Sink or Swim
by Heather Diamond
My grown daughter, a mother of four, narrows her hazel eyes while I cry. She hates it when I cry. I hate when I can’t stop. My father, her grandfather, has been dead for two days, and we have flown to Seattle from opposite directions. In my mother’s guestroom, the air between us crackles like an undersea cable.
She folds her arms and says, “You’re never there when I need you!”
What she says is true and not. My choices have put an ocean between us, yet I carry her with me everywhere.
“I feel like I’m always your second choice,” she laments. My daughter, my life raft from before I knew I had choices. Before her, I dreamed of drowning.
“Are you mad at me for going back to school? For moving to Hawaii? For getting married again?” The ways I’ve failed her unfurl beneath my guesswork—I see her curled beneath the silk-screening tables while I work into the night for a class, flying off to stay with my parents in the summers, waiting for me to stumble in from a date, unlocking the door to an empty apartment after school.
“You moved away,” she accuses. We circle the submerged reefs of our past, our words rising like bubbles above our heads.
“After you went away to college, remember?” A wisp of her long hair drifts across her face, but I resist the urge to sweep it behind her ear.
“Yeah, but I moved back to Texas to be near you.”
“Five hours away, and you were following your boyfriend.” Like I followed mine. I focus on the gold flecks in her eyes, echoes of her absent father. “So what do you want me to do? Move in next door and bake cookies?”
The corner of her mouth twitches. We both know that’s not my style. “Maybe. That might be nice.” She bites her lip to keep from smiling, but our laughter becomes an upward current we catch and ride.
My community college students try their best to outsmart me. As I stroll around the classroom, I tell them “This is my universe.” I complete my circuit of the perimeter before I announce, ”You are shipwrecked on a desert island with your mother, your child, and your spouse. A lifeboat washes up, oars intact, but it will only hold two. You and one other person are the only hope anyone from your family will survive. The odds are that those left behind will die. Who do you choose to take in the boat?”
My students are various ages and from different places and walks of life; I want them to discover not everyone thinks the way they do, so I begin the semester with icebreakers.
They drag their desks into clusters of four, but instead of answering my question, they debate how to bargain their way out of a decision. They raise their hands and ask: Can I paddle fast and get back? What if there is a ship? What if I refuse to go? They force me to add obstacles and conditions—You are three days away from land, the lifeboat will sink with more people, only you can navigate, your mother is old, your child is a teenager. They speculate whether those left behind can catch birds and fish with their hands. I give them fifteen minutes before reporting back to the class.
The young women, several of them single parents, choose the child: Children have their lives ahead of them. My mother has already had a life. Husbands can be replaced.
An older woman laughs and says, “What if you get stuck in the boat with a mouthy teenager? I’d take my husband because he always knows what to do.”
A young man says, “I’d take my son. I can always get another wife. This might be my big chance to get rid of the one I have!” The other men laugh. So do the women, who say, That’s why we aren’t taking you! Besides, you’d just tell us we were rowing wrong!
A heavy-set man in the back guffaws and says, “I wouldn’t have a choice! My mom would already be in the boat telling me she brought me into this world and she’d take me out if I didn’t get my ass in and start rowing!”
When they ask me to choose, I refuse to say. I’m a daughter who has put a continent between herself and her mother, a woman who has left two husbands, the mother of a daughter eager to put miles between herself and me. Some storms choose us; some choices are shipwrecks.
The question comes up at a sleepover after we’ve tired of asking the Ouija Board to name our current admirers and future lovers. My girlfriends and I are in my parents’ basement, heads together, chins resting on hands, our sleeping bags unrolled over the concrete floor like a starfish. Someone poses the dilemma: It’s a beautiful day and you go out for a ride in a boat with your husband and your baby. Out of nowhere there’s a terrible storm and your boat sinks. You’re the only one who can swim, and you can only save one person. Who do you choose?
We’ve heard the question before, the details varying according to the dramatics of the teller. Even at ten—long before I meet the black-haired foreigner who would become my third husband—I pictured my dream lover thrashing in the waves, his dark curls sopping, a pale arm raised above his head. His mouth wide and gasping. The water and sky around me dark, the waves punishing. I gulped spray and tasted salt as I fought to get closer.
Dreaming of love unfettered from the wifely shape of my mother’s life, I could never picture a child.
Here is what we didn’t ask: Why are we supposed to do the saving? Why can’t the man swim? Why didn’t someone check the weather? Why aren’t we wearing life preservers? Are there sharks?
Here is what we said: If I save my baby, it can grow up. If I save my husband, we can have more kids. The shapes of our imagined families wavered beneath the surface as we deliberated.
Here is what we couldn’t know: Saving the husband meant risking love salted by loss. He might provide ballast and more babies. He might pull you under, drink too much, trade you in, leave you unmoored. You might decide you don’t love him anymore, anchor up and set sail.
Saving the child meant choosing loss sweetened by love. A child, however tide tugged toward its amniotic beginnings, must grow up and leave. Yet the deep dive of motherhood forever swells the dimensions of a heart, teaches it the topographies of safe harbor and how water sings to blood.
We were girl-sized searchlights flickering in the dark. Who knew if we would sink or swim?
Heather Diamond holds a BFA in painting and MA in literature from the University of Houston, and a PhD in American Studies from the University of Hawai‵i. She has worked as a bookseller, college teacher, and museum curator, and currently splits her time between Hong Kong and the Pacific Northwest. Her work has appeared in Memoir Magazine and Sky Island Journal. Visit her at heatherdiamondwriter.com.