I can still see, more sharply focused than it could possibly have been at the time, the image of my four-year-old daughter being tossed into the air above our little boat by a sudden wave and about to drop into the deep, translucent blue waters of the Arabian Sea. It had been, till then, what people like to call a perfect day at the beach, and the beach was the beautiful, fine black sand that rimmed the bay around the little fishing village of Kovalum, on the southwest coast of India, where I was spending a Fulbright year at the University of Kerala with my young family. We went there often, by taxi from the nearby city of Trivandrum where we lived, and almost always had the beach to ourselves aside from the fishermen, whose village lay tucked behind the palm trees in a far corner of the bay and whom we often saw spreading their nets from their dugout canoes. They spoke with us sometimes as they crossed the beach, showing us curiosities like the giant sting ray that had washed up on the sand the night before or selling us, for the equivalent of fifty cents apiece–this was a long, long time ago–the rock lobsters they snagged by accident in their nets and that ended up crawling around our feet on the floor in the back of the taxi on our way home or, yes, offering to take us out in their canoes. I tell you these details to make it clear how normal it was, at least during our year in India, to spend an afternoon in that idyllic setting. Until suddenly it wasn’t.
We talked of this many years later, my still fairly new wife and my quite adult daughter and I, in a setting safely far from any sea, a pleasant, quiet restaurant in St. Paul, Minnesota, though I’m still so rattled by the subject that I can’t recall the exact place, whether it was lunch or dinner, what we ate and drank, or why we were even there on that occasion. The subject, however, I still remember all too well. Something–perhaps a movie we’d seen or something we’d read–triggered a discussion of how we, each of us, would prefer to die. The youngest spoke first. I don’t think we ever got around to Janet and I announcing our own choices.
“Drowning” Annie said. “I’d like to die by drowning.”
If you ever think about your own choice, you might want to consider this. When Annie talks about it, the first word that swims into her mind is “blissful.” She describes a perfectly clear, blue, sunlit, silent . . . “element,” I think you could call it, though she tends to say “world,” through which she drifts slowly and peacefully, hands outstretched as she reaches for the tropical fish gliding slowly around her, dazzled by their colors, their bright oranges and yellows, blues and blacks and pale greens, happy–you can hear that in her voice as she tells it–unafraid, at one with herself and her world.
When I hear her tell about it, however, I am grabbed and pulled down into the oceanic depths of all the anguish she doesn’t feel, my whole body, even now, writing this, in panic mode, my heart accelerating, my eyes filling with tears, my voice . . . choked, as if I’m the one drowning, as if I’m back there again on–and in–the wave-tossed waters of Kovalum bay. Once again I’m dropping my glasses into the bottom of the canoe (as I must have done; though I can’t honestly remember whether or not I’d worn my glasses on that little excursion, I was so dependent on them that I rarely took them off), and diving over the side, entering the water not many seconds behind her. And there she is, six or eight feet below me, drifting lightly along with the slight current, entirely oblivious of her danger, my terror, of anything but this glorious new world she’s suddenly found herself in. We are, of course, quickly back to the surface, and I’m handing her over the gunwale to the fisherman who’s brought us out too far, to where the incoming tide is breaking over the reef at the mouth of the bay, roughing up the water and threatening to drown my little girl.
Like Annie–but not–I’ve never been out of that deep water since.
Every time Janet mentions this when we’re with a group of friends–I, of course, don’t dare to bring it up because I’d be submerged in my emotions before I got through the first mumbled sentence–I’m tempted to get up and leave the room: not because I’m bothered by her bringing it up (you’d think I would be inured to it by now, but no, not, never) but because I’m all too aware that everyone is suddenly looking at the flood of terror that’s washing over my face, and there’s nothing I can do about it, nowhere I can flee from my feelings.
Worse yet, as if to demonstrate–no, to hammer home–the fact that while Annie is blessed to survive with an enduring vision of a peaceful death and I am given this terror to live with forever, this, this visit with the fishes of Kovalum bay, is neither Annie’s first flirtation with drowning nor will it be her last. Just two years previously, while lounging en famille in the beautiful pool at Spindletop, the decaying–some said “cursed”–horse ranch that the University of Kentucky has inherited and turned into a faculty club just outside Lexington, I turn from the edge of the pool we’re all clinging onto to see that Annie has lost her grip on the gutter and begun to drift down below the water. This time, it’s easier: just a matter of reaching down to grab her wrist, pull her up, and lift her onto the pool side. But I should have been forewarned. I am a father, after all; it is my duty, my life, to pay attention.
Because a few years after the Kovalum crisis, we are again on a family trip, this time an extended summer vacation traveling through Mexico: down the west coast, through Mexico City, south to the Yucatan, then back up the east coast, where we finally settle for a few days in Veracruz, and, on a heatstruck August day, go to what is reported to be a “safe’ beach, which is to say that it’s encircled by a chainlink shark fence. Which, obviously, does not keep the tide out. The children, of course, all three of them, head right for the water; their mother, equally predictable, strides away along the crowded beach, looking for chairs, dragging me along on her search. Not for long, though. Chairs found, she flops into one. But I can’t. Standing there, shading my eyes with my hand, I search the beach and the water for the children, but with no luck. I hurry down to the water’s edge, and there they are, I see, already much further out than they should be and, to my eyes–with my glasses definitely on this time–not, as the poem says, waving but drowning. They’re good swimmers for their ages, all of them, but no match for the swiftly ebbing tide, and by the time I reach them they’re too exhausted to make any progress back to the beach against it. The two boys are supporting Annie, one on each side, struggling–but they’re so young! they don’t have the strength–to escort her back to shore, and it’s only when I latch onto them, thankful for my own ebbing years of swim team experience, that we’re able to paddle our way through the current and back to the beach.
Still, I love to live by water, whether it’s at home by the little Boise River or here, where I’m writing this, on the rocky north shore of Lake Superior, into whose icy waters that have claimed so many ships and sailors one rarely dares to dip. I can’t help thinking, though, that just across the lake, on the Wisconsin side’s shallower, sandy-bottomed shore, some fifty miles away as the seagull flies, where the waters are warmer and quieter and my daughter’s in-laws have a cabin, she and her kids might at this very moment be out on their paddle boards, splashing away, heedless of the depths beneath them, happy, carefree, fearless. I shiver at the thought.