt or worse. Don’t worry about me. I’m floating.
When they found Dad, he was floating, face down. It happened when Jacob turned six months old. I came home finding Mom chasing the dragon after jail-forced sobriety. Usually, she stayed clean for a week. A sour taste hit the back of my throat. “What’s wrong? Where’s Jacob?” Mom ignored me as she followed the smoke with her straw. Crying reached my ears. Dropping everything, I ran to the bedroom. Jacob sat between my sisters; the only one not crying. Anne told me what happened.
Dad loved to drink and fish. The combination killed him. He fell from the train trestle into the creek, breaking his neck. His fishing gear and empty beer cans cluttered the tracks. Without Dad, Mom had no one to slow her drug use. Money for food and rent went up her nose or in her arm. Delinquent notices taped to the apartment door showed up first, and then the eviction notice. I didn’t want to be homeless. Jacob depended on me.
I tread water to see if I’ve made progress. Blue lights from the police boats dance across the back of the white caps. Mini Me is a speck on the water. The fading light creates a golden highway to the distant shoreline backlit by the sinking sun. I move away from my family; my soul’s in agony. No time to cry, the bay’s salty water becomes my tears.
Once, I tried to count the number of places I’d lived. I stopped counting at thirty. The list included Dad’s office, relative’s homes, and foster care. If I wanted a home, a permanent home, I had to figure out for myself how to resolve this desire.
The day the judge gave me custody of my sisters was my happiest and saddest. The three of us clung to each other, weeping. Words couldn’t express the emotions that churned within us. With a few things to pick up at Mom’s, I went alone. Mom sat where she always sat. I’d gathered the boxes and turned to leave.
I hadn’t seen her move to the door. “Ungrateful scum. Turning my babies against me.” She continued hurling insults, calling me every ugly name she knew.
With trash piled high, there wasn’t a flat surface to set the boxes. “Let me put these in the car. I’ll come back if you want to talk.”
“I’m not going to let you leave me here to die. That money of your dads is mine. I had to put up with his beatings.” The bolt to the door clicked into place. She charged me. The boxes flew in all directions. Knocked to the ground, she pinned me down and whipped out a knife. In the short struggle, she managed to cut me. I never saw her again. In less than a year, she died of a drug overdose, alone.
Laughter and sobs burst from my parched throat. The need to vomit chokes me. Grief, exhaustion or both threaten to take me down. Instead of fighting the impulse, I give into the spasms. I take a desperate gulp of air before I sink below the surface.
Green walls close in. Churning water makes it impossible to know up from down. The enormity of my situation challenges my will. Regrets squelched by the loudness of life, find their voice. Accusations of abandoning Mom and the guilt of her dying alone, gain a foothold in my conscious. Self-doubt and loathing threaten to drown me.
Desperate for air, a sudden realization strikes new fear into my being. I can’t abandon Ray, condemning him to live with guilt like mine. He’d blame himself for the accident. I envision Ray relaying the news to my sisters and family. With frantic strokes, I pop back to the surface. Floating on my back, I breathe rapidly to refill my lungs with the marsh air. My heart is thumping in my chest.
The lapping of water is the only sound I hear. The sun has set; its afterglow casts a pinkish tint on the underbellies of the clouds. An osprey grips a struggling fish in its claw. One thing dies, for another to live.
After Mom had died, we struggled through difficult years. Working two jobs and raising Jacob left me exhausted. A friend suggested I turn my hobby of doing makeup into a business. Graduating from Cosmetology school, I began my business. Getting the key to my first home made my inner child dance with delight. A promise fulfilled.
In the west, the sky is a shade lighter than the east. The night is about to claim the day. Stars shine their light on me. Will the moon keep me company? The day had started so well, relaxing with Ray. A fun bay day, anchored in a sheltered cove. Unaware of the stiff wind, we didn’t know the waves had grown to two feet. The weather service issued a small craft advisory.
Sitting in Mini Me’s bow, I directed Ray around bobbing crab pots that can ruin a boater’s day. In an instant, a wave came up and over the nose. I sailed through the air and landed with a hard smack, which knocked the air out of my lungs. The rough water dragged me under the surface. Each time I resurfaced, another wave pushed me down. After the third time, my drowning prevention training took over my floundering thoughts. I used my oversized shirt to trap air, enough to keep my head above water.
Disoriented, I search for the boat. To my surprise, the distance was greater than I’d imagine. Ray turned the boat in small slow circles. Jacob held his hand over his eyes, shading them from the setting sun. A cold shudder runs down my spine despite the warm water. I waved my arms. Soon, we’d be laughing at my expense. A story for us to reminisce about in the days to come. I twirled the engagement ring with my thumb, waiting for him to throw out a line.
When the boat didn’t move toward me, I realized no one saw me. Taking off my shorts, I waved them like a flag. My voice, only a whisper in the wind, didn’t reach their ears. Swimming against the current and into the waves didn’t close the distance, As the day dwindled, I knew I should let the current carry me away. Stubborn, I continued to fight, holding out for hope. The lights from the police skiffs and the sight of the helicopter kept me from leaving.
The sounds around me change. I lift my head from the watery pillow. My toes touch something soft, mud. I roll over to see trees stretching along the shoreline. The only witnesses to my triumphed return to land. I will come home to my family.
I’m a survivor.