— For my wife, Rachael
After the accident I wasn’t swimming, but I wasn’t drowning either.
Treading water maybe? Holding my breath and going under, coming back up
when I had to. Metaphors fall apart. They always do.
A few times every summer Camp Manitou would have an “island swim” in
which campers could breast-stroke, crawl, and dog-paddle the half mile
to Birch Island and back again. This was in the early eighties, before
fears of litigation halted so many dangerous camp traditions. I often
think about how insulated my own son’s life has become in comparison.
When I was a kid, we didn’t wear helmets when we rode bikes. We played
“touch” football games with bone-crushing fervor. We sledded down
suburban hills and stationed lookouts in the road at the bottom to watch
for cars. We played street hockey literally in the middle of the street.
I think we accepted danger as a natural part of our lives back then. Or
perhaps we simply didn’t want to face the reality of danger.
Of course, at Manitou there were attempts to keep the campers safe.
Counselors would paddle out in canoes and kayaks to protect the swimmers
from errant ski and fishing boats, pulling boys out if they looked
exhausted. But with as many as fifty boys swimming at the same time in
dark, murky water as deep as twenty-seven feet in some places, there was
no guarantee of safety. The swimmers’ abilities varied. Not everyone
even made it out to the island, never mind the return trip. And pulling
an exhausted, weeping, fourteen-year-old into a canoe could often result
in both man and boy holding on to an overturned boat while waiting for
help. “We’ve got three more floaters,” Mel would broadcast on his
bullhorn, and the Whaler would lurch out after them, slowly picking its
way through the boys, trying not to swamp them in its wake.
Even crazier than the event itself was the fact that so many of us
signed up for it. Other than an achievement patch and certificate, there
was no reward for having finished the swim.
But most kids aren’t afraid of drowning. They can’t imagine death at
all, can’t imagine not being, because for a boy the world does not
exist without him in it. The camp itself came into being only when we
stepped off the bus in June, and though we had changed over nine months
of school — accumulating zits and hair in private places, having our
first wet dream and maybe even our first kiss — the camp magically
stayed the same.
From the shore the island, like the moon on a clear night, seems closer
than it is, as if you could reach a hand out and touch the egret’s
nest tilting in the highest tree. It’s not that far, you tell
yourself. I can make it easily. But then you swim two hundred yards, and
your arms start to hurt, and your back. You switch strokes and begin to
feel it in your abdominals and your neck. Muscles you don’t use on the
ball field begin to ache and cramp. And that island just looms out
there. You stop believing there is an end to all this water. You pick
your head up after three hundred yards, and some asshole guitar
instructor says from his kayak, “Come on, Joel. Only, like, a thousand
more yards to go.”
I remember sitting on the rocks of the island with my best friend, Neil,
staring at the boys spread out all over the lake, some still paddling
toward us and some back toward the beaches and the lodge.
“That,” Neil said laughing, “is a long fucking swim.”
What am I afraid of? Well, there’s swimming. I don’t like heights
much, either. I’m terrified of driving at night. And, of course,
there’s what might happen. The what if’s. Darius does not ride his
bike without his helmet, and then only as far as my eyes can follow from
the front steps of our house. And he goes sledding only at the park —
with me watching. I’ve gotten remarried, to Rachael, a beautiful, kind
woman who tries each day to pull me into the future with her, rubbing
the pain out of my legs, encouraging me to write, to live. But when
she’s late coming home from a night class, when she gets angry with me
and storms out for a walk, I sweat, I gasp for air.
Sometimes I fear the past, the memory of those moments when I felt lost,
when I wanted to take all the Percocet in the bottle by the bed and
simply float off. I know those times could come again. There is no
exemption from trouble for any of us.
But that’s not the greatest fear. Death is not the greatest fear.
Neither is loss.
A long fucking swim.
“I don’t want to get better,”the woman said, gasping, alternating
between defiance — her hands clawing the air or squeezing what flesh
there was around her bony knees — and a deflated calm. The
Compassionate Friendsbereavement group met in a small reading room at
the back of Saint Mary’s Catholic Church once a month. I was
relatively new. It had been only a little over a month since the
accident. My younger sister, Tina, would help me out of bed, belt me
into the car, and drive me out there, then sit with me as we listened to
the stories of other parents who had lost children. Tina thought that it
would be therapeutic, and in a way it was. The first time it was my turn
to speak was the first time I had told the story. It was the first time
I’d been able to speak of it at all. But in this moment, even as I
drifted in and out of the fog of narcotics, this frantic woman’s words
reached me, stung me awake.
“Why do I have to get better? For who? Oh, sure, for the first few
months everyone was willing to listen, but then it was like, ‘OK
it’s time to get on with it. Get back to your life.’ What life?”
The other parents in the bereavement group nodded supportively. Some
leaned into the words, as if walking against a strong wind. Some settled
back into metal chairs, arms crossed, staring up at the ceiling or at
the crucifixes on the walls. I remember one man who never said anything,
just moved his lips, silently mouthing the prayers and psalms that hung
everywhere. A young couple who had a lost a baby to cancer grasped each
other’s hands as if at any moment one of them might lose their grip
and be pulled out of the room and down the halls into the night. My
sister rubbed the back of my neck.
The woman went on talking. As best as I can remember, this is what she
said: “My husband used to come here with me, hold my hand.”She
pointed to the chair next to her, where she had placed a flowered
pocketbook, as if reserving the seat. “But even he is done with it.
‘We have to move on,’ he says. ‘Let go,’ he says. I tell him
he’s not living either — he’s just pretending, just going through
the motions. He says, ‘You go through the motions long enough, maybe
you can start remembering how to live. Maybe it becomes living.’ But
it doesn’t work that way. Or maybe it does for other people, but for
me there’s no getting past it or through it. It’s everywhere. He’s
everywhere. Except he isn’t.”
Her son was eighteen. She woke in the middle of the night to strange
sounds from the den — like a cat coughing up a hairball. But they
didn’t own a cat. And there was a shuddering sound. She got her
husband up, and they crept in. When they found the boy, he was already
having convulsions, frothing at the mouth.
“So it’s been ten years,” she said at the meeting. “So what?
Every day you wake up, and nothing changes. His room’s still empty.
He’s still dead. Family, friends, they act disgusted, like it’s
indecent to grieve your own child for too long. After all, he was an
addict, right? But everyone’s an addict. Addicted to something. He was
my boy, and people act like there’s a stopwatch or an hourglass, and
you only have so much time. They tell you it’s all part of God’s
plan. That’s indecent.” She stared hard at the priest who mediated
the group. “I’m sorry, but it’s true. And one day becomes another,
and each day it’s like you move further away. It’s like you were
walking together with someone on a path, and he’s stopped walking, and
you want to go back, but you can’t. You just keep moving away, and it
goes on like that until he’s so far back you can’t even see him
anymore. Can’t remember his face without looking at a picture. Can’t
hear his voice in your head. I should be a grandmother by now. You know
what’s indecent? Expecting me to get out of bed, make breakfast, and
act like everything is normal. Like I never had a son at all.”
Excerpted from "Body Memory" by Joel Peckham. Copyright © 2016 by Joel Peckham. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.