Waterhead

My mother stood in the pool. I held tightly to the edge with one hand and reached out to her with the other. I knew she was shortening her reach each time, which frightened, angered, and exhilarated me. But she never failed to grasp my hand and pull strongly when needed, so I sailed across the gap. I was weightless then, except for my head. She put me on her hip or let me hold to her back, little mammal warm against its mother. I do not remember her as older or younger. She simply was, and proud of me for diving off the edge when she thought I would just jump in feet-first. Later she pushed ice cream across the table to my joy.

There were dangers, of course, when her attention turned. The kid who showed me the knob of his foot from the lawn-mower accident. The big kid who dunked and half-drowned me. The locker rooms with rough-slimy floors, wire baskets with metal tags, and old naked men like presidents or dons. It was the dawn of responsibility, caution for the sake of my own silly self.

Swimming came too easily, maybe. I could crawl the width of the pool brief years after I first crawled across the floor. He’s going to be better than okay, she must have thought. Then, one day, the calf cramp left me bawling like a baby, and the amused instructor said just walk it off, you’re okay. But it hurt for days, and I petulantly refused to go back. I had learned a different lesson. She was angry, and I forgot how to swim except for the dog-paddle, safest of strokes. The water was always contrary, always itself—warm as blood in the soft air of Memorial Day, frigid when the July sun beat down.

The park itself was dry land, trees and gazebos and clay courts, but liminal: the pool a well to fall down. From the concrete apron, under the overhang by the snack bar, I saw blue water and blue sky. The fun and excitement were in there, but I had grown choosy.

There was water all around. The two great rivers that joined at Fort Defiance were too much. Limestone streams smelled healthy, and I liked water striders that glided across their pools. Crappie ponds and strip pits were all surface, and who knew.

I had seen the ocean only once before I headed off to military dive school. In that resort town we learned unpleasant lessons: over and unders, waterboarding, squalls in the Gulf. Instructors spoke of real men who passed out underwater before they ever gave up for a silly breath, and besides with boathook and skill they were brought back. The only thing to fear was an angle descent down Thomas Drive if you rang the bell to drop out. The great secret was that it is calmer underwater anyway, and your troubles only in your head.

All my life I have felt froggy so jumped. Zodiaced up jungle rivers in Panama; kayaked the intracoastal south of Dumfoundling Bay; boated and walked the banks of the Sugar, Illinois, and Embarras; pondered the bayous and poisoned Gulf. Now, I am back with the old father of the continent, who is always headed south, at the Gateway to the West.

Life is like a pool, I have thought Gumpishly. (His another story of being in Vietnam then going to sea.) By the time our teachers leave we are self-sufficient, and there is always the edge to go to.

But the edge is illusion. Life is the sea, and those we loved, boats quietly gone down. We are the boats now, moored for our children and tied to each other in flotillas. We light the lamps and serve the fish, until that day we are no longer needed and head off, puttering, wallowing, ruddering this way and that, relieved there is nowhere to be, really, as it is water to the horizon, and down the table the wrecks of ancestors waiting.

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