~ Guest Writer, Sarah Sturgis ~
Long before I was born my mom was swimming in La Jolla.
She was so confident in those waves. She ignored the red flag, even though experienced swimmers kept heading for the shore, knowing the riptides were violent. At one point, underwater, she didn’t know which way was sky, which way was sand. A lifeguard had to go in for her. I was a kid when she recounted all this. She told me she saw her life flash before her eyes.
“Which parts?” I asked.
“It wasn’t like that,” she said, “they were just images. Like fast forward, with no pause.”
My mom grew up in a stiff, proper household, so my being allowed to swim naked on vacation had something to do with her trying to counter all of the etiquette. But, as a toddler, I didn’t know that. What I knew was being naked felt good, I had found a fun thing to do, and I wanted to do it one thousand times in a row.
It had been happening like this: I would jump into the deep end, be underwater for a second – two, maybe – and my mom, treading water, would scoop me up by the armpits and push me toward the ladder. I’d glide until I reached it and then I’d climb up the two rungs and my small pudgy feet would slap onto the wet deck again. Out of breath but it didn’t matter. It was so fun. Again. Again. Again.
She must have climbed out of the pool with me, at some point, for a break maybe.
She was on a lounge chair, talking to a neighbor she had befriended, and I didn’t want to wait. I readied myself at my usual spot, at the far end of the pool, and I jumped in.
I sank lower than I had after all of those previous jumps, and for longer. I opened my eyes and it was all turquoise, and I felt how wrong it was, this time. Then I saw my mom dive right in front of me. She pulled us out.
When we were home in Claremont the next week, my grammy asked me if I had a nice time in San Clemente, and I told her, “Yes, but I drowned.”
I don’t remember this conversation, but I’ll bet my grammy raised a white eyebrow at my mom who I’ll bet ignored her, instead using the rearview mirror to catch my gaze from the carseat.
Later, it was just my mom and me again, and I do remember her explaining to me, “Sarah, sweetie, you didn’t drown. If you drowned, you wouldn’t be here.”
What she didn’t say is: if you drowned, you were dead.
The year my mom died I made a private declaration that I would be done grieving in three years. This seemed like an appropriate amount of time to me. I’d be 24, I’d put the finishing touches on my grief, and then I’d close that sad chapter. Then I could start getting serious about my art, or my career, or grad school, or travel, or fame.
The year after my mom died my siblings and I congregated on the date. We didn’t know what to call it – “anniversary” sounded too cheery. Even though Britt and I were the only ones with IDs, Matt and Michael got into the art bar too, because my dad’s band was playing that night. My last memory before I blacked out is crying over a pipe I dropped and shattered on the sidewalk outside. The weed had mixed in with the pink and blue glass.
Two years after my mom died my siblings and I congregated. We went for lunch with my dad at Espiau’s – a favorite Mexican restaurant. During the hour and a half we were there, we saw two families we knew. Hi, How are you, Wow you guys are so grown up. The five of us were all so high, that none of us acknowledged why we were there at all.
I’d like to be remembered. I fear losing memories of my mother, and I fear I will be forgotten. I’d like for part of me to keep going. If I have children, I’ll make sure I tell them: don’t make me a saint when I die. Remember me as a woman who failed, and who struggled with how to maintain her momentum after failing. Remember me as someone who took much convincing to believe the love she gave was enough, or that she was. Remember my smile, the way I appreciated you, and how much I loved you, because all of that was true and it will continue to be true after I’m gone. And I am not worthy of idolization. If anything, if to draw on me as an inspiration, remember me as a woman who kept on trying.
“I’m telling you what to do here,” I will say to whatever family survives me. “But I promise this will be the realistic way.”
But I’ll be sure to warn them about the absence; how the vacancy of me – of anyone they love – will feel like cold wind, and how they will wish they had never been warm at all, because of the extremes.
When I was in elementary school I found out my mom had been a lifeguard. Every summer as a teenager: red Speedo, white tower, the smell of chlorine in her hair, and on her pillow.
“Did anyone ever die?” I asked her, hoping for some drama.
“No,” she said, “no one ever died.”
“Did you ever save somebody’s life?”
“There were a few times I helped some people who needed help.”
Maybe my mom didn’t consider San Clemente to be saving. But in my short life, it was the closest of calls, and if my life does flash, I hope I can refeel that way I felt then. I was weightless for a moment too long, then there was a splash, and I was in the sun again, on the pool deck again, and there were arms around me and I was coughing, trading the water in my lungs for air.
Sarah Sturgis is a writer, abstract artist, and educational therapist living in Los Angeles. She loves writing and reading emotionally complex stories about families, grief, and love. She has recently begun to storytell at BOLDFACED SECRET.
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