Rori Leigh Hoatlin is a third-year graduate student at Georgia College & State University studying creative nonfiction. Rori is a Teaching Fellow at GCSU and a Summer 2013 Teaching Consultant with The Lake Michigan Writing Project in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Her work has previously appeared in Young Scholars in Writing, Prick of the Spindle and is forthcoming in Steel Toe Review.
In the summer of 1997, on the fourth day of family vacation, I almost drowned in Lake Michigan.
Lake Michigan, the second deepest of The Great Lakes, is the most popular to swim in. Set along the western side of the state, Lake Michigan, with breezy north winds and off-white singing sands, is a popular tourist destination, and because of this popularity the number of drowning-related incidents is highest here, averaging around nine per year. Each summer, teenagers jump from the Holland pier and dare death to produce a rip current that will send their frail bodies reeling back into the jetty rocks.
The currents are powerful and a part of me knew this when swimming out, but still I was surprised by the placidity of danger. For a moment, just before the tide shifted, the water swelled around my toes and suctioned downward to the bottom as though the plug had just been pulled. And then the water tugged my body away from the shoreline and out towards the middle of the lake. This didn’t seem immediately life threatening and at first, I trusted my ability to swim. My ten-year-old arms dug deep into the water, but with each stroke I found myself farther from the safety of the shoreline.
I neared the last buoy of the “safe-swim” area and reached my fingertips around the orange and cream colored lifesaver. I hoped it was anchored to the bottom. As I held on, the waves didn’t crash around me, but surged and opened behind me, rolling out like a blue-black parachute. The buoy slipped away from my grasp as I stacked my hands one on top of the other the way I did when I climbed the rope in gym class at school. A rope. I wished I had a rope. I could tie myself up somehow to the buoy, to the sand, then I might be all right. I longed for firm ground, a sturdy place to rest my feet.
My mother stationed under our blue and white umbrella noticed slowly something was wrong. She realized the splash of my small arms signaled a fight, not play. She waded in up to her knees before stopping. The strong water and almost knocked her over. She wanted to reach me, but knew not to risk it. I had to get to her; then I would be saved.
But during this vacation, I started to doubt the nature of salvation. My mother kept secrets from me, and I wondered if a mother could offer her child salvation. Over the waves, my eyes met hers—this was the moment she lost me.
Each summer, my family rented a cottage on the shores of Lake Michigan near Pentwater. Two weeks each year, a blue, aluminum-sided A-frame next to neighboring stone and marble mansions, belonged to us.
Vacation for the Meyers meant mornings on the deck watching the sailboats glide by, lunch at the beach, slices of homemade bread and cherry jam; in the evenings we built a bonfire and played charades, and finally we stood on the shoreline and watched the sunset.
In my memory we did these activities all together, but eight years behind my brothers and five and half years behind my sister, I often found myself alone with my parents, especially my mother. An awareness grew that my family was not the brick pattern along a walkway held together by mortar, each joined together in perfect complementary arrays, but rather we were six imperfect canyons whose fissures deepened and cracked just under the surface of their skin.
As the sun set, while my brothers lit ground spinners and watched them skid along the sand, and my father stoked the remaining embers of the spent fire, and my sister pouted under a birch tree near the stairs leading up to the cottage, I watched my mother, who couldn’t take take her eyes off the majestic work of God before us. “It’s just so beautiful,” she said.
I followed her gaze out toward the orange and purple streaks of light across the deepening blue sky. I was still young enough to believe the sun going down didn’t signal the end; life started again tomorrow. But for her there something spiritual happened in this moment; life wasn’t about the future it was about the moment happening now. This sunset equaled proof of God, his physical manifestation. When my mother prayed for me at night, I understood her words went directly to God. She had special access to him and though I tried to get to him too, he remained out of reach. But I believed in my mother and my mother believed in God, and by belonging to her, I belonged to him.
As the last light of day lingered on her face, I thought she looked beautiful and soft here, no make-up, no hairspray, just smoldering tanned skin, a woman of forty-five wrapped in a lime-green sweatshirt and bare feet digging into the sand.
But there is weakness in losing yourself this way. I only saw it in her once before. Earlier in the spring, I found her in the master bedroom of our home, cradling a blue quilt in her arms. The light in her room, dark; the white pine outside her window obscured it. I’d run into her room that afternoon to tell her that I won a class spelling bee, but her sadness stopped me from speaking; she didn’t notice me.
When I told my sister about the incident, about the blue quilt and my mother folded over it, my sister told me the truth. “The blue blanket was for our other sibling, the one who would have been born before the boys.”
I shouldn’t have been surprised my mother kept this from me. I was just a child. A frail child, skinny little arms and tiny wrists. My birth was difficult. At thirty five, not old, but not young, she had me. Born three weeks early, the cord wrapped around my neck so tight, I had been blue; the doctor thought I was dead. My father once told me of the event, “The doctor kept hitting your back, to smack the life into you.” They wanted a fifth child, but the doctor told my mother her body couldn’t handle it, it had been through too much.
How I acquired all of this information is hard to say. My mother never talked about my birth, so I suppose I gathered information from my father or older sister. The word “miscarriage” wasn’t in my vocabulary, and because I’m youngest, I never saw my mother pregnant. How we came into the world was a mystery I wasn’t interested in solving, so I let it mostly alone.
Though once, I saw my mother change her shirt, and noticed a large scar rippling across her stomach. It folded her skin and looked like a spiralling galaxy circling out from her belly button. I asked about it, but she dismissed my concern. “I was hit with a baseball in the stomach.” I accepted this explanation then, but it must have been a scar from a c-section. From my brothers? From my sister? From me? From the ghost sibling? I didn’t know.
After my sister told me about this sibling, I often found myself curious about it. Though I didn’t know the gender, I decided almost immediately that it had been a girl. In my imagination, she was named Trisha, she had blonde hair and green eyes. I played games with her. The cottage housed the perfect locale for these games. I hid in the walk-in closests of the master bedroom and talked with her they way I wished I could talk to God. I talked to her about our other siblings. I asked her about thinness of my sister. I asked her to bring me closer to my brothers. I told her I was teased in school for being bashful and quiet. I asked her to find out about Dad’s work; he worried about money. I told her to take care of mom. Talking to Trisha felt easier than talking to God. Asking God for help required admission of guilt, required Jesus’ death to wash away my sins. It felt wrong to ask someone to die for me.
On the morning I almost drowned, I finally got up the nerve to ask my mother about the ghost sibling. “Can you tell me about the baby before the boys? Was it a girl?”
My mother bit her lip, looked straight ahead, but she didn’t seem angry. She weighed our relationship. I wasn’t old enough to know, but out of sadness or relief, she said. “The baby wasn’t formed yet. It was in pieces when they delivered it.”
I took this in and thought for a moment. In pieces. Terrifying images flooded my mind. My mother lying on a cold steel table, screaming. The doctor, faceless in green scrubs shadowed by bright white light. The appendages of a doll carried away along a conveyor belt, the torso, the legs, the arms. The heaviness of knowledge sat in my chest. The dark images suffocated my lungs. I felt woozy.
My mother kept this hidden away, but now here it was, no longer a secret, no longer protected by her. Her illumination left me speechless. I wanted to know her, but now I wished I didn’t. My mother and God, in knowing more I knew nothing, and could never get to God or to my mother. With every turn, they got farther away.
At the beach, we read, ate pretzels, put SPF on our cheeks. My mother spun me around in the shallow water near the shore. I was getting taller, the same height as her now. Soon there would be no more spinning me around.
When she tired, she returned to her chair and picked up a book. Before cracking the pages she called out to me, “I don’t think you should go too deep, Leigh. The waves are too high.”
“I’ll be careful!” I shouted over the sound of waves crashing into the sand.
Swimming didn’t scared me. During lessons, I swam the length of the pool while all the other children used floaties to kick around in the shallow end.
I loved jumping off the high dive. I loved the feeling of hitting the water, my feet crushing through the surface, puncturing into its cavity, and I loved the way the water enveloped me so carefully in its clutch.
I practiced my breaststroke and headed for deeper waters.
But now I was in trouble. As the waves crashed me against the buoy, and the grip of my fingers started to give, and the volume of water swallowed made me cough and gasp, my mother was not out here with me. Her words could not save me. The deafening drone of the water interrupted her prayers, and if God couldn’t hear her then he wouldn’t hear me. I was on my own to make it back.
From science class I knew not to fight the current. If you fought, it acted like a conveyor belt bringing you farther and farther out into its depths. You must swim parallel to the shoreline, moving incrementally, if there’s any chance for survival.
This time knowledge would save me.
I stopped paddling and turned my body parallel. Almost immediately, I was scared. Had I given up? Did the water have the opposite effect on me? Was it pulling me away from the shore? But I allowed my muscles to go lax, I allowed the fear to drain. I kicked my feet and found I drifted back to the first sandbar. I stood for a moment and rest. I could save myself without divine intervention. No hands calling the water to rest.
When I returned to the beach, I should have run to my mother, thrown my arms around her neck, cried, and apologized for going too deep.
But instead, I inhaled deeply, hands on my knees, and looked back out over the water. It didn’t look the same. The waves rolled lazily, lapped at the beachfront playfully. I couldn’t help but think I overreacted. The waters should look more tumultuous; the danger should feel more pressing.
My mother handed me a towel and as she did, she squinted at me. Her face distorted in the sunlight. I recognized traces of sorrow sunk into the gentle creases on her forehead. I was saved without her intervention. My mother believed in God and I believed in myself. Because she could not save me, because she couldn’t save any of her children, she prayed for God’s help.
But possession of nature is slippery. My mother couldn’t stop the sun from setting, or the waves from crashing, or me from disappearing from her sight.
I was the setting sun—cooling the surface, fading the summer sky. She watched the last rays over the water to the bitter end, paying no attention to the fireworks and fanfare. She kept steady, kept her eyes on me. I was lovely, but I was sinking in the sky, slipping away, a sign of the end of the day. I reminded her of a world filled with beauty, painstaking strokes on an already full canvas. A scenic view and proof the world around us was forever in constant motion. In nature, something was always dying.