Thursday, January 21, 2016

Cream Hill Lake, 1975

I was seven years old, and it was late August. Each summer my family spent July and August in northwest Connecticut, a place dense with foliage and riddled with mosquitoes. I had the bites to prove it. They'd taken over my arms and legs, these fresh swollen pink mounds interspersed with still-healing bites scabbed over, and new skin seeking just the tiniest bit of purchase against my furious scratching.

For weeks I'd watched the tawny, golden-haired older boys race around the clubhouse, their unconcerned footfalls shaking the floors of the rickety wooden building where we got dressed and undressed in narrow, dank stalls, and where above us the non-swimmers played rowdy and hotly contested games of ping-pong.

But I was a swimmer, even though the lake was so cold that it hurt down to the bone each day when I'd finally waded in enough to dunk my head in the water, even though the lake was choked with moss and alarmingly spongy underfoot. Even though. I was a little fish, had been swimming for at least a few years, but the rules at the club were that kids seven and under had to stay, roped in by buoys, in a shallow area shaped like a crescent and far too skinny in the middle. I hated it there. Every now and then my legs, when not brushing against slimy tendrils of lakeweed, would hit a warm patch. I'd sigh, and out of the corner of my eye I'd catch Mrs. Willoughby's youngest boy behind me in the act of peeing underwater, his face turned to the sun and made beatific by release.

As early July became late July, and finally August, I gazed with increasing hostility and envy at the impossibly long-limbed boys and girls who were allowed to swim to first raft, a glorious place sanctified by my fierce desire for it.  A robin's egg blue slide sat at the far end of the raft, and, it being a different era from today's safety-conscious one, there were no restrictions on how a kid might make his way down it. Head first, feet first, on belly or back, it was all fair game. The only rule, if it could be called a rule, was that the bigger the splash the slider made on hitting the water, the worthier the trip.

I don't think I've ever since felt so acutely the pain of being a younger sibling, as my brother was among the happy crowd of first-raft kids good-naturedly jockeying for position in line, so eager to take a ride down the slide kept brilliantly shiny by near constant contact with dripping wet swimsuits. I made a decision that was entirely out of character for me: I was going to swim to first raft, rules be damned. I was not yet an elegant swimmer (that would come later, reinforced by my gymnastics training), but I was strong, stronger than the adults guessed. They were always taken aback by how tiny I was. I'd been born premature, and I hadn't yet caught up to my peers in height or weight (that, too, would come later).

I looked around to make sure the teen lifeguard, his hair white blonde and so long it met his shoulders, wasn't watching. He never was watching. He was busy socializing with the long-haired girls in their halter-top string bikinis, and who could blame him? So I began to swim. Vigorously, steadily, intently. I'd made it three-quarters of the way before I was spotted by my mother. I hesitated, looked back at the shore, and found her hands waving about crazily in the air. Her mouth gaped open, frighteningly wide, but I couldn't hear her words. No matter. She looked mad, and mad. Both senses of mad fit her equally that afternoon. Understand this: My mother was not especially concerned for my well-being. Instead she was furious because my “indiscretion” had interrupted her ongoing flirtation with a genial, balding fellow named John, one of the only eligible men at the club that summer.

My mother’s indignant squawks served to rouse the lifeguard from his blissed-out stupor. In a flash this lanky, sun-kissed teen was in the water and at my side. He lifted me out of the lake and carted me like a football to shallower water. In his clutches I was rigid with fury -- and humiliation, too, as nearly every pair of eyes at the club was now focused on this scene. Never one for scenes, I kept thinking, If you had let me finish what I started, we'd all just be going about our business right now.

I would have made it to first raft. And had I slid gleefully off the slide and back into the familiar dark green stew we called a lake, I would have been able to preserve the truth of my own strength and confidence, a smooth stone in my pocket that I could have caressed at will as I encountered the unforgiving social terrain of the upcoming years.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

This January Afternoon

Walking past my fourteen-year-old's door, I freeze, surprised. He has just laughed while Skyping with a friend. That laugh sounds like no laugh I have ever heard from him. These children of mine, they become closer and closer to strangers. Loving strangers, to be sure, but strangers nonetheless.

As it should be.

I just finished reading a book*, a memoir written by a young neurosurgeon who died, far too young, of lung cancer. I've always been drawn to stories about death and dying, not because I am morbid, but because I imagine that life at its end gets stripped down pretty well to the bone, and when that happens, useful truths emerge.

From the memoir I learned that disaster means "bad star": a truth, a kind of lovely one suggesting that one's fate is determined by something as remote and unknowable as a star. There is comfort in that. Nothing is personal; no one is to blame. David Bowie is mortal, just like the rest of us. Well, why shouldn't he be?

The winter light tells all. I find beauty in how it exposes the fine lines on my face, or the places in the hardwood floor that have gone grey over time. Winter is the most honest season.

I want -- oh, no, not today, not on this January afternoon.

I want for nothing.

*Paul Kalanithi's When Breath Becomes Air