Not Waving

[wpaudio url=”/audio/march12/Doyle.mp3″ text=”listen to this essay” dl=”0″]

after Stevie Smith

I almost drowned once, when I was very young, on a calm summer’s day at Birchwood Lake in northern New Jersey, with crowds of people on the beach and in the water.

I was wading out to deeper water. The water was shockingly cold, then cool as I got used to it, the sun was hot, I was walking farther and farther out, the silky mud under my feet clouding the water with each step, when I stepped into a deep hole, and began bobbing up and down, helpless, hoping to attract attention. I never thought of stepping forward onto higher ground. The water was brownish yellow, I could see underwater plants swaying, and silt stirred up, clouding the water, as I jumped up and down, up and down, until my father, who couldn’t swim, dashed out to rescue me, which is odd because my father never came to the beach, but he must have been there that day.

That’s what drowning is like. Saving yourself seems impossible, soon you’re gasping for breath and swallowing water, people are splashing and laughing, no one seems to notice. Of course I probably wasn’t really drowning, but that’s how I remember it still. The surreal sway of the plants underwater, the mounting panic, the odd lightness of being as I bobbed up and down, buoyed by the cool water, feeling the warm sun on the top of my head each time I broke the surface and then sank. The dazzle of light and confusion of sounds above the water, the muffled semi-darkness below.

It happened to me again in my twenties, when my first husband left me, and yet again when I was almost forty, and had lost my way. Something like drowning but different. You could say I stumbled into a dark hole, and didn’t know how to climb out. The water was colder as I got closer to the bottom, and it was harder to see. Soft silt clouded the water as I rose and sank. I could barely hear the children playing on the beach and splashing near shore. Arms extended above my head, I wondered whether anyone would notice that I was not waving but drowning.