Jun 06, 2013 0 Share

Into the Clear Blue


Photo of author's brother in swimming pool.
Photo by Donna Fischer

A bracing sea breeze rustles the tree branches overhead, and pelicans and seagulls swoop around us. We're in a resort paradise for the weekend, thanks to my generous in-laws. My husband Jonathan and I sit back, holding hands. It's not easy to find two chairs poolside, but we have persevered. Behind my sunglasses, my eyes scan the crystal-blue water. At first, I'm just searching for our niece and nephew, splashing around with other kids their age. But once I've spotted them, I keep looking. Even though it's irrational, even though I know he's home with our parents in New Jersey, I find myself looking for my brother Willie. 

It's not surprising, really, that I should associate Willie with this pool. Willie is the fish of our family; he loves the water, and will stay in for hours. Chilly conditions, fatigue, prune-y skin—these are small considerations for him. If I squint, I can pretend that he's nearby, fitting his goggles, preparing to go under. 

So strongly do I sense his presence that I start actually doing the mental gymnastics that is my big-sister routine. This involves scanning the environment and trying to anticipate Willie's needs in an unfamiliar setting. It's figuring out how to include Willie in as many activities as possible, but also making space for solitary pastimes that allow him to unwind. It's striking a balance between structure and spontaneity in a place that isn't home. It's not easy. 

Fast-forward to the next day, as Jonathan and I wait our turn for a sailboat ride on the bay. Sailing is one of our favorite things; when we were here four years ago, we had dolphins swimming alongside our small boat. (Dolphins!) I know better than to expect them to join us today, though; there are too many motorboats racing around. The couple who took the sailboat out before us say that the wind is really picking up, and encourage us to take care. We nod, eager to get moving. We've sailed together before; we'll be fine. 

We borrowed a kayak yesterday, but it doesn't compare to this. The wind filling the sails, the speed—it's like we're flying across the water. It's the fastest I've ever gone in a sailboat, and it's exhilarating, if a bit scary. The wind takes us farther and faster than we'd expected. All of the sudden, we're barely in sight of the resort. We know we need to turn around (“go about” in sailing terms), so we coordinate several attempts. Each time, the boat whips around and then stalls; the wind from the opposite direction is too strong. If we were experts, we'd know what to do. 

We're not experts. Going about quickly doesn't seem to be working, so we try a slower turn. This is a mistake; it gives the strong wind time to fill our sails, pick up our lightweight boat and tilt it off balance. In one inexorable moment, I feel us go sideways. Uh-oh. 

To my right, Jonathan falls just before I do. We've capsized. I am submerged. The boat is over my head; for one frozen instant, I am terrified that I won't be able to get out from under it. But I push off, surface, breathe. I call out, with a barely-concealed fear, Jonathan?  

It's the only thought in my mind. Not Glad we're wearing life jackets  or What if we get in trouble for this?  My thoughts are distilled to this single word. 

Fortunately, he's fine; in fact, he's trying to hold on to the boat as the wind pulls it out to sea.  

Presently, we're rescued, back on land. We sit poolside once more, shaken by the sudden end to our sailing experience. 

I think to myself: Maybe Willie loves going underwater because it effectively turns the volume down on the world. Perhaps he just loves the sensory experience of floating. But I have a hunch that it's something more. Being underwater has a way of stripping away the excess. It's a crash-course in clarity, in what's important. Air. Breath. People. And when you come to the surface at last, the light is brighter, illuminating everything:  the land, the sky, a beloved face.