It is the Red-White-and-Blue summer of 1976. I am five years old. My parents are—I believe—off somewhere sorting out the details of their looming divorce, while my grandmother, Polly, takes me and my brothers swimming at a lake somewhere in either North or East Texas.
I am five, so the details are unclear. What is clear is that I love the sunshine and my bikini and getting to play in the water while my grandma watches me. It is also clear that my three older brothers are very happy because their friend, Eddie, got to come swimming too.
In this place where we swim, there is a wall to separate the deep water of the lake from the shallow, less wavy swimming area, which isn’t deep at all. It doesn’t even cover my head. I’m tall for my age. I’m a big girl.
At first we all play in the shallow swimming area, until the boys—as boys do—venture beyond the wall. There is no containing them.
“I can’t swim,” my grandma shouts. “So don’t go far. I won’t be able to save you.”
The boys promise they will be careful, so she walks through the waist-deep water to the wall where she perches to be close. Just in case.
I push through the water and follow her to the wall and climb up. We sit side-by-side and look over our shoulders at the four boys “playing rough” in the water.
My memories are laughter and sunshine and of feeling big up on the wall. Freedom fills the air. It is hot, and we are happy. Even though the boys are there hollering and splashing, I have my grandma all to myself.
My grandma’s hand in mine, I shakily stand up on the wall. We hold hands, and I look down at the shallow side of the wall. I want to jump off , to feel that moment of flying and land on the soft sand in the Texas lake. I ask if it’s okay.
“Yes, you can do that,” she tells me. “Just don’t jump on the other side of the wall. The water’s deep there, and I can’t swim. I won’t be able to save you.”
I jump into the shallow side. The sandy bottom of the swimming area squishes between my toes and catches me. I am thrilled. I laugh and splash and hear the familiar play of my brothers in the distance. My grandma holds my hand and pulls me back on the wall.
The game is established.
I am delirious from the joy of summer and laughter and water and boys hollering nearby, and the attention of my grandma. The whole world is water and sunshine and laughter. The whole world is a hand to hold, a wall to climb, and water to jump into.
Nothing else exists but this game: Up. Fly. Splash. Land. Laugh.
Every time I reach out of the water for the hand, it is there so I grab it. Up. Fly. Splash. Land. Laugh.
And somewhere in the dance of it all, I took a wrong turn.
I reach. I turn. I fly. I splash. But this time there is no landing. There is no sand to catch me. Only deep bottomless water.
I kick, but there’s nothing beneath me but more water.
The sand. What happened sand? It’s supposed to catch me, that sand.
I panic. I thrash. I grab. I fight like I’ve never fought. But the sand isn’t there. I don’t know that this is called drowning. I just fight.
There is nothing but water to hit or grasp onto. Even the warm sunshine has abandoned me. A hand doesn’t reach for me now.
I fight the water like it’s a beast trying to devour me. I fight the darkness. I fight the pain of my lungs. A small scream escapes, and the water sounds hollow yet loud. More pain. I want to cry. Why can’t I cry?
In the fight, I hear my scream and feel my thrashing. In the fight, I hear a voice.
I am five. I know what that means. I am still.
The moment I am still, the only things in the world is the light I notice now coming through the water and the feeling of “Do not breathe.”
The light coming through the water shimmers and dances above me. The light coming down is beautiful. It is my best friend in the world.
How I want to breathe. The water presses on me. My lungs feel like they’re shrinking, crushed. Air bubbles run out and up, and I hurt. But I don’t want cry any more.
I am still and staring at the light.
How pretty it is. (It still defines Beauty for me.) I can feel an inhale coming on, and I know I shouldn’t. But I don’t know how to stop it. The water weighs on me too heavily. I am out of breath.
My eyes hold onto the light because it is the only thing holding onto me. The light is the hand reaching for me now.
I float as still as I can be in the stream of light. If I breathe, it’ll be over.
If I fight, I won’t last.
I can’t breathe. I hold tight onto the light. I can’t breathe. I am still. But there is no more breath.
Then I see a hand. I see an arm scoop around me. I feel a force pulling me back. And it goes dark.
I don’t remember being pulled out of the water. I don’t remember being put back on the wall beside my grandma. I do remember coughing and breathing great breaths and coughing more.
I remember the gathering of frightened boys around me. I remember my grandma’s arm around me while the world became the world again. Her hand pushed my hair out of my face.
I remember her holding me tightly, and the loud chattering of boys. “Eddie saved you! He saved you!” They spoke other words I don’t recall. I remember Eddie beside me, smiling.
Then gradually their ranting faded. They drifted away. But not too far.
For a while they played a more gentle kind of playing, and I watched from the wall while nestled in the crook of my grandma’s arm.
“Don’t tell your mother about this.” She told me. “She doesn’t need to know.” She probably told the boys that, too, because I don’t remember ever talking about it again. I nodded to her and watched my brothers and Eddie play in the shallow swimming area.
So many times, my mind has returned to that moment under the water when I heard that voice.
Countless times, I’ve thought of the voice that saved me. The voice was a woman’s voice. It was calm and caring and firm. It did not shout. It was clear and direct and full of love.
The voice comes back to me when I need it, when I’m thrashing from the pain of dying relationships or when I’ve reached yet another dead-end in this life.
“Be still,” I tell myself when I can feel myself fighting too hard against my own insecurities and self-doubts, wondering how I’ll fail yet again. But it’s not always so easy to stop the fighting when there’s still the luxury of air to breathe.
That voice. Those words. The way the light looked through the water when the breath was at its end. The sight of the arm coming around me and pulling me to freedom.
So many times, that memory is the reminder of everything that is important. It reminds me that sometimes the only way to win the fight is to stop fighting. To be still and to focus on the beauty of the light. And, when you can, to breathe.