Fear of Drowning

A Midsummer Tale ~ First Place
Dena Riggs Hein

In my dream I am writing. I am working on a project at a familiar desk in a house near the ocean. The smells of the salty air mixed with sunscreen radiate from my skin. The sound of the waves lapping the sand works in rhythm with the glide of the wind through the trees. I can’t help but look up from my work to savor the postcard image before me of sun and surf. My husband and I bring our children to this place each year for one week of escapism to the beach. This small cottage, although dwarfed on either side by much larger and more modern homes, pays homage to the simpler life we seek while on vacation. In my dream I am here alone, motivated by the choreography of Mother Nature and my solitude. My attention returns to my writing. There is a pad of paper, but I cannot initially decipher the scribbling. Just as words come into focus and the writing reveals itself, I feel a pull on my arm, catapulting me from the calm of the sea and this mysterious project to my bedroom in a small town outside of Chicago.

My four year old daughter leans on my nightstand grasping a pink blanket in one hand while a black plush dog hangs by its ear in the other. She whispers, “Mommy is today the day we go to Hilton Head?” I lie still for a moment, changing gears from sleep to parenting. I turn my head to her and whisper back, “No, honey, we don’t leave until next week.” I am awake enough that I can now squint at the digital clock on my husband’s side. It is 2:23 a.m. “Go back to bed and we’ll go on vacation next week.” She sobs softly, choking out the words, “But, I want to go today. I want to leave right now.”

Each July we rent a house for our family on the beach and spend a week in our bathing suits—swimming from morning till night, grilling dinner on a little Hibachi grill, and counting stars from the edge of the boardwalk. We know it is a cliché when we tell our neighbors that our lives revolve around this one relaxing week, in this one small house, on this one strip of beach, but we brag about the redemptive qualities of our vacation anyway.

The countdown for the trip begins in mid February. But it is the final stretch of the last ten days before departure that the house becomes electric—buzzing with stories of years past, peppering them with predictions for this year. “I’m going to dive off the lion’s head at the deep end!” Andrew yells from his room early one morning. He is now six and a stronger swimmer than last year. Adrienne counters, “I am going to swim every night until midnight!” Adrienne won’t make it to midnight, but she will give her best try to keep up with the rest of us as we go from beach to pool and back again, and again, and again until someone admits defeat and surrenders to bed.

We have been doing this since Adrienne was 18 months old. She is the most excited because she is convinced she can finally “stay up the latest,” but if there were a prize for that I would get it. I am always the last one to bed because although we are on vacation I am still the mommy and have the mommy jobs of laundry and picking up. There are nights, that despite my own exhaustion or the work that should be done for the next day, I sit outside alone replaying the events of the day in an effort to mentally record the sweet melody of Adrienne’s giggles or to file away the details of Andrew’s first jump off the diving board. There was a time in my former life (my life before them) when I would have written things down then shaped the details into essays or stories. I was a writer. Although inspired by my children, the effort to write anything down continually escapes me. I know my memory cannot possibly hold all I want to record, but I am not sure being a writer will ever co-exist with my role as a parent. In the dark and quiet of the night I look to the stars to release the guilt I feel for not even trying.

The slide of the screen door startles me. It must be 10:00pm when Andrew finds me sitting on a wicker sofa I have pulled from the screened porch out to the open deck. After my date with the stars, I was meditating to the crashing waves and was near ready to call it a night. Leaning against the door in his swim shorts he looks gangly—bony. Last year he was still round and toddler-ish. A year later his jaw line has developed and his eyes clearly match the shape of mine. I want to quickly file away these details, but his voice interrupts. He says, “Mommy, will you swim with me in the spooky nighttime pool?” I had also noticed the irregular rippling across the deep end. I had deduced the patio lights were reflecting strangely off the water due to patchy cloud cover and the position of the moon. “Spooky is a good adjective,” I say.

The four bathing suits I brought on the trip are draped a few feet away from me on a matching wicker chair dripping water to the cedar plank flooring like a metronome. The idea of putting on one of those suits was not appealing, but Andrew’s eyes (my own eyes looking back at me) were pleading. He ups the ante on his proposition and says, “We can tell stories. Tonight the moon has a funny shape behind a scary cloud. I think that’s a really good beginning and don’t forget we have the spooky pool, too.”

This is part of the ritual of our vacation. When we swim at night we tell stories. Once we pick a main character then dream up a conflict, we take advantage of our own setting and describe the trees swaying in the wind or the birds that fly across the clouded sky. We talk about the sounds we hear or the smell of the ocean. Sometimes we tell true stories of me when I was a little girl. Sometimes Andrew wants to be the hero and sometimes he likes to give his younger sister a starring role. In last night’s story I was a superhero mom on a jet ski saving jellyfish from being left behind when the tide went out. Their favorite stories are the ones of the two of them when they were babies—things they don’t remember, but find hysterically funny now that they are older and wiser at six and four. Andrew knows I cannot resist the stories; his smirk betrays his confidence in me.

I begrudgingly shimmy into the least damp bathing suit then wade into the pool. Andrew climbs on my back as I dog paddle the two of us from the edge over to a set of steps where we can hold onto the rail and allow our bodies to freely float behind us. The water is warm and reminds me of the YMCA where I learned to swim. “Can I tell you a story before we begin?” I ask. “Sure,” he says.

“I have loved the water since I was a baby. I took lessons for the first time at the age two. I dangled my toes off the edge for just a moment then plunged into the deep. Mimi and Poppa said I had no fear. When I bobbed up to the surface and paddled to the side they clapped with pride.” Andrew smiles and says, “What else? Tell me more.” There is more to tell, but I am not sure my mom wants her grandson to know she never learned to swim. I am not sure she likes to admit that she enrolled me in swimming lessons at age two to ensure I would not live with the same embarrassing regret. Her cheeks turn pink and she shakes her head in remorse when she tells her history of sitting by the pool for years as a young girl pretending not to fear the water in favor of being unashamedly social when in fact, she was too scared to even wade in from the steps. I am not sure Andrew would understand why today she and my dad live on a lake with a boat in which she seldom enjoys because of the fear of drowning.

“Why don’t you tell me a story instead?” I ask. “Do you still like the moon or do you have another idea?” On cue the bugs in the trees and bushes surrounding us, in mass begin their nightly communication. Crickets, grasshoppers, and locusts simultaneously squeak, chirp and sing their messages to each other and use their musical bravado to vie for the attention of a mate. Andrew looks to the trees and into the bushes around the perimeter of the pool with narrowed eyes. “I think I will tell a story of these bugs,” he announces.

The creak of the screen door calls our attention to a sleep disheveled Adrienne standing in the shadow of a dim light. She rubs her eyes and yawns, then speaks emphatically, “You are nighttime swimming without me. I want to do it, too!! I want to tell stories of the bugga buggas!”

Within a few minutes the pool swims with small voices spouting big ideas. “These bugs must be having a meeting and everyone is arguing, which is why they are so loud!” Andrew says. “I think the bug mommy has lost her bug baby and all the bugs are worried,” Adrienne retorts. As they toss around their ideas they eventually get back to the bug meeting. Andrew begins, “Once a year, the bugs of the trees meet with the bugs of the beach to review their laws and to give awards for good citizenship.” We laugh at the incongruity of citizenship to bugs. Andrew continues, “When the moon is a funny shape and it hides behind a spooky cloud the sea creatures know that is their clue that they are allowed to join the bugs for a dance party.” Adrienne laughs very loud then interjects, “Since they haven’t seen each other in a year they are probably all talking at once like at Mimi’s house on Thanksgiving.” I laugh that she remembers the holiday chaos when family from all over town have the uncanny ability of year after year arriving at the same time. Then I smile at Andrew’s invention of a grasshopper and crab reunion.

The story stalls for several minutes as the kids debate new characters. Adrienne wants a fox to barge in on the meeting and send the bugs and sea creatures running, while Andrew (much more sensitive than his sister) suggests that a crab get the citizenship award for learning not to be “crabby.” We laugh at the double meaning. Our skin begins to show signs of water wrinkles just as the bugs rev up their buzzing and chirping again like a soundtrack to our story. Adrienne, nodding in agreement with the crabby ending proclaims loudly, “And the bugga buggas said, ‘Good night, everybody!'” We blow a kiss to the stars and bid good night to the sand and the surf, the trees, and the bugs, but especially to our award-winning crab.

Inside the house I help the kids wiggle from their wet suits then into pajamas. I give good night kisses then quietly slide into bed next to my slumbering husband. It only takes a few laps of the surf to carry me off to a dream.

I see myself sitting in a beach chair writing in a notebook. The tide is out, so I am surrounded by the dark, hard sand that is perfect for sand castles. I see Adrienne in the distance with a bucket digging a moat around her creation. Andrew is inspecting all the urchins the water left behind on its drag out to sea. With each swish of the waves the water moves closer as it performs its magnetic dance with the moon. Out and then in; out and then in. I look back to my notebook and begin writing something down as my mom enters the dream as herself in 1961 when she was a high school beauty queen. She is a petite girl with short dark hair that frames her face and highlights her eyes—brown with black lashes long and thick. She resembles a collectible doll with creamy skin and features that fit perfectly together, all in proportion. She is beautiful, but it is mostly for her smile. It radiates a friendly nature that makes you feel like she’s always been your friend even if you are meeting her for the first time. She is wearing a yellow and white polka dot bikini. I smile—maybe at the bizarre nature of this meeting or maybe because my mom truly is the epitome of the swimsuit competition. I want to write this down, but she touches my hand. I look up at her youthful face. She says to me, “You know honey, I never learned to swim. I have regretted that my entire life.”

For no reason I startle awake. I look around to place myself in time and space. I hear my husband’s rhythmic breathing and the subtle splash of the surf outside our room. The smells of the salty air mixed with the faint odor of chlorine and sunscreen radiate from my skin. I gently slip out of bed and tiptoe to my favorite desk in the main room of the house—the one with the large window that overlooks the pool and the ocean waves beyond. In the daylight, I can’t help but savor the postcard image of sun and surf. In the dead of the night, there are only shadows created by the pale moonlight. I cock my head to listen. It is very still, even the bugs are sleeping. I fumble through the desk for a pad of paper then blindly grasp the pen to keep our stories from drowning.


“When not in Hilton Head I spend my summer days playing Scooby Doo checkers, monitoring Webkinz computer time or patching the Slip and Slide. I have been known to occasionally set up a very challenging obstacle course if asked nicely and am always willing to ride any roller coaster. My kids’ favorite song is Beastie Boys, “Brass Monkey,” which can be heard blasting from our car on any given day. When the kids, the husband and the cats are all sleeping I work into the wee hours writing. I have one semester left to complete my Master’s Degree in English.” E-mail: d.hein[at]comcast.net

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