Monday, January 15, 2007

If my life were a novel...

the near drowning on July 4, 1995 would be the central event. It would be the event that illustrated and explained all else. The novel would start with that day.

Fifteen or more adults, responsible people all, eat and talk and laugh while half a dozen children play. Three of those children want nothing other than to play in the pool. One woman, one of the mothers and one of only two woman here who is also an employee at the college that connects them all, sits and talks with a colleague. In the morning she had lived in the role of mother. She had watched all the children in the pool. She had a been a lifeguard in high school, and she knew the importance of it. When she tired, she had asked other parents to take turns. When she noticed that the parent in the pool looked bored, she sent her husband in.

But in the afternoon she relaxed. She fell entirely into the role of colleague, of an adult with no responsibility for children. She talked and laughed and relaxed, and it felt good to do so.

At one moment she looks up and sees the kids in the pool with no adult in with them. There are adults, as there have been all day, standing all around the pool, but none watching the children. Her own child is wearing a life jacket and is safe. A thought passes through her mind, but it is so fleeting later she cannot tell you exactly what it was. Did she think, "My child is safe, and the others are not my responsibility." Perhaps she simply felt relaxed and happy and did not really think at all.

Some time later (half-an-hour? an hour?) the four-year-old is seen on the bottom of the pool. So quietly, with no splash and no struggling, he had taken off his water wings and slid under the surface. His brother calls for help, but can get no breath. His friend, the son of the woman who had noticed they were alone, calls out. One of the adults walks over and says, "The baby's in the water." The woman, the one who noticed they were alone, the mother of the one wearing the life-jacket runs and pulls the boy out of the water. This child is the son of one of her close friends, and little brother to her son's best friend. The child is purple. She breathes for him and begs him to be okay. Thoughts fly through her mind, "How exactly do you give CPR to a child? The 911 operator can tell me. Has someone called them yet?" She yells for someone to call 911, and feels for the child's pulse. His heart is beating. He takes a breath and begins to vomit. He will live.

What the woman doesn't know now, but will later, is that the child has brain damage. He will recover, but he will loose fine motor skills. He will forget a significant amount of vocabulary. He will be frustrated by forks and light switches. He will know that he should know what they are and what they are for, but he will stare at them in confusion. A child who used to sing and hum all the time, he will cross his arms in frustration when his father and brother sing because he cannot remember the words to songs he vaguely remembers loving.

But maybe that comes later in the novel. The novel opens with the party, but once we know the child will live, perhaps we go back in time to the woman's childhood. We learn about the all-too-common problems. We meet a father who should not be a father, who explodes in rages at children being children. We learn that the woman, as a young child, learned to be vigilant. She played with her baby sister, but always part of her mind was watching. She watched her father and her sister. She monitored the mood of one and the noise level of the other. She did everything she could keep things under control. Being four, being a child, it was not possible for her to succeed, and she would see her younger sister beaten. She herself was rarely hit, but she knew the feel of the belt. Mostly though she watched, believing that if she had just watched more carefully she could have kept this from happening.

The novel moves forward and we experience with the girl the relief and peace that the divorce of her parents brings. We see her mother as a good, but flawed character. Hard working and lonely herself, with a seven-year-old so willing to play the mommy role, she too often allows her older daughter to be the emotional caretaker of her younger. It is helpful and it is sweet. Many people tell the older daughter what a good big sister she is. She is the one who comforts her sister when she cries. The girls fight like any sisters, but throughout their childhoods, when the younger one has a problem she turns to her big sister and her big sister helps. The mother is relieved; she has so much to do, and it is good that her daughters are close.

The mother will be torn between appreciating her daughter's responsibility and frustrated by the girl's tendency to watch everyone and everything. Is it good or bad that this girl reminds her that they are low on milk and cat food, cares for her sister and even for herself? But the mother also cares for the daughter. Between her and her older daughter there is no confusion as to who is the mother. When the older daughter is sad or hurt or has any need, the mother responds. The roles in the family are clear, and though they are not perfect, they work. There is the mother, the big sister, and the baby sister. They each have their jobs and they all do them.

As the daughter grows into a woman people who love her tell her that she worries too much. Her husband will sometimes tell her gently that she does not have to forsee every possible problem. She should relax; she can relax. The world will not fall apart if she does not watch, worry and guard.

Except that one afternoon it does. The woman lets go of watching and worrying and guarding, and a little boy almost dies. She is not vigilant, and a child forgets songs he loves and no longer knows what a fork is for.

She cries, but she cannot spend too much time there. She sees what this event has done to her older son. He now is the vigilant one. He hovers over his brother. He watches. He knows now that the adults cannot be trusted to keep danger away. Over and over the woman tells her son, "You don't need to stand over your brother like that. It is my job to watch the baby." "But what if you're not watching and I'm not watching and something bad happens?" The mother wants to tell her five-year-old that nothing bad is going to happen, but she knows he knows that is not true so she tells him, "That would be very, very sad and it would be my fault, because it is my job to watch the baby."

A hundred times as she needs to run back into the house to get her keys or leave the back yard to use the bathroom she almost says, "Keep an eye on your brother for a minute, okay?" But she doesn't. She takes the toddler out of the car seat or the swing and even though the boy says, "I can watch him" she says, "No. It is my job. I will take him with me." If it hadn't been for the drowning she would have done otherwise. She would have let the big brother watch the toddler for the 30 seconds it would take to grab the papers she left on the kitchen the table. She would not unbuckle him and carry him back into the house with her. But she she does, reminding herself, "It is my job to watch."

The near-drowning haunts her. She confessed, crying to the mother that she noticed the children were alone. The other mother forgives her, thanks her for pulling her son out of the water, tells her that she had told her husband to watch. The other mother blames her husband. They have been unhappy for years, and this will provide the reason for the divorce that would have happened eventually.

If my life were a novel, that would be the key. That day would be the central event. In order to understand me you would have to know that day. You would have to understand what came before it in order to understand what came after it. A little girl grows up feeling responsible for the safety of others, particularly for her sister. Subtly that sense of responsibility is reinforced. Unsubtly, the possible consequences of letting go of that role are brought home.

If this is were a novel, it might end here. It might end when the audience understands, but not the woman. Or if Sartre wrote it, it would end with the woman seeing the pattern, understanding that she could walk away and knowing that she will not. Allusions to Sysiphus would have been made. We would see the woman as doomed not to push the same rock up the hill forever, but to never rest because always another rock waiting. Yes, Sartre would make the audience understand that the woman could walk away, but won't. She will live in a hell of her own making, forever trying to watch and protect everyone.

It might make a very powerful novel, but it would not be me for several reasons. One of course is that I am more complex than that. We all are. It potentially makes a good story, but good stories are always tidier than real life.

The more important one though is the notion that what I do now is something that I am condemned to do. Only Sartre would see it that way. For just moment, as the pieces of the puzzle fell together, I wondered if the Sartrean interpretation was right, but I don't think that it is.

If Nietschze were writing the novel it could have a different ending. I, the woman seeing the pattern of her life, could will that life. I could claim it, be glad for it, because it made me who I am, and I value who I am. I am glad that I am a person who does not look away.

I cannot quite pull that off. I could do it with most of my life, but not that one day. There is no way I can ever think of that day and not wish that I had not kicked the kids out of the pool. I can forgive myself, cease torturing myself; I can find peace. I cannot however stop believing that it would have been better if I had acted.

But I can almost pull it off.

I can say that the Sartrean interpretation of my life a Syssiphean hell is wrong.

To notice, to care, and to do, even if one feels compelled to do so, is not hell.

It is a life worth living.


  1. I can't help but wonder what prompted this writing today...

    I have a similar problem: I forget that my vigilance can't protect the people I love, that I have no control and bad things can happen anyway. I think that somehow just by worrying, I protect them.

    You responded so well to your older son afterwards.

  2. Wow.


    I will be thinking about this today!
    And you.

  3. What gawdessness said.


    This made me cry.

  4. I third that.


    I just went and checked on my daughter in her room.

  5. Beautiful. Thanks for the food for thought.


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