Triptych: Memories of My Mother
T. R. Healy
I. Bread on the Water
For a few minutes one afternoon, I had the Y swimming pool to myself and slid on my goggles and pushed off the wall and slowly began to plow through one of the middle lanes. Oddly, it seemed as if I were somewhere far from shore, in the middle of an immense pond, as I crawled through the warm, blue chlorinated water. Not being much of a swimmer, I am always a little uneasy when I am in the water, not sure if I have the strength to stay afloat. Sometimes my arms grow so heavy I worry they'll sink and drag me down to the bottom of the pool.
Soon I began to feel very uncomfortable, not accustomed to being alone in the water, and anxiously wished someone would join me. Of course, I knew someone would, the pool was nearly always crowded at this hour of the day, and after I completed my fourth lap, I noticed another swimmer in one of the fast lanes. I squinted through my clouded goggles and relaxed when I saw the familiar woman with the purplish tattoo that wound around her left forearm like a strand of seaweed. Lydia, so I thought of her as, after the tattooed lady Groucho sang about in "At the Circus."
In another moment she streaked past me, her legs churning furiously. "Oh, Lydia, sweet Lydia," I sang to myself, marvelling at her seemingly effortless stroke which propelled her through the water with astonishing speed. She always swam circles around me, as if I were supporting an ironing board across my shoulders. I wondered if she even knew I was there, she was so absorbed in pulling her strong, lithe body through the water.
Some equate the appeal of swimming with a desire to return to the safe, irresponsible oblivion of the amniotic waters. And while I am not transported that far back, I too associate immersion with childhood. Indeed, one of my earliest memories is my fear of swallowing all the water in our bathtub. I must have been two years old, perhaps three, but not any older. The porcelain tub was so slippery I was afraid I couldn't keep the water out of my mouth until my mother placed a finger beneath my chin to make sure my head stayed above the surface.
My brother and I were the only ones in our family to learn how to swim. My father adored the water, especially the ocean which he would plunge into with abandon, howling and shivering with excitement. Sometimes, holding our hands, he would walk us out into the bracing surf and then together we would jump the waves that crashed around our knees. But he wasn't able to swim a stroke, just like his own father who also loved to wade in the ocean. I do not know why he never learned, but suspect it might have something to do with the fact that his father came from Galway where children of fishermen were often discouraged from learning to swim so that in the event of an accident at sea they would drown quickly and not suffer a long and painful death trying to swim to shore.
My mother also could not swim but she was deathly afraid of the water, reluctant to set even a toe in the surf when we visited the beach. The closest she got to any large body of water was the pond near our home where she would take my brother and I on Sunday afternoon to scatter bits of bread for the swans and ducks. And it was because of this fear that she insisted we learn to swim, casting us like bread into an outdoor public pool one summer where free lessons were offered to children in the neighborhood. All we learned how to do was float and breathe to the right and flutter our arms a little, but it was enough to enable us to reach the opposite end of the pool.
The first time I made it, I felt as if I had crossed the English Channel. I was brimming with confidence. At last I was able to do something my parents couldn't, and, naively, I was sure I could do practically anything if I set my mind to it.
A year after learning to swim, at a pier on Catalina, I had the opportunity to descend into the sea in an ancient red bathysphere to view the wonders of the deep. Yet, what I recall most vividly is not the marine line I observed but the expression on my mother's face when I returned to the surface. Her eyes were full of relief, not only because I was safe, but because she saw I was not afraid of the water.
Lydia again splashed past me, and in her wake was a pregnant woman who looked as if she were going to deliver her child any moment. She was as large as a walrus, yet because I am so slow I struggled to keep ahead of her. Shortly, another swimmer slid past me, then another, until nearly every lane was occupied. With a dozen or more hands slapping the water, it became increasingly turbulent, almost as loud as a bus terminal.
Never have I swum as much as I have the past few months. Three or four times a week I am in the Y pool, doing laps, trying to mend an injured tendon. Usually I am the slowest one in the water, straining to keep up with the others who more often than not are women. At times I feel like an intruder, as if I had strayed into the wrong swimming pool. Never before have I been around so many women who are such fine athletes, though swimmers of their caliber could only be seen at lavish competitions broadcast on television. Almost all of them are as detached as Lydia, completely absorbed in what they are doing.
There are moments in the water, as I watch the women race past me, when I am convinced I can understand them better than I ever could by talking with them. They seem as vivid as the black lines on the bottom of the pool but only for a while then they become strangely ethereal, remote as spirits in a dream. Of course I do not know any of these women, I am only deceiving myself, rather I look at them because they make me think of my mother. If it were not for her, I'd still be standing on the side of the pool, too afraid to enter the water.
I took so much for granted while growing up, practically expecting the benefits I received, that I seldom expressed my gratitude. I was swimmer before I could swim. Swimming is an activity that encourages self-absorption, and often I acted like a swimmer too preoccupied to acknowledge the generosity of others. Until I began swimming at the Y, amid all these women who made me think of my mother, I never realized how grateful I was for her encouraging me to swim. It was one of the small things a mother does for a child, trifle perhaps, yet the sort of thing that makes someone a mother.
Sometimes, toward the end of an afternoon in the pool, as my stroke starts to become as choppy as the water, I feel as if my mother's hand is pressed beneath my chest and keeping me above the water. And though I know that is impossible, I often catch myself looking around for her, hoping to show my gratitude.
II. Chasing Butterflies
My mother died the other day and I don't know why. She was admitted to the hospital with a sore left shoulder and a few weeks later was dead.
"All her numbers are good," a staff physician told my brother and I the second day she was there. "She should be out of here very soon."
I remained concerned, though, because she was so drowsy and weak, barely able to lift her head when she sipped water through a bent straw. At home I would search through a paperback book of symptoms and scribble down those that corresponded to her condition and the next day ask the physicians about the adequate absorption of vitamin B, about the sufficiency of her adrenal glands, about the overuse of certain medications. I was asking questions I didn't know anything about, struggling to make the correct pronunciation so I didn't embarrass myself. Always they would nod and assure me that everything I mentioned had already been checked out and deemed satisfactory.
"Her numbers are good," they reiterated time and again. "She doesn't seem to have anything wrong with her."
Despite their assurances, she continued to decline, turning into someone I scarcely recognized. I continued to suggest different avenues for the physicians to explore but they insisted it was only a matter of time before she "turned the corner" and was able to return home. Day after day they swooped into her pale room, their long, white hospital coats billowing behind them, insisting that she should be improving. I was skeptical. And before long I noticed the change in their eyes, noticed that their confidence and certainty had been replaced by the doubt and confusion that filled my eyes.
After a while, I grew tired of their stale voices. I could not listen to them any longer and instead stared at their immaculate white coats. They brought to mind a sultry Sunday afternoon many years ago when my mother and her sister and I chased butterflies across the green meadows of Sauvie Island.
I was just a youngster then, still seeking my mother's assistance for difficult school assignments. One such assignment was to collect some butterflies for a biology class. I didn't have any idea where I was going to find any butterflies to make a collection so I looked to my mother for help. She suggested Sauvie Island, which I had never heard of then but she thought it would be a good place to find butterflies. So she and my aunt found some old broom handles and attached pillow cases to the ends and the next day the tree of us went out to the remote island. Back and forth we raced across the flat meadows, laughing at our ineptitude as we swung the clumsy nets through the air. The skittering butterflies were as elusive as needles in a haystack but somehow we managed to catch enough to complete my biology assignment.
Explanations for my mother's worsening condition were even more elusive, however. I realize physicians are not sorcerers, they aren't able to provide remedies for every conceivable malady. Nor do I expect them to have answers for all the illnesses they encounter but I assumed they would offer some plausible explanation but they didn't offer any with regard to my mother's deterioration. Eventually they admitted they were as bewildered as my brother and I were about her failure to respond to all their treatments, even though they still insisted all the tests they had conducted on her indicated she should be getting better.
Minute by minute she grew worse until it became difficult even to look at her. Instead, I thought of that afternoon when my mother chased butterflies with me. She was young and strong and nimble and graceful then, not the pathetic soul she became in the hospital.
III. A Diamond in the Sky
The first thing one notices when flying into Honolulu is Diamond Head, probably the most recognized landmark in the islands. Known in Hawaiian as Le'ahi because the summit was thought to resemble the brow of the yellowfin tuna, the dormant volcano looms over the southeast corner of Oahu like some gigantic dark cloud. Hundreds of years ago, British sailors gave it its current name when they mistook the calcite crystals gleaming on the slope of the crater for diamonds.
Up in the plane, staring down at the famous promontory, I never for an instant thought I would be standing on top of it a few days later. The notion had never crossed my mind but that morning for whatever reason, I got up with the sun and decided I would climb it and boarded a bus and rode out to the volcano.
At the bus stop I looked around to see if anyone else was up this early to make the climb and spotted a couple of hikers trudging up the winding road that led to the inside of the crater. I smiled, relieved that I was not alone this morning, and trailed behind them as if we were together through a wide tunnel and past the parking lot. A small fee was levied to make the ascent, and after I paid it, I looked at the handout that was available concerning the national landmark. It said that the summit reaches an elevation of 761 feet and that the path up covers 0.8 miles from the trailhead.
Though I had never climbed Diamond Head, I had been here before, many years ago, with my mother and brother on a Greyhound bus tour of the city. I remember the driver telling us that early in the twentieth century it was considered a perfect location for the coastal defense of the island and was designated a military installation. It was fortified with gun emplacements and five batteries were constructed to store artillery pieces and to provide protection from invading forces. But its military significance ended with the introduction of radar and the batteries now are used to house supplies in case of some natural catastrophe.
The two hikers I had followed half a mile from the bus stop paused at the trailhead to take pictures of one another so I stepped by them to begin the ascent. The hike was estimated to take an hour and a half but only one other person appeared ahead of me so I was able to proceed at a fairly brisk pace and quickly passed him. The initial part of the trail was a concrete path, installed to reduce erosion, then it reverted to dirt and became much steeper as it wound up the west slope of the crater. I felt pretty good and was confident I would reach the summit before it got too warm. I had to, I thought, because I didn't bring along any water as recommended.
Moving through a series of switchbacks, past plants like the kiawe that were introduced as cattle feed, I began to notice other hikers ahead of me. I was surprised, thinking I had the trail practically all to myself. Also, I was amazed how well dressed many of them were, as if they were making their way up and down the aisles of a department store, but instead of baskets and carts they carried cameras and water bottles. The hike is not considered very demanding but the clothing they had on suggested they didn't expect to expend a drop of sweat.
A few feet off the trail, at an observation post, three Japanese women paused to catch their breath. Quietly, I stepped by them, exchanging smiles, and as I did, I thought of my mother who for many years after her retirement walked nearly every morning around her neighborhood. If she were here now, I was sure she could have made this climb. Once she made up her mind to do something, she plowed ahead until she was done. There would have been no rest breaks for her, not until she reached the summit.
I was just as determined not to take a break and pushed on, gripping the iron guardrail installed along the route to keep people from spilling over the side should they lose their balance. Soon I came to a steep stairway of 74 concrete steps. Several people were already climbing up them very slowly, and I followed, tempted to pass them but I didn't want to be rude. I could feel the muscles tighten in the back of my legs. The steps led into a dimly lit tunnel that was 225 feet long and scarcely wider than my shoulders. Moving through the passage, hunched over as if suddenly supporting some heavy weight on my back, I proceeded as slowly and cautiously as I had all morning. Any moment I was afraid a bat might come flying at me or a spider might crawl across my arms.
The tunnel was an eerie place, and I knew my mother would not have liked walking through here at all. Three months earlier she had passed away, after being ill for three long years. But until the last couple of weeks of her life, she had been able to walk without assistance, then my brother and I had to push her around the house in a rackety desk chair. However, the only way she'd have gotten through this tunnel, even when she was well, I suspected, was if we had pushed her in that same chair.
Next, I headed up an even longer stairway, trudging past a man breathing heavily through his nose and mouth at the same time. I was breathing heavily, too, for this was the most demanding phase of the climb. One step at a time, I whispered to myself, knowing the summit was near.
At the top of the stairs is the first level of the Fire Control Station where instruments and plotting rooms were once located to direct artillery fire from the numerous batteries. It was a formidable fortification that, as it turned out, never fired any of its weaponry during hostilities. Also, according to legend, the fire goddess Pele was thought to have resided here and a temple was built in her honor from which human sacrifices were thrown into the crater.
I crept through another tunnel, up a spiral staircase, past others sipping water and taking pictures, and came to a narrow metal slit.
"Am I suppose to go through this?" I asked someone ahead of me.
He laughed. "You are, if you're skinny enough."
I was, fortunately, and squirmed through the opening and then I found myself on the summit. The view was spectacular, the water as blue as the sky and seemingly every bit as large. Someone said you might be able to see some whales if you looked hard enough, but my eyes are not that strong and, instead, I looked at an airplane soaring in the distance and remembered a few days ago when I was a passenger peering out a window at Diamond Head. I could hardly believe I was really standing here and smiled uncontrollably. I still didn't know why I made the climb but suspected it had something to do with my mother. As I held her in my memory, I was able to let her accompany me on the excursion. And to be with her again when she was strong enough to move up stairs and through tunnels was something that pleased me more than anything.
Bio: T.R. Healy was born and raised in the Pacific Northwest and his essays have appeared in such publications as Appalachia, The Climbing Art, and Palo Alto Journal.