Generations Up and Under: On Water, Fatherhood, and the Perils of Both
“The nurse sucked the last of his water world out of him. And then the cry, a goodbye to that wet planet.”
My father, a fortune teller, used to say I should never live by a body of water. I belonged on dry land. “Do not buy a house on a lake,” he said when my ex-wife and I were looking for our first home in upstate New York. “Stay away from rivers,” he said, “because rivers are snakes and snakes are forked-tongued demons.” In water there were dangers that would pull me under. What these dangers were my father would never say.
Instead, he predicted my future existed at the foot of some mountain, in the thick of some woods. “This is what I see, son,” he said. “Trust your father.”
Before my son emerged into air, he lived in a world of water. At ultrasounds, he never remained still long enough to get a steady heartbeat. “He’s swimming,” the medical technician said. “He likes to move.”
This world, I imagine, was warm and cozy. Like the cocoon of a blanket. Everything was in that water, all the nutrients he needed with just enough space to grow.
And grow. And grow.
A giant filling a pool.
Until the violent eviction of childbirth. Suddenly, he arrived into a world of air. What it must have felt like to lose the only planet you’ve known—this planet of liquidity, this planet of one. How shocking it must have felt to be enveloped in oxygen, the sting of it on wet new skin. How alarming to those new ears to hear sound without the filter of water. What once was murmur was now voice. What was a distant echo was now sweet song.
The nurse sucked the last of his water world out of him. And then the cry, a goodbye to that wet planet.
At Centennial Pool, during a Chicago summer, my father enrolled me in swimming lessons—ten-weeks long, three days a week. Oak Lawn Community High students taught the lessons, a summer job to soak in rays and blow a whistle. They were terrible. But what would you expect? Teenagers trying to organize and wrangle screaming six-year-olds in a pool. Boy teachers making eyes at Girl teachers who pretended Boy teachers didn’t exist, driving Boy teachers’ libidos mad.
Chaos governed that pool. Chaos and hormones.
I was shy. I was not a screaming six-year-old. I could not look anyone in the eye. Though I was a hefty boy, I tried to make myself unseen. If I was seen I was called Fatty or Jumbo. I tried to become the water in the pool. I tried to blend in with the ripples made by the sun.
Water terrified me, though. I would not leave the safety of the pool wall. My fingers whitened around the concrete ledge. Because of my reluctance to let go, I had a Boy assigned specifically to me. I don’t remember Boy’s name or what Boy looked like, only the wispy image of blonde hair, the color of green trunks, freckles that dotted his face and shoulders. What I do remember was Boy’s impatience with me.
“Get off the wall.”
I shook my head.
“Don’t be a wuss.”
I shook my head.
Boy pulled at my hand. With the other one, I grabbed the rungs of the pool ladder. He yanked. I stayed on for as long as I could but I was six and he was maybe sixteen and stronger and eventually my grip slipped. I was moving into the pool, body in paralysis.
“I got you,” Boy said. “Chill a little.”
I tried to chill, but I didn’t know what chill meant. I was on my back, a rigid log in a lake of chlorine. The sun stung my eyes, but I was too terrified to close them.
“You’re a floater,” Boy said in that cool way teenagers say things. “Not bad.”
I was. The water bolstered me up, my round belly breaking the surface, my toes pointing above me. I hadn’t realized how far I had gone. When you look only at the clouds you sometimes forget movement and time. Above, the world seemed still. Birds sometimes darted into vision and then quickly out. Nothing else stirred. My ears were submerged. I heard the hush of commotion.
Boy said, “Stand up.” His hands were around my waist. “I got you.”
I righted myself, my toes grazing the smooth bottom of the pool.
“You did good,” Boy said.
I looked at the sky. I wanted to keep floating on my back, wanted to gaze at the bellies of birds and the shifting shapes of clouds and the star-shaped glare of the sun. Floating was an embrace, was the shedding of the physical body, the weight of it. Floating stripped away identity, especially if you closed your eyes and allowed the water to do what water does, which is make you one, make you part of the world in a way you’ve never experienced, a world where you simply exist. This line of hippy-dippy logic would drive me nuts in any other situation, but it is the only way to capture the sense of freedom I feel when floating. The sense that I could find home—my face to the sky—in this wet world.
We traverse the universe in search of planets with water, hoping out there, in the starry vastness, is a place like ours, with people like us.
My father told me this story over and over during my childhood. I loved his voice, his animated hands, the way his eyes floated away from me, as if he were looking at a dream.
My nose filled with water. Then the sharp sting down the throat. I did what I wasn’t supposed to do. I opened my mouth. I screamed. Then the flood of a cave. My chest and head and ears hurt. My ears rang, high-pitched sonar. I thought I was going to die, or I was dying. And it was my mother—your grandmother—who had killed me. My mother—your grandmother—who threw me into the river to teach me how to swim. Maybe this was what she wanted. One less mouth to feed. One less child to care for. We were poor. Sometimes a country—even Thailand—forgets people like us. And it is a different type of drowning. But in that water I bobbled up and down, the river angry with surge. I saw my mother fading away. I saw her turn her back. Saw her walking in the opposite direction. Her hair glowed white from the sun. Under again. Up again. Water blurred my vision. Water and dirt and soot. Water flowed out of my mouth and nose. Water tasting of sour earth. Water splattered out in a series of coughs. And then the bite. Sharp. On my calf. And another. Piranhas. These bites saved my life. Because now my legs kicked viciously. Because now my arms worked harder for the shore. And then I was out. A small chunk of my calf missing, like the indentation of a finger. When you were small you liked to touch it, remember? You liked it when I told you this story. You like the ending, which was this: There she was, my mother—your grandmother—waiting with a raggedy towel.
“You are alive,” she said, “and stronger.”
Perhaps, in my father’s foresight, what he sees in my future is this moment of being flung into a river. What he clings to is not so much the dangers of water, but rather, water as betrayal.
The fading image of his mother’s back.
The river carrying him further and further away.
The sense that he had been forsaken.
This was not supposed to be about my father.
Bob Hicok’s poem, “In Michael Robin’s Class Minus One,” has haunted me since I read it ten years ago. In the poem, Michael Robins imagines the Chicago River sitting in his class, in the chair of a boy who had drowned in the river. Robins asks the river why it had taken the boy. “I didn’t know a boy had been added to me, the river said . . . I have so many boys in me.” Later in the poem, the river asks, “Did this boy dream of horses? Because I suddenly dream of horses, I suddenly dream.” The poem moves like a river, the overlapping of words and phrases, the way metaphor dives deep and emerges again and again. At the end of the poem, “the river promises to never surrender the boy’s shape to the ocean.”
I can’t intellectualize Hicok’s poem. This poem does not occupy the critical part of my brain. It exists in my fears, my sadness, my constant wonder of why tragedy finds the helpless.
I read this poem now and think of my son.
My son is not yet a year.
My son is helpless.
Sometimes when I looked for my father during swim lessons, he would not waver in his gaze, would not blink, as if he possessed the power in his eyes to will me to the surface.
I have imagined my death often, but none ever involved drowning. None ever involved water. Now that I have a son, I think about drowning all the time. I think about losing him to some river, lake, pond or pool. And this thought shivers my back and tightens my mouth. This thought makes my fingers lose sensation.
When my son becomes older, I want to say, Do not live on a lake because the lake will take you. Do not live on a river because the river will float you away. Do not live on an ocean because the depths of an ocean are too great to imagine.
Stay with me, son.
I won’t let you go.
Trust me. I am your father.
Once while snorkeling in Hawaii, I was caught in an ocean current. I followed a pretty yellow fish, feeling it would lead me to some sort of heaven. Something this beautiful must come from a place just as pristine. Instead, the water was carrying me away, pulling me into its belly. When the yellow fish darted elsewhere, my trance was broken. I took my head out of the water. A wave crashed over me, pushing me under, filling my mouth with salt. When I popped up for air, another wave sent me into a spiral of bubbled chaos. Then the still. I was far beyond the break. I gathered myself and noticed, finally, that the people on the beach were black dots. The shore, those dots, seemed an infinite distance. I didn’t know if I could swim back. No. I was sure I couldn’t. Panic atrophied my muscles, stunted my breath. I was going to die in this paradise.
A faraway dot waved. The dot moved up and down the shore, hand extended. I kept that dot in focus. I willed my arms and legs to move, and they did, slow and steady. With each heavy stroke, the dot took form. The dot had a head and body and legs. The dot was a person. The dot was my mother in a wide-brimmed hat and oversized sunglasses, my mother who wanted to come to Hawaii after she retired from thirty-six years of nursing, my mother who was waiting for me. I kept swimming. I kept her in sight.
And then, and then . . .
. . . I was on shore.
I collapsed unto my knees. I coughed out the sea.
I was alive and in the shadow of a mother who draped a towel over my shoulders thanking Buddha for my return, thanking the ocean for bringing me back to her.
My father died last year. My last conversation with him was hard to understand over a bad phone connection and his weakened voice. His lungs were filling with water, his coughs wet. I heard the whistle of his breath. I told him I would be there in a month. I told him to get better so he could meet his grandson for the first time. “He’s taking swimming lessons,” I said. “Like I did. Do you remember?”
“Yes,” he said, “yes.”
“I go in with him.”
“Good, good,” he says. “Don’t let him go under.”
I’ve had other near-death experiences in water.
Despite this, I return.
I do not want my son to fear water. Water in Florida is everywhere. We live in a state of oceans and rivers and pools. So at seven-months-old I enroll him in swimming lessons.
These lessons are as much for me as they are for him. Parent and baby enter the pool together and the instructor teaches us what to do. My son loves bath time, loves the toys that squirt, loves to splash and kick. His love for water comes in high-pitched glee and wide toothless grins that always melt me. Now, in my arms, he does not know what to make of this water that smells different.
The swimming instructor is pleasant. My boy likes her, as much as he can like a stranger. She coos at him. She says his name in a singsong way. To the parents, she says safety is the foremost concern. She’s thorough in her directions. She’s patient with my ineptitude.
“It’s time to do a dolphin,” she says.
The dolphin: pushing the baby under the surface of the water for only a couple of seconds. “Hold either side of his arms,” she says, “like you are riding a bike. And then take a deep breath so that your baby imitates you and takes a deep breath, too. Then pull him under, making sure his head tilts down and not up.” She tells parents to count to three and go slowly.
What is there to fear? I will have him. I will not let go. He won’t be harmed.
One . . .
My boy smiles at me.
Two . . .
He looks at the other babies.
Three . . .
Deep breath and . . .
Down my son goes. He is made wavy by water, his little body ripples, tufts of his hair waver like thin sprouts of seagrass. I pull him up.
What is there to fear?
Water runs from his brow and nose and eyes and mouth. He takes quick, sharp breaths, through a slightly opened mouth.
What is there to fear?
His eyes are aimed at me. They are eyes of hurt. Eyes of accusation. Eyes of the betrayed.
In them, I am the mother who threw her son into the river to teach him how to swim; I am the river that rushes, that pulls under, that possesses; I am the father who will fear the loss of love from his son, the loss of his son. His eyes tell me this. His eyes tell me of the hurt I have caused and will continue to cause, this moment but the first. But worst of all, his eyes tell me, eventually, I will have to let go.
“It’s probably more terrible for you than it is for him,” the instructor says, my son erupting into screaming cries.
Because I carry those eyes with me. For days and weeks and months. Those eyes are a type of drowning.