I have a son who was born a fish. I know how it happened and where it came from. It wasn’t me. I like my feet on the ground. It wasn’t my husband either. We are the same. It came from my father.
One summer, while I was in high school, dad decided he was going to build a pond on our farm. Like most things, he did it himself. It was fed by a spring and he promised us it would fill and hold full. None of his children could swim. We had all grown up hearing stories about how “magical” he was in the water, and once grandma even dropped off an enormous box of swimming trophies and ribbons to make sure we were aware of her only son’s prowess in the water, but before we could get our greedy hands on the proof, he whisked it off and unceremoniously dumped it in the bin. Sure enough, the enormous gap in our backyard slowly begin to fill with the spring rains, and every child who could get to our farm on feet or bike or pony began to show up. Mostly we hugged the muddy edge or fought the water from one side to the other with nose and mouth gaping above the water line. It was an amazing summer to be sure. It was the first summer I dug my toes into the slippery earth and removed my bathing suit and held it high above my head in victory. My siblings did the same. We felt incredibly brave, although we never, ever slipped our bodies from the water in that state. It was delicious. A pond on a farm is just about as good as it gets.
We had some “town friends”. My parents invited them over now and then, and they were all swimmers. We knew this because their lucky lives let them spend their days at the city pool. We had seen them there before. From the shallow end we watched them use the entire pool at will. They were on the swim team and their shockingly beautiful daughter, the raven haired confident youngest gymnastic female child was a sight to behold. I loved/hated when she came over, but I loved/loved her older brothers so I was willing to put up with it. She was everything I was not, but she was insanely fun and incredibly brave. We all hated/loved their family. Days at the pool? Assholes. (Yes, I know now that things are not always as they seem, but I was in high school so let me be.) Anyway, the entire family of beautifully-born-fish erupted from their station wagon and leapt into the water and slid gracefully from one end of the pond to the other. See? Assholes. It was my pond. I promptly promised myself to quickly acquire a stomach ache so they wouldn’t see my landlubberself slapping around in the water. This family, like ours, spent way too much time saying things like: “betcha can’t…” Or, “I dare you too…” Or, “Do you think it’s possible to…” Or, most often, “Wanna race?”. Everything was a competition and the more unsafe the better. Eventually my father, the two eldest sons and their father lined up on one edge of the pond, steely eyes focused on the far end. What’s a party without a winner and a loser anyway? Their mother, a loud and fiery Italian who always fanned the flames was counting out the start and she would decide the winner. My stomach pain intensified. Three against one? My poor father didn’t stand a chance. My dad took off his T shirt and my eyes widened. The skin on his back clearly hadn’t seen the light of day in years. His arms and the back of his neck were dark and rough. Two men in one. I hoped he could swim- it sure didn’t look like it. His back was white as snow. From frozen to fluid in a fraction of a second, the four of them took off. I instantly knew that my father was different from me. People who move like that are different: Born with fluidity of motion. I’ll never forget that 10 second swim. The water barely moved as they raced to the far bank. I knew I would never swim like that. They were all fish. Human fish.
I have seen it since. My son is also a fish. From the moment he first saw water we haven’t been able to get him out. If there is water, he gets wet. It began when he was tiny and he would “fall” into any body of water he could find and we often spent a portion of “family days” with a wet child. It’s an undeniable pull and I have learned to live with it. At six he begged and begged for a surf board and then spent hours leaping on and off, refusing lessons, but laser focused on the task at hand. It is the best I have seen him.
It was the water that almost took him from me. On a family vacation in a remote part of Costa Rica my son was caught in a rip tide. I was there, but I couldn’t reach him. The only family on the beach, I went in for him and was slammed back to the beach again and again. As I stood up and looked for him he was so far out he would disappear with the swell and come back into my sight as the waves crested. There were minutes in my life that I thought he was gone. I sent my youngest sprinting to the house for my husband. I turned to Vincy: “Take your sisters and go. Get your father. Quickly.” Too many moments passed as I screamed and tried to break past the wall of water. I know now that Ian had slid beneath this wall of angry water that kept pushing me back. A surfer far down the beach saw me and came running with his board. The woman in the house next door gathered up my terrified children and put them in the back of her pickup truck to wait. She and her friends came to the water. I had the thought. The most devastating thought a mother can ever have. I thought my child was gone. Somehow, Ian swam around or, more probably, was lucky enough to catch the outer edge of the water headed directly out to sea and found the current coming back in. The surfer and my husband reached Ian just as his feet touched sand, and they helped Ian to the beach. I was a mess (of epic proportions, my children’s description of my behavior is uncomfortably hilarious now). Back on land and only slightly wide-eyed, Ian looked at me and asked, “Am I in trouble Mom?”. I will never be the same. My life changed completely in those moments and there is a part of me that has not recovered from those 10 or 15 minutes on the beach. Days later, we ran into the surfer again and he told us that Ian was very lucky to be alive. He said the scalloped edges of the Costa Rican shore create terrifying riptides that swallow too many people each year. We knew this. My husband had spoken to all our kids about the possibility on our first day, but we had felt nothing more than a gentle pull in the seven days we had already spent in the water. Ian didn’t seem to be afraid, nor terribly affected by the incident. To this day, I don’t know if he even understands what happened. I think he was more affected by my reaction and the response of those around him than to those moments he spent in the water. He wasn’t afraid. This is what frightens me most of all.
I spent most of that day feeling the weight of the incident pressing in on my chest, unable to do much beyond trying to breathe. I told my husband I might need to get some help. He thought I meant a therapist or a stiff drink. I meant a lobotomy. I couldn’t get past it. The Costa Rican woman living in the beach shack next door came to see me. Her name is Thelma. She took me to her front porch, sat me down, handed me a glass of something brown and sticky that created the first warmth I had felt in my body since early that morning. She grabbed my shoulders and looked into my eyes. “ I have raised 5 boys in this country” she said. She told me I could not spend a moment more thinking about what could have happened. “You only think about what did happen. The rest will make you crazy.” She reminded me that I had chosen to have four children; that I had chosen to show them this amazing and beautiful part of the world; that I had a son who was strong and brave and healthy and very alive. She reminded me that experiences are just that, you see them as they are and you are thankful for what you have. She reminded me to take nothing for granted. I told her that I was finished with Costa Rica and surfing and the ocean. She laughed out loud: “You are fighting the wrong things” she giggled, “You can’t keep him out of the water forever”. “There are things you cannot change”. At one point she said something to me that I will never forget: “The ocean had your child for a moment, but it gave him back to you. That is all. That is all that happened.” She told me a story about how a crocodile had bitten the foot of one of her sons where the water from the mountains flows into the ocean just down the beach from where we sat, and that a friend from this same village had doctored him back to health. “We do these things for each other” she said. She reminded me again and again to look at things as they were. It took several months (actually it still happens now and then) to stop waking in the night in a sweat or tears, or both. It took months to stop going over and over the too-clear images in my mind. I can still see them if I let myself look. More clearly than any photograph, I can see him out there in the water. And I can see him disappear. It took months of patience from my husband as I tried to work through the sharp pain that had taken up residence in my chest and seemed to be in no rush to move out. My body was storing the emotional damage and it was slow going to loosen things up. As the days passed, things did begin to change. Coming to my mat was medicine and I was able to find some peace there. I was able to turn my mind from the story playing over and over again in my mind. For short segments of time I was able to get grounded in the present moment. It was hot power yoga that was working: I wanted class so challenging that I had to dial into my breath, concentrate on a single point on the floor and slow my breath just to keep standing. For small segments of time I was able to give my mind a much needed rest. I was frustrated that I seemed to be the only one suffering though. Mike ran sprinting from the house, but he wasn’t there in those moments when I thought Ian was unreachable. Supportive and understanding, he wasn’t feeling broken as I was. Ian had promptly and easily recovered and spent the next day happily surfing. I was getting better, but it was taking time.
That wasn’t the end of the story though. My teacher was here to stay: It turned out that one of Thelma’s sons worked at the retreat center where I had done my first yoga teacher training. We spent a few days talking about her family and mine. My husband and children loved her, and we spent my 40th birthday on the cement slab of her house just yards from the waves. She cooked an amazing dinner and stuck a candle in a cookie for me. Thelma works hard to look forward, and she was helping my family to do the same. The bond we formed was so strong that we spent our next family vacation in Costa Rica with her; she came to stay with us in another part of the country the following year. We watched as a tiny plane brought her to us, the kids beyond excited to see her again. The year after that, I returned to Costa Rica alone to complete the Level II portion of my training. After a half day on the plane and a two hour bus ride to the retreat center, I walked up the stairs hot and tired and ready to face plant on a bed only to see her standing there on the top step. It took my breath away. Completely unplanned, she was visiting her son at the center and she wrapped her arms around me and pressed a kiss to my cheek. My husband had called her after I left Ohio on the outside chance that we could at least speak on the phone while I was in her country. Mike didn’t tell me she would be waiting for me. She is a yogi too. And a dancer. And a teacher. You see, she was there to remind me of the lessons I had been using yoga and the time spent on my mat to learn: To be present. To be grateful. To clean the mind and steady the breath. To take things as they come. To see things as they are.
What is most interesting to me is this idea that IF we practice these things on our mat, we are at least a little more ready to call upon them when we need them. If we can steady ourselves, if we can plant our feet firmly on the ground, if we can slow our mind with our breath on a daily basis it will be easier to find and use those “tricks” (if you will) when we need them. We can store these things in our physical body. We can become more strong, balanced, grounded and flexible in our bodies AND in our minds. We can learn that it is possible to steady ourselves by linking breath and movement, by creating space in the mind so that we can reset. We can loosen the tension and tightness that takes hold in our bodies by finding space and strength in ourselves, by learning to let go. We can practice turning our minds to what is true. We can focus the stories in our minds and learn to separate what “is” from what “could have been”. I gave birth to a fish. I put him in the water. I will not live a life or make decisions based on fear. Ian will always swim. I will always worry. Those two things will play tug of war inside my chest every single time we go to the ocean now, but I will focus on the stories that are true and not those that could have been.