A Childhood Memory
By Robert Russell
Two decades later and I still remember how the air smelled of pollen and sawdust. It was hot, a scorcher as my Dad called it. I thought he looked ridiculous, wearing those giant earmuffs. He was reconstructing the back deck, sawing and cutting pieces of wood with his power tools then nailing them together, the incessant clamor filling my ears. That deck is still there to this day. My dog, Ella, just a puppy at the time, was out frolicking by the pool, where I came to join her. The cement pavement singed my feet under the fire emanating from the noon sun. Virginia always had hot summers. I picked up a tennis ball and threw it hard at the fence that surrounded the pool, where it bounced off the sign that read “no running by the pool”. The pool was serene. The light danced beneath the water, refractions creating a labyrinth of moving trails on the pool floor. I stared at the surface, entranced by the latticework when my dog returned and dropped the tennis ball at my feet. We hadn’t had her for very long; she was a bit of an impromptu buy. My mom wasn’t a dog person but my dad was, and he had persuaded her, even against her rebuttals citing a three-year-old son, a one-year-old daughter, and a baby on the way. Still at three years old I recognized how smart this puppy was; she always brought the tennis ball back to me instantly, never wavering. I picked the ball up again and threw it hard at the fence where Ella set off like drag racer. The ball again bounced off the wall, but this time it shot into the pool and bobbed into the center. Without thinking, Ella leapt into the center of the pool, creating a tiny splash. Even then I immediately recognized what was happening. Also without thinking, I jumped in after her, only to realize the deep end was a lot deeper than I had remembered. My parents were avid swimmers who bought a house with a pool and planned to raise three tiny fish. I was already on my way to becoming one. Due to the unbearable temperature, we frequently swam. However, every time I went swimming, both parents were present, and would carry me, bouncing up and down into all spaces of the pool. The few times they encouraged me to swim on my own, I always donned a life vest.
I remember the initial jolt of cold and splash as I entered the water. It was a surprise at first, but it quickly turned pleasant, a nice relief from the scorcher above. At first, I was fearless, even when I completely submerged. I was Mommy’s little fish after all. However, the farther down I sank, the gravity of the situation set in. With all my clothes on, I quickly realized it was a lot harder to swim. My courage subsided, and fear crept in. I opened my eyes. The chlorine stinging and torturing only escalated my terror. I touched the bottom of the deep end, and momentarily stood. The feeling of weightlessness the shrouding water instilled into me was euphoric for a second. Suddenly I felt my lungs convulse. I lifted off from the bottom with a great kick and dove upward toward the surface. My tiny legs were scrambling and flailing as hard they possibly could. I looked upward and quickly caught a glimpse of the light from the other side just before the worst pain I’ve ever felt hit me like a train. My lungs gave out, and in tandem with lifting my head upward, water rushed into my nose and mouth as I forcefully inhaled underwater. The pool filled me, my lungs, my stomach, the taste of chlorine on my tongue. Asphyxiating, the water dragged me back down to the bottom. The glimpse of light from beyond the surface turned dark as black clouds slowly covered my eyes.
Suddenly, I was in a theater, of all places. The memory is vivid. I was seated in the back row of the balcony section of The Landmark facing the stage that was draped in a large, red curtain. Hundreds of red velvet seats surrounded me, not a single one filled with a body. The spotlight zoomed into the stage as the curtains began opening. I squinted from the back row as the spotlight hit a figure appearing between the parting sea of red. A pale, young boy with his head tilted downward stood alone in the center of the great stage. I could see that his clothes were soaked and they dripped water, creating a tiny pool around his bare feet on the wood. As I focused my eyes, peering painstakingly, my eyes like darts, the boy slowly lifted his head. Embedded in his blank, cold countenance were a pair of dead, obsidian eyes that looked straight forward. I focused again, and realized, to my utter bewilderment, I was staring at myself. Then, his eyes met mine.
I slammed awake.
Heaving and choking, vomiting the pool water, I woke on the warm pavement next to the pool. My clothes were heavy and drenched. My father had been pounding my fragile chest; I shuddered with each blow. He immediately threw me on my side, and I expelled volumes of pool water from my mouth. I inhaled the summer air, and life blew into me. Sound cease to exist for a moment, but with each inhale and exhale, each rising and falling of my tiny chest, my senses slowly returned to me. When my hearing and vision adjusted, I saw that my mother, kneeling next to me, was wailing, screaming like I’ve never seen before, and she pulled me in, my cheek pressed into her soft, eight-month baby bump. My father helped prop me up, and he, too, embraced me. I noticed he was shaking. They held me for a long time, visibly traumatized and crying. I just sat quietly, probably in shock, but also in wonderment of the dream I was just in. Between my parents, I noticed Ella’s black, lifeless body floating on the rough surface of the pool, the light trails dancing underneath her.
A Childhood Memory: Part Two
Two years after the day I almost died, a life resembling even a hint of normalcy was something I could completely forget about having. I, myself, had recovered fully; all residual trauma had evanesced, quite surprisingly for my now five-year-old mind. My parents, however, seemed to still reel in the wake of the events that transpired that fateful day. They barely spoke to each other, and things always seemed on edge. The tension was stark throughout the house. My mother seemed to have grown worn; her skin wrinkled and her hair became silver twigs that hung tangled from her head. My father gained weight and his face was glum and began to sag in a way. It took me a while to notice it at first but the days seemed to grow grayer and grayer with the passing of time, like the light perpetually dwindled. I never could understand why.
I did understand that what had happened that day was intense, and stress of the event still loomed heavy inside my parents. But what I didn’t understand was why I had been okay and continued to live and grow while they seemed to stand still, writhing in hidden agony when everything had been fine.
After the event, my brother was born and my sister was growing fast. At two years old, she was a quick-witted, energetic, and sassy toddler. My brother was a baby, and my sister watched over him constantly like a protective dog and her pup. My parents focused all of their collective undivided attention onto my brother, which eventually began to irritate me. I longed for the love and affection that they showered onto him each and every day. It seemed like most days, they wouldn’t even look at me, let alone speak to me. But at five years old, I had other distractions. I still loved to swim, ironically, and I loved to read. My true passion was exploration and in my imagination, I was Indiana Jones while my house was the ruins of some ancient lost civilization. I filled my days with these fantasies as my wearied parents doted over my brother.
My mother, a novice yet enthusiastic photographer, constantly took photos of us kids and had them developed. Eventually she upgraded to a nicer digital camera, and then I began to see her doctoring and enhancing photos before the computer. It became a real hobby for her. After creating hard copies of the photos, she would always hang some of them on the side of the refrigerator in the kitchen. Each day, another photo was stuck on under a magnet. At my short stature, I had to crane my neck and look up to glance over the memories. My favorite ones always included me. Surprisingly the most recent photo had been of us kids and my Dad in the pool. My sister and I clung onto my father as my brother bobbed in front, kept afloat by his life vest. Behind my Dad on his right, my left hand was extended with two bunny ears held up behind his head. It was free but hot day, and we had all enjoyed a nice afternoon swim. As I focused on the photo, a glimpse of hope scintillated within me. It seemed like a monumental staple in the recovery process that my parents so obviously needed to endure. A photo in the pool, us kids gleaming brightly, was the first stepping stone to remembering that everything had been fine.
As I indulged in one of my exploration fantasies one afternoon, I came across the door to the attic, a small plank on the ceiling upstairs only accessible by pulling a tiny string that hung over my head. I realized that this was unchartered waters that had yet to be conquered. I jumped up repeatedly trying to grab to the tiny string, each time it falling through my fingers. Eventually I retrieved a small step stool that I had used time and time again to look into the mirror in the bathroom. The stool granted me just barely enough height to grab the string and pull down the wooden door that unfolded into a ladder as it fell. It hit the floor with a loud thump that I was sure my parents heard, but after a few moments waiting to hear their imminent reprimands from downstairs, the coast was clear and I climbed up the wobbly ladder and into the warm darkness above.
I found the light immediately, and I pulled the string, illuminating the grand room. Wooden triangular beams fixed into the roof littered with puffy fiberglass insulation lay atop a wooden floor which, even through my thin socks, felt cool from the air conditioning below. Boxes scattered every inch of the space, random objects poking through the tops of some of them. I thought I hit the jackpot. The attic was the impenetrable lost atrium that contained the coveted buried treasure. I began rifling through the boxes at once.
I must have sat up there for hours. I rummaged through nearly every box, finding Christmas ornaments, old newspapers, old school yearbooks, and clothes. After sifting through the contents of a box, I meticulously packed everything back in so as to make it look like nothing had ever happened. To my disappointment, I didn’t find anything that I thought was worthwhile. I was hoping at least to come across a comic book or perhaps even an old toy of some kind, but no; my spoils were naught. I pulled the last box closer to me on the floor and discovered it was filled with photo albums. I began opening each one by one and found old memories from my parents’ childhoods and adolescences. Another photo album contained flashes of my Dad’s college years, the days I’m sure my Dad referred to when he said “the good ol’ days”. The last album I retrieved was newer. I could tell it had been opened recently as there was hardly any dust on it, and the bind was nicer than the rest. The first few pages were of me as a baby. In every photo I was gleaming with rosy cheeks and thin blonde hair. A few pages later, my sister entered the photos. She and I shared a few photos until it seemed the rest were only of her. My pregnant Mom popped up in a few, my dad cradling my sister too. Then my tiny baby brother arrived and in all of the remaining photos, there he was. I flipped through the pages, becoming rather annoyed that I wasn’t in any of the rest, but still gleefully poring over each page. I happened on the last page where a single photo sat inside the cellophane sleeve in the middle of the blank parchment. The photo was of the kids in the pool with Dad. My brother in his life vest bobbed afloat in front, and my sister clung my Dad on his left, and I…was not there. I shuttered at the sight; a long chill traveled down my spine. I knew this photo. I had seen it a million times; this photo was going to help my parents get better. I knew that I was in this photo. How was I not there?
I descended the stairs and ran toward the kitchen, continuously shouting for my parents. After each bellow, there was a daunting silence. The house seemed to be empty. As I rounded the corner from the hall, I stopped in the door and looked into the kitchen. The room was dark, yet light from the great window above the sink crept in. I turned toward the refrigerator and searched for the photo. I found it immediately and pulled it down. I held it in my hands and looked at myself in the photo, my left hand creating bunny ears behind my Dad’s head. There I was. Without thinking, I flipped the photo over and noticed on the back there was something scribbled at the bottom. I squinted in the dim light and read the line.
“The way things should have been.”
I read the line a few times over in my head before I heard someone crying nearby. I peered around the corner of the fridge and saw my Mother huddled over the sink. She was weeping. I called out to her but she stood, frozen, her face buried in her hands. I crept across the floor toward her and extended my tiny hand. Just as my hand was about to touch hers, my mother vanished. Her crying image evanesced like a phantom and I was left in the dim, empty house alone. The birds outside ceased to chirp and the darkness set in. A revelation hit me like a ton of bricks, and suddenly I knew why my parents had never fully recovered.