It was scorching hot at our little town beach. I roamed back and forth, from the blueberry bush to the rock, counting the heads of the swimming kids, trying to keep the baby from eating too much sand. People came for a long stay or a quick, cooling dip, catching up with old friends as they bobbed up and down in the water.
There was a couple with two kids, a baby and a boy about seven. The young mom was tall and lovely, with a fierce, classical beauty. But in the heat of the day, she wore many layers of clothing, and she kept adjusting her top and glancing down, frowning at her postpartum belly and hips.
The dad was busy, almost frantic, in his effort to give everyone exactly the right kind of attention: asking solicitously about the mom’s comfort; tickling and splashing with the baby, but showing his wife that everyone was perfectly safe; making sure the older boy didn’t feel neglected.
The man, tough and heavily muscled but overfed, was insisting that his son wait on the rock for him while he swam out to the buoys. “Dee Dee can’t swim!” he explained.
Ohh, I realized. Dee Dee is the mother of the baby, but not of the older boy.
“So that’s why she can’t be in charge of you in the water. If you have a cramp, she can’t even save you. You have to wait for me,” he said. Too loudly.
The dad got his swim in, they all played and splashed for a while, and then retreated to a picnic table behind me. A little family storm was brewing there, and their voices rose.
“I can make it!” insisted the young woman.
“No, you can’t, Dee Dee,” her man said, as he toweled off their baby’s curly head. “Just because you could do it a long time ago doesn’t mean you can do it now.”
“I can make it!” she said again.
“Fine,” he said. “So when you get halfway across the lake and you can’t make it, then you’ll drown and then you’ll be dead. You’ll be dead. You can’t do it, Dee Dee. You have a totally different body now. I don’t even know if I can make it across the lake.”
She snatched the baby away from him and finished changing his clothes, dusting the sand from his bottom, carefully buckling useless sandals onto the tiny, soft feet. The man called his older son, and the two of them went into the water to roughhouse, and Dee Dee stayed on the shore. The sun beat down, and the waves of anger and hurt lapped against the sand.
Maybe he was right. Maybe it would be foolish to try to reach the other shore, if her swimming wasn’t strong. But there was nothing foolish about needing so badly to know that, even though she was a mother now, she could still do things. That her life wasn’t going to be over just because her body had shifted. That she wasn’t going to spend the rest of her life waiting on the shore, wearing clothes she hated, being safe and watching other people enjoy themselves.
I believe I saw a man was trying to be a man, as he understood it: teaching his older son to be responsible, playing with his baby, trying to keep everyone secure. He was showing his love the way many men do, performing services for them, keeping them safe, taking everything into account, assuming responsibility for everything he thought was in his purview. But he did it in the worst possible way — showing his son that his stepmom wasn’t trustworthy or capable; using the new baby as an anchor to keep his woman under control. In his insistence, I heard fear. Where was the mother of his first child? Not with him, and who knows why. But now he wanted everyone to be secure, and so he preyed on their worst instincts to keep them that way. Leaning on the fissures to keep it all together.
This works, until it doesn’t work. It works until the pressure becomes intolerable. And then everything breaks apart.
Someone needed to tell this little family: But you do love each other! Any fool can see that. Any fool can see that you want to be what a family is supposed to be. Someone needed to tell them, please keep trying. Please get help, to learn how to do this right. You’re so young. You can figure out how to understand each other better, how to take care of each other, how to give each other freedom to grow strong. You’re on the right track, you just need to refine your methods.
Other people shouted out their personal lives as they splashed and waded. I heard:
“No, we ain’t together no more. Got a court date next week, because he don’t pay no support. Last time the judge called him a bully, and he didn’t like that too much, let me tell ya! So, this your little one? Ain’t she cute! She looks just like your big girl. She still livin’ at home? My God, is she seventeen already? Oh, when’s she due? Where’s the baby daddy? Yeah, that’s what I heard. He don’t want to work, he’s gonna lose that Honda he’s been workin’ on. When’s your court date for this little cutie? Good luck with that! You like seein’ your daddy, honey? I bet you do! Have fun, guys. I gotta get goin’, rest up before my night shift.”
Friendly, smiling people, hard workers, doting on their kids, and chatting amiably about their court dates, their anger management, their restraining orders, their tangled family trees, their days when the kids get to see their daddies. Sometimes this is how it is: The body of the family not just weakened, but fractured beyond repair.
But not always. Somebody needed to tell the resentful young mother, her baffled and terrified husband, his impatient boy, their imperiled baby with the curly hair: Wait. Only wait. You’re right to be angry, and right to be afraid. But don’t split apart just yet. Maybe you can make it across the lake. Maybe no one needs to be left behind. Maybe you just have to work at getting a little stronger.
Photo by Jordan Whitt on Unsplash
A version of this essay was first published in the National Catholic Register in 2013.
One thought on “You can make it across”
Wow. You paid attention and learned so much. There so much hurt going on all
around us if we just listen and see.
I loved your summation of it all. Keep trying.