They say drowning hurts. Really, really hurts. They say it’s excruciating and scarier than you can imagine. I suppose that makes sense, given that water boarding is designed to create the feeling of drowning, and is used to terrify. Strangely though, for me it seems that there should be something almost serene about a life ending by something so beautiful as a body of water.
It certainly looked peaceful, my first experience of drowning. Of course, it is hard to know now the line at which my own memory meets my mother’s routine explanation of the story, heard countless times throughout years. I was a little boy, not quite yet four, and my brother Mattie was eighteen months old. We were spending a week with Bob and Bonnie, a couple my parents had known since college, at a rented house in Florida, not far from Orlando. There was a pool behind the house, a bright blue kidney sunk into a large patio area. The exterior of the house was white, such that going outside forced your eyes to readjust to the brightness of the Floridian sun falling over the bleached concrete. Years later, Bonnie told me that as she had taken me out to the pool area on the first morning of our stay, I had put my hands to my face and told her my eyes were frightened. That had tickled her. I appreciated her sharing that with me. My parents didn’t tell many charming childhood stories that didn’t center around Mattie.
There was an overhang across the back of the house, and tucked below it was a shelf for a radio, and a large fridge. Alongside the fridge was a vast trunk holding all manner of pool toys. A treasure trove for Mattie and me. I was big enough to open it for myself, and I could lean in and reach the array of primary colored plastic toys. To get to the grass that surrounded the patio, I had to go through the house as a black mosquito netting caged the whole patio and pool area, and cut it off from the lawn. This proved to be a nuisance on the second day, when my dad spotted a family of armadillos marching down the pathway across the grass. By the time we had left the pool, dripped our way through the house and around the side to the back again, they had gone. I remember the densely packed thick blades of stiff green grass reaching through my disappointment to touch my bare feet, wet from the pool.
On the third day, we were going to go to the beach for the afternoon. The men left to fill the car with gas, leaving Mattie, me, Bonnie and Mother. We walked outside and my mother and Bonnie stood chatting while Mattie and I were playing, dressed in shorts and T shirts, by the pool. The radio was on, the music tangled up with the women’s words, and the sun beat down through the netting, coating the water and settling on my neck and arms. I rolled a red ball across the patio to Mattie, and he rolled it back. As the women talked, I pushed the ball again towards Mattie. Hitting a seam in the concrete, the ball went off course and rolled into the pool before Mattie could clutch it. He looked at me, and I pointed at the ball. Grinning, he scooted over a little to the edge, and leaned over the water. He managed to grasp the ball, and for a moment his body threatened to tip, before it naturally rebalanced. He turned back to me and rolled the wet ball in my direction, a thin trail dampening the concrete behind it. I rolled it again, this time deliberately and more forcefully towards the pool. Mattie emitted that momentary laugh that toddlers are so apt to do, and leaned over the pool once more. The ball was a little further away this time, and as he bent and reached, he looked at me, his upside down face framed by his outstretched arm, and he slowly toppled in. There was no great splash. Time didn’t stop. He simply slid into the water, and it enveloped his little body.
There was no thrashing, no movement at all. It was as if he gave up as he hit the water. No struggle, no fight for God’s sake. Why didn’t he fight? I walked over to Mother and Bonnie and said, “Mattie’s in the water”. My mother was in full swing of one of her stories. She told her favorite tales often, and she loved to feel the weight of her words as they hit the air around her. I put my hand on her denim skirt, tucking my fingers in the loop for a belt she wasn’t wearing, and I gave a little tug.
“Mattie’s in the water.”
Absentmindedly Mother unhooked my fingers and gave my hand a squeeze, as if to say, ‘not now, Jimmy.’ I began saying the same line over and over, “Mattie’s in the water. Mattie’s in the water. Mattie’s in the water…” while looking up at Mother, her dark hair grabbed in a messy ponytail, sunglasses perched on top. Her bare face was pretty without make up, her expressions designed to compliment her storytelling.
“Mattie’s in the water. Mattie’s in the water. Mattie’s in the water.”
Mother’s story reached its conclusion and suddenly I was only competing with the song on the radio. Both my mother and her friend became aware of my words at the same time. “Mattie’s in the water.”
No one screamed. Mattie was perfectly still. He looked so calm, submerged just a couple of inches below the water level. He was suspended, very gently swaying, as if lying on his back. His cute face, tanned skin with a smattering of freckles, was clearly visible just underwater. I can’t remember if his eyes were open or closed.
Mother jumped in, waist deep, and made her way towards his body. Later she said it was like wading through honey. She couldn’t seem to make progress. Bonnie ran in the house, jumping the three steps into the kitchen, to run to the front to wait for my father.
I watched as Mother desperately made her way to Mattie. There was a split second, she always said in her telling of this story, where she swears she had the thought that this would be the last moment where she had two sons. I shifted towards them for an unobstructed view. The radio was playing Turn the Beat Around, as if my brother wasn’t drowning at all. My mother finally reached him. He seemed even smaller, as if the water had shrunk him. He was Mattie, my brother, a toddler with few words who just wanted to play with me tirelessly. But he was my mother’s baby.
She lunged at him, and scooped him like an infant, cradling him in her arms. She pulled him from the drag of the water and as she did, his eyes saw her. He looked in her eyes and he slowly drew a long, quiet gasp. Mother flipped him such that his stomach was lying across her forearms and she whacked him on the back. There was no need. There was no water in him at all.
Dad appeared on the scene and grabbed Mother’s arm. He pulled her and Mattie from the pool. He stroked Mattie’s head before racing off for towels. Mother wouldn’t let Mattie go. When it seemed Mattie was listening and alert, she called our paediatrician, who explained that Mattie’s age had saved him. His body had simply shut down. He had conserved energy and oxygen through his complete lack of struggle. Had he been a year older, the doctor explained, the fear would have kicked in. He would have swallowed water and we would have lost him.
I didn’t get to go to the beach. Mother sat all afternoon and evening on one of the orange loungers by that pool. The proud, oppressive sun mellowed during those hours to a gentle hue. Mother had Mattie wrapped in a huge green and white striped towel, and he nestled into her. He didn’t cry. He didn’t really move. He just needed to be close to her. For once, there was no playing, no activity, nothing he wanted to do but be in our mother’s arms. I remember the expression on his face that afternoon, residing somewhere between utter calm and complete exhaustion. I think drowning in Mother’s smothering attention was probably more draining than his actual brush with death that day. And as the adults sat, delighting in Mattie being alive, no one noticed that a vital part of Mother’s hold on reality slipped soundlessly underwater and drifted to the tiled bottom, where it settled, out of reach.
It was my wife Elaine’s idea for me to make this trip back to Looking Glass Pond. The name is a misnomer; it is a big private lake with fourteen houses built around it. My parents had owned one of them for the first thirteen years of my life, and we spent several weeks each summer there. When Elaine suggested I rent a car while in New York City for a conference, and make the drive out to Pennsylvania to the lake, I had been getting ready for work. I was annoyed by our daughters, Callie and Maxine, who had unpacked my briefcase all over the kitchen table while I was upstairs. “They’re four, Jim, what do you expect?” asked Elaine, with her tireless good humor, as she busied herself repacking it for me. “I think it’d be good for you to go, to slow down.”
“Sure,” I said. “If I get the time.” I had no intention of going to the lake, but after a flurry of irritating, clingy messages from Amanda, the woman I see in New York, needing more, wanting more, the idea of staying in the city soured for me as the thought of spending time with her was no longer effortless fun. I found myself being intrigued by the thought of the lake after all these years. Less for the catharsis, and more out of curiosity I suppose.
I stopped my car at the area where the communal bear proof dumpsters reside. It was a crisp early winter day, just as it was the last time I was here. Back then, the homes were not winterized. The water was shut off after Labor Day each year, and the pipes drained. Unless there was an emergency, no one would be back much before April or May. I imagined that by now the homes might have been modernized, and heating systems installed, but I didn’t see any other cars.
The sign was new. “LOOKING GLASS POND”, each white letter embossed on black. The old sign had also informed trespassers to keep out, so perhaps it was serendipitous for me that the sentiment had changed. I hopped over the gate across the driveway and made my way towards the edge of the lake. The trees were already bare, so I could see the sparkle of the water earlier than I expected. I walked down the steps alongside the house that may or may not still belong to the Bakers. I remembered their daughter, two years older than me, and how I loved to swim with her, seeing her long tanned legs emerging from her swimsuit. She was a goddess to me.
As I reached the Bakers’ dock, I took a breath, inhaling the natural beauty of the expanse of water, light dancing on its surface, jumping from spot to spot. Stark, cold, naked trees, their presence looming, stood all along the water’s edge, in every direction. The cool air touched my face and hands, and carried the sound of the occasional rustling of something hopping, crawling or shuffling through the remaining leaves. The lake air also carried memories. This was the dock where we came across the massive black snake basking, and I swore the other kids to secrecy in case the dads wanted to kill him. This was the dock I swam from when Mattie was elsewhere. This was the dock I was not allowed to swim from when Mattie was around, in case I made him feel left out.
I stepped off the dock, and took a couple of steps to the large rock nestled in the grass near the water. As I had done so many times before, I sat on the rock, my legs feeling the cool of its grey skin through my jeans. Footage of time spent at the lake swirled around my mind, and I could see images of those I was with like ghosts beside me. Always Mother. Always telling me to look after Mattie. “Don’t let Mattie be left out!”, “Is everyone being nice to Mattie?”, “Jimmy, if they all go swimming, you make sure you do something fun with Mattie so he doesn’t feel bad.” The near suffocation of the weight of that pressure. The furtive glance from Mother when she overheard some of the guys inviting me to go to the town with them. That glance that let me know that unless Mattie were invited, I would be declining.
Me, at eleven, running up to our porch where Mother sat on a dining room chair, huge sunglasses and pale pink lipstick, reading The Thorn Birds.
“Mom, Mom, tonight, can I go with Christy to the town? For pizza? Please?” My mother lowered her book to her lap. “With Mattie?”
As those two words were spoken, my excitement evaporated. “Jimmy, you’re able to play outside all day with your friends while poor Mattie recovers inside. Tonight, it would be nice for you to spend your time with him, making him feel special after missing out on so much.” Mother’s face set into a smile that didn’t reach her eyes. I mirrored it.
“Mom, I could hang out with him afterwards, please, and you said he’s too sick to come out anyway…” Mother removed her sunglasses and folded them slowly before placing them on top of her book on her lap. “Your brother’s suffering a reaction to sunlight. He can’t go out today, but by tonight he might be fine. However, I appreciate your concern, and I agree. It may just be too much.”
I narrowed my eyes and inhaled slowly. Behind her, through the screen, I could see Mrs. Baker making her way to the lake, a towel under one arm, a cooler in the other. I grew brave.
“So, can I go?” I swear I saw the hint of a victory in the way she moved her lips, running her tongue along her teeth before she spoke.
“James, I’m shocked at you. You will be back at the house at 4 o’ clock and we will have a family dinner, and Mattie can choose a game for us to play. I am sure you don’t really mean that you would rather be off with friends than making sure your brother doesn’t feel left out.”
I walked into the house and through the living room to the stairway. I went up them slowly, feeling disappointment sting me with each step. At the top, I opened the door to the room I shared with Mattie. He was lying on top of the mustard colored crocheted bedspread, asleep, blue pajama bottoms and a faded red T shirt. There was little breeze from the opened window, and his hair clung to his forehead, immersed in sleeping child sweat. I walked over to him, stood over him. He didn’t look sick. On his bedside table were the remnants of a PBJ, and a glass a quarter filled with chocolate milk. The latest Spiderman comic was next to him on the bed.
I poked him, hard, in the ribs. He stirred, suddenly, and looked at me with eyes that took a moment to become aware.
“Jimmy,” he said, sitting up. He ran his hand through his hair, lifting it from his face, and it stayed sticking up, wet.
“I can’t go out tonight because of you.”
“Mom is making me stay in because of you instead of going out with Christy.” Mattie looked down to his bed. He picked at the yarn of the blanket.
“I’m sorry,” he said, chewing his lip. His eyes were cast down to his foot, which he was moving quickly from side to side, a nervous habit that drove me nuts.
“Yeah, me too. Sorry my brother’s such a loser and my Mom thinks he’s hot shit.”
I turned and left the room, left the house, keen to soak in the remaining time with my friends until 4 o’ clock came around.
And when it did, I had to leave the water, hearing the kids, their splashes and yells with every step I took towards my house, further away from where I wanted to be. Inside the house, I was padding towards the kitchen when Dad’s tone made me stop and listen.
“But Sweetheart, I just wonder if it is right. There is no reason Mattie can’t swim, and we are at our lake house. I feel bad for the boys, I feel like they’re missing out.”
I stood in the hallway, my feet half on the rug, and half on the wooden floor. I looked at the framed picture in front of me, an old map of some town in England. My Dad’s parents had owned this house, and given it to my parents as a wedding gift. It was not fancy by any means, the decking gave us splinters and the sole toilet, which used lake water to flush, often backed up. But I loved it there. Our dog Benny, a sweet natured medium sized shaggy brown mutt, could run free with the neighbors’ dogs, returning tuckered out, smelling of summer and outside and fun.
“They aren’t missing out. They are staying safe. Mattie is not strong enough for the water, and he can’t swim. Jimmy swims sometimes and has a grand time. He’s the strong one, always has been, and he has a duty to protect his brother.” My mother was resolute.
“Sweetheart, you only let Jimmy swim when Mattie isn’t around, and I think it would be great if we just teach Mattie to swim himself. It seems like a bit of a waste…”
I was desperate for Dad to win this battle. I held my breath, feeling like I was at a turning point. Dad was not a tenacious man. However this conversation was left, would be the end of the matter. It didn’t go my way. Mother pulled out the trump card.
“Had you been the one to pull your limp baby from the water, moments from death, I think you would feel differently…” Dad made a murmur but I imagined he was silenced by Mother raising her hand in the authoritative manner she often did.
Mother continued. “Mattie’s different. Mattie is special. He’s delicate and needs a bit more looking out for. How do you not feel that way as his father? He’s an angel, just a very special kid and I can’t bear the thought of anything happening to him again….” Her voice cracked. “I need my pills, this is too much.”
Sitting on the rock, watching the water, decades later, I wish I could have given my Dad the words he lacked. I wish he would have said something about how she was ruining Mattie, and making me feel like a second-class family member. Not only that, she was fostering such a resentment in me towards my needy little brother. As a child, I didn’t blame her for the burden of my brother’s needs, I blamed him. But my Dad said no such thing. He was holding Mother in his arms when I walked past the kitchen.
– – – –
Looking around the lake, I saw some changes to the houses. Most of the fourteen houses were at the lake’s edge. Ours had been set slightly further back, such that you had to be out on the covered porch to see the lake. Mattie and I had been out on the porch the last time I was here. I put my head in my hands. My greying hair was still thick, my hands soft, betraying my career spent at a desk. This is a moment, I thought, where if I were an ex-smoker, I might just relapse, because I obviously am that middle aged cliche. Making this trip here after all these years after my wife said it might be healing? Jesus.
The last time I had been here, there had been more of a chill in the air. Mother and Dad had needed to visit in order to arrange some off-season work to the boat house, and to put in a set of French doors from the living room. With them in place, we would be able to see the lake from the sofa. We arrived early in the morning, bringing Benny with us, and I helped Dad to unload two oil-filled radiators, which we set up, one in the dining room and one in the living room. The house felt cold and damp, and the covers on the sofas, and the bare cupboards seemed to shrink the house, diminish its presence.
Mother and Dad needed to go to the town to choose the French doors and stone, and to meet with the contractor. Mattie and I would wait at the house. This was not a typical arrangement, but Mattie was recovering from what Mother described as “a particularly nasty bout of flu” so she wanted him to stay inside and rest. I remember thinking that his flu looked a lot like the cold I had had a week before, but I knew from experience it was best to keep that idea to myself. As we grew a little older, I had come to enjoy Mattie’s episodes of sickness, real or embellished. They afforded me the freedom to be myself, to be with my friends without the pressure of Mother pushing me to spend all my time with my brother, who wasn’t allowed to do anything normal. My favorite times as a kid by far were those spent with my friends. None of my best memories have my brother in them. The skatepark by our house in New Jersey, the lake in the summer, the best times were always when Mattie was deemed too sick to leave the house.
“I’ll leave the sandwiches in the foil wrap until you want them, to keep them fresh, and there are two bottles of Coke on the side in the kitchen. There’s no point plugging the fridge in for one day,” said Mother. There was no television at the lake house, and she gestured to the stack of board games, on the shelving unit behind the sofa Mattie was lying on, my favorites, chess and Risk under The Game of Life and Guess Who. “I want Mattie to rest primarily, Jimmy. But if he feels up to it later, you could let him choose a game to play.” Mattie was used to being discussed both as if he weren’t there, and as if he were the only person in the world that mattered.
I heard their car scrunch away over the gravel, and Benny hopped up on an armchair under the side window to watch as they pulled away.
“What shall we do, Mattie? Are you really sick?”
“I feel fine. I want to do something.” Mattie was ten. I hoped he was beginning to want to peel away from Mother’s side, and if so, I wanted to take advantage of that.
“Mattie, let’s go outside, let’s go down to the lake.”
I looked at my brother. He was a good looking kid. His eyes were rimmed with dark, and he did look a little sallow, but that was likely a lack of being outside rather than illness. His skin was smooth and olive, his hair just the right amount of messy. He was slim, and a good height, probably a bit taller than the average for his friends. He raised his hand to his face and rubbed it along his jaw.
“And do what?” He sounded more curious than apprehensive.
“What do you want to do, Mattie? You’re the precious one. You’re the one who is supposed to be wrapped up inside all day. Don’t you want to do something?” I moved towards him and sat on the old leather ottoman in front of him. The light nudged its way through the window, landing in a stretched oblong on the floor. On its way, it highlighted a million dust specks slowly turning in the space between us. Each one a tiny planet separating me from my brother. He slowly nodded and a smile filled his cheeks.
“Yes. I want to do something…but what?”
He looked around the room for inspiration. I prompted him. “What have you wished you could do, but you weren’t allowed?”
“Um… everything?” Mattie laughed nervously, his fingers tapping out a rhythm on his thigh.
“I have an idea. Wait here, Mattie. I’ll surprise you.”
I moved quickly, and within a few minutes, I was back in the house for Mattie. Of course, our parents hadn’t explicitly said we weren’t allowed outside while they were out. They didn’t need to. We knew it. Mattie was crouched on the floor by the radiator, warming his back through his blue knit sweater.
“Come on Mattie, let’s go.” Mattie stood up, coughing, and walked towards me. We walked out through the porch, and outside. As soon as he stepped onto the dock, Mattie stiffened. He saw the yellow kayak. He was still moving, but more slowly.
“What’s the plan?” Mattie hugged himself, as if holding onto the residual heat for as long as possible. The vast body of water stretched away from our dock and out under the light grey sky. We were accustomed to the sight of the lake in the sunshine, kids jumping and swimming, moms swatting mosquitos and the constant merry go round of sandwiches and chips and drinks arriving. We were used to movement, to the lake being the backdrop to summer life. That day was different. There is a starkness to a place when you see it out of context. Like being inside a school during winter break, or in a library at night. There is a different quality to it, an air of the unexpected. The lake was breathtaking that morning. Magnificent and unwelcoming. Like the missing summer leaves, the birds, the flowers, the warmth, we felt we didn’t really belong there that day, and yet its beauty drew us in.
“I thought I’d take you for a ride, Mattie. You can sit on the kayak and I’ll push you along.”
“It’s freezing, Jim, you’ll be freezing,” Mattie looked at me, searching my expression for any clue that I was kidding. My eyes met his and I gave my head a shake.
“Nope. I’ll be fine. I’ll put Dad’s old wetsuit on. It’s not that cold anyway.”
I walked towards the boat house and quickly changed into the old, cracked wetsuit hanging behind the door. It was rough against my skin, so I kept my long sleeved T shirt on. I pulled on my stiff water shoes, still sandy and coarse from the summer over my cold feet. “What about a life jacket?” Mattie yelled.
“Don’t be a loser, Mattie, you’re on a kayak for God’s sake!” I called back. “But I can’t swim. Aren’t you supposed to wear one for kayaking?”
“You don’t need one, and they are away in the house now for the winter. We’re not going back for it.”
I left my clothes on the wooden decked floor and went back out to the dock. Mattie was standing by the kayak, eyeing it dubiously before his gaze reached me.
“Jimmy, I don’t know. Mom says I can’t go near the water…” He turned his face to look out to the lake. He looked back at me. Pale face, lines of trepidation etched into his scrunched brow, eyes flashing fear.
“Jesus, Mattie. You are nearly eleven for Christ’s sake. You want to stay away from water all your life? Living like a weirdo? Some weak kid who can’t have fun because his mom will worry? It’s retarded!”
I stood still. I knew Mattie would either start crying and run away as had happened many times, or he might just decide to make a stand against the life our crazy Mother was choosing for him. The branches lined against the white sky behind him, the dock gently creaked, softly swaying beneath us, as Looking Glass Pond lightly lapped against the docks’ pilings.
“Okay. I’m in. What do I do?”
I gasped as I slid into the water off the end of the dock, its dark embrace cool even with the wet suit on. Standing waist deep, I pulled at the kayak, sliding it onto the lake. It dropped with a small plunk. The bite of the cold water against my hands was ferocious. I needed to move.
“Quickly, Mattie, get on, I will push you all the time, you’ll be fine.” I pushed the kayak to the edge of the dock, and held it steady for Mattie. He sat on the edge of the dock, parallel to the kayak. He shuffled himself closer and I didn’t make fun of him for not being able to get on like a normal kid. He slid his bottom over onto the scooped out seat and one at a time, he swung his legs on top, all the while holding his arms flung wide for balance. I immediately moved it away from the dock before he changed his mind. I lowered my body completely into the water, the shock of immersion energizing me. I put my palms against the wet rough plastic of the end of the kayak and kicked off. I was a strong swimmer, and we moved quickly.
“Shouldn’t I have the oar?” Mattie was facing forwards, and I was behind, so I couldn’t see his expression. He was now holding on tightly to kayak, and I imagined his nails, pressed and white against the side.
“No,” I called, as I swam, “I am going to push you, just hold on.”
Out in the middle of the lake, I stopped pushing and swam around the side, and the lack of significant exertion made me colder almost instantly. Looking up through my wet bangs, I saw Mattie, sitting on top of the kayak, surrounded by water. He didn’t look victorious. He didn’t look proud. He moved his mouth around to try and stop his chin from trembling and his eyes took on that wild look of the afraid. He had been told to fear water almost his entire life. He had been told a million times how water nearly killed him. And here he was, far, far from the shore with only a piece of molded plastic to keep him safe. That was bravery, I thought. You have to feel fear to be brave.
Later, when I described what happened, it was as if I were a robot. I wasn’t feeling anything at that point. The doctor said it was likely shock from what had happened, and the cold. I remember sitting in the dining room of the lake house, my chair pulled close to the radiator. My mother was standing, her body bent against the wall, her face simply ashen. She was fingering the hem of her sweater circling her thumb against its fabric. My father stood behind me, his hands awkwardly on my shoulders as I spoke to them, a couple of policemen, and the doctor. I remember the muted tones of the table cloth. It had on it large dark red flowers, their stems adorned with leaves, against a beige background, and it was oil cloth, the kind you can wipe clean.
“I pushed him out on the lake. He wanted to face his fear. He didn’t want to feel weak anymore.” I closed my eyes. In my mind I saw pictures of Mattie flashing, laughing, baby Mattie, child Mattie, drowning baby Mattie, sleeping Mattie, toddling baby Mattie…
“Jimmy?” I opened my eyes. The doctor was now right in front of me and she bent down to my eye level. “Jimmy, this has been an awful day for you. Please just explain what you remember and then we will let you get some rest.” She had a warm smile. I remember thinking she would be a nice mom. She was kind. I could tell.
I took a deep breath. I exhaled. “We wanted to kayak. I pushed Mattie out on the water and then we noticed that Benny, our dog, was loose. We decided that I would go and get Benny back in the house and Mattie was fine to sit on the kayak and wait for me.”The doctor put her hand on mine. My Dad squeezed my shoulders.
“And then?” the doctor asked, and she swallowed, her head tilted to one side slightly, her almost imperceptible nod urging me to continue.
“So I swam back and I ran after Benny. He’s used to running about with the other dogs so he didn’t want to come. He didn’t want to come back to me. It took me a while, I kept calling his name.” I looked the doctor in the eyes. “I got him and put him in the house, and then I went back to Mattie, but Mattie wasn’t on the kayak. I swam out there and I got to the kayak but he wasn’t there.”
I looked at Mother. She sank to her knees, a deep guttural, primal noise sounding from her. She slowly lay on her side, her hair splayed out fanlike on the wooden floor, tucking her knees under her arms and sobbing wretched animal cries.
According to Mother’s narrative of our lives, the police divers pulled Mattie’s lifeless body from the lake that evening. We left Looking Glass Pond late that night and we never went back. My parents sold the house. Mother’s craziness spilled over to different forms. She never tried to mollycoddle me. If anything she became more withdrawn. Perhaps she blamed me, but I think it is more likely she blamed herself. My Dad was heartbroken, but stoic. God, I don’t believe he ever broke down, not really, not a break down where he might look at his wife and say, “Why the Hell couldn’t we get him swimming lessons?” I have felt his love though, his pride in me. I felt it much more, actually, with the cloud of Mattie and his neediness having dissipated. I did well academically, through college and law school. I built a solid career, Elaine and I have a good life. Dad is demonstrative in his adoration of my daughters, much more than he ever was with me. Mother is more reserved, of course.
I hadn’t thought deeply about that day for years. Decades probably. I looked out at the lake, and wondered what kind of a man Mattie would be today, had he lived. Would he ever have stepped out from Mother’s reach? He was a bright enough kid, as far as I could tell. I began to wonder if things might have been different, or if I might have felt differently, had I been allowed to love him the way I imagined other siblings might. I stood up quickly and stretched my back, thinking instead that I’m too old to be sitting on a rock for any length of time. I walked around the edge of the lake a little, to the path that led to our old house. As I moved, I looked to the edge of the water, searching for the snapping turtles we would often spot in the shallows.
Approaching our old house, I saw that the boathouse had been replaced. The new structure was in the same place, but it was much bigger and was painted the same deep red as the house instead of the bare stained wood it had been in the past. The back of the house looked mostly familiar, the porch was modernized. There was an addition where my parents had planned to install the French doors. I walked onto our old dock. It had been redone, maybe more than once, but it was a similar shape and size. I stood there for quite some time. The next day I would be flying back to Seattle, back to Elaine and the girls. Back to life.
But there, right then, I allowed myself again to travel to the past. To the boy I was at age thirteen. The kid who sought approval, or hell, just attention. I looked towards the center of the lake where my little brother lost his life. The golden child. I thought about how the water had crept into his molded seat as I began to back away. How he looked at me, with terror and understanding at the same time as I kept moving backwards. “Jim,” he said, not as a question. “Jim, help… Jim…” Hadn’t I just meant to scare him? Wasn’t it just a prank? I remember how he did everything wrong. He got agitated, started flailing, panicking, he was trying to scoop the water with his hands and then push it with his legs back into the lake. I remember the little noises he was making, I remember thinking why isn’t he screaming? I remember how he looked as he inevitably lost his balance and the lake pulled him off the side of the kayak. I remember the violence of his thrashing that didn’t last long. And then the stillness. The calm.
Before I turned to leave, I looked to the spot under the neighbor’s dock where I had buried the scupper plug when I reached the shore, my freezing, wet hands struggling to dig in the hardened soil. And as I left Looking Glass Pond for the very last time, I walked up the path to the house, remembering how all that time ago I had run so quickly, reaching the porch door with a crash, and calling inside to Benny to let him free.
Illustration: Shreyaa Krritika Das