Head above Water

Written By: Joanna  Sawaya

Not too many summers ago, when I was pregnant with our fourth child, the man to whom I had entrusted my heart, my body, and my life returned to our home drunk, high, delusional, enraged. He beat and raped me and held a knife to my throat while our young children cowered in the dark hallway. My husband passed out suddenly during the assault so the children and I escaped, but my family was shattered, and my pain has been unspeakable.

This is a story that no one wants to hear. It has no place on a tree lined street with white picket fences, golden retrievers and gleaming SUVs. So perhaps you will forgive me and permit me to begin again.

A small miracle. The white house trimmed in yellow, winter rates, near the bay. Steps from the bay, as it turned out. From anywhere I stood on the crescent of beach surrounding The Great Peconic Bay I was awestruck. Clear water in shades of Carribean blue and green stretched wide towards the glimmering horizon, a family of swans skimming its surface, and the air so clean and quiet, I couldn’t imagine that this could really exist, right in my back yard. People pass occasionally, walking a dog or paddling a kayak, and they wave and nod as if to confirm, yes, its real, we see it too, this small paradise.

I become a person who walks on the beach. First in sneakers, then in sandals, then barefooted, then with pants rolled up so they don’t get wet, every day, then twice a day until one day, when my sister visits, I ask her if she can watch my son because I need to go out pretty far to get to the deep water. She looks incredulous. “You swim?” she asks, and I laugh, because she’s remembering the teenaged girl I once was, who had to be dragged to the water screaming because she hated getting her hair wet. But I’m also laughing at the word swim, so inadequate, as if my relationship to the Bay is mere sport.

How can I explain that the water has taken me in, adopted me, made me her own? She’s allowed me to be her witness as she changes from her stark silent stillness in winter, to warm tumbling turquoise of summer, from inky black evenings dotted with green luminescence, to the forever astonishing pink of dawn, and I’ve embraced her many moods as she has mine. How do I confess that I am often the mirror image of her heavily clouded rage before a storm, that I have punched and ranted and bawled against her waves as she takes it all patiently, until I remember to just let go, and be still, this is not the end, and I find my way back to peace again?

In this place I can strip away everything that threatens to define and confine who I am. So when families on their boats head in for the shore, they don’t see the lady that gets pulled over because her insurance lapsed, the lady that couldn’t give her kids lunch money this morning, the lady with the shoes whose sole is worn through, the lady who sometimes thinks her soul is worn through. No, they can only see a mermaid, a siren, a goddess of the sea from that distance, tricks of the salt water and sunlight maybe, but true nonetheless. The great healing arms of the Bay extend to my children as well, I know because I find their footprints, their fishing poles, their pebble and driftwood decorated castles in the surf, and I like to believe that wherever I’ve failed as a mother, she has picked up the slack.

One morning when my kids are still sleeping, I grab a mug of coffee and creep out into the pale, misty dawn. As I descend the stairs to the beach I come face to face with a beautiful young buck who is so startled he turns and runs directly into the bay. He swims out until only his head can be seen above the water. Fascinated, I follow on the shore until his antlers fade from view. A neighbor has also come out to watch the deer and she remarks that she’s noticed me before. “I saw you swimming at the end of October, it was so cold, I thought you must be insane!” We both laughed amiably but I will tell you she was mistaken. Yes the Bay was cold, but it has been my saving grace. I’m still learning to keep my head up but this much is true: I become stronger, calmer, and saner every time I touch the water.