Today, in the therapy pool at the community center near our house, Ronan had his first group swimming lesson with other kids with developmental disabilities, or “issues,” as some people like to say, although name me a person without a physical issue and I’ll show you a dollar that nobody wants. Rick and I arrived a bit early, and we stood near the locked door of the pool as kids and their parents began to arrive: a two-year-old girl wearing a hot pink swimming suit, a tiny nine-month old girl with a fuzz of blond hair (one half of a pair of boy-girl twins), a little boy with the thin limbs and stiff movement that I recognized as cerebral palsy, and a boy with a round face and no language — although he didn’t need it, because as soon as he got into the pool, his face came alive. He plunged his hands below the surface of the water. His mother kept her arms around him, steadying him as he splashed and kicked. They were both laughing. By the time Rick was ready to walk Ronan down the ramp and into the pool, the humid air and the fact that it was Ronan’s nap time had put him to sleep. A bored looking lifeguard oversaw our “special needs” group. Again — the silliness of these categories is so clear to me. We go on and on in this culture, especially in our schools, about how special every individual is, how much they matter, and so doesn’t it follow that if every kid is so special and unique, then ALL of us have special needs? Oh, I don’t know. Sometimes I just need other issues to wander around and poke at, other things to think about and worry over.
Ring around the rosies, pocket full of posies, ashes, ashes, we all fall down. As Rick descended into the water, the older kids and their parents were already singing in a circle near us. “You like the water?” I asked Ronan. His face betrayed surprise and then pleasure, the same expressions he makes when trying a new food for the first time. Rick held Ronan the way our physical therapist taught us: one palm under the head, the other palm under the back, allowing him to glide along the surface. Back and forth, back and forth, his body chubby and buoyant, his permanently pointed toes making little waves in the surface of the water. His hair spread out around him like pale seaweed. He smiled and kicked when he could. I sat near the edge and dragged my foot in the water. Rick explained to the therapist that Ronan was fourteen months old but had the motor skills of a six-month old. She nodded and touched Ronan’s cheek. I’m always wary of new people — worried about their reaction to Ronan, ready to strike, but she was kind, and she gently took him from Ronan and swam with him around the square pool, talking and smiling as Rick and I watched. She looked like a mermaid, swimming with a treasure in her arms, holding it out, preparing to present it to appease some underwater monarch, some beast of the sea.
Later, the kids and their minders (Rick was the only father), bobbed in a circle and sang a welcoming song while one of the therapists passed a ball to each kid, one at a time. “Good morning to Ronan; we’re so glad to see your face; Good morning, good morning to you.” Jordan, Ashley, and Joshua were all greeted in turn.
And you know what I thought as I sat there? I’ll bet Ronan is the only one of these kids who is going to die before he turns three, or maybe four, or maybe five. I felt angry and small and mean and I wanted to leave. I watched Rick carefully learning from the therapist how to lift Ronan up and down in the water; how to hold him under the arms and wave his upper body one way so that his bottom half sways the other way, and it goes on like that, trunk and legs moving from side to side, as if Ronan were swimming or moving on his own, a slow underwater dance. (“Do you think it feels like a twist in yoga?” Rick asked when we got in the car.” I shook my head as a way of indicating I didn’t know; if I spoke, I would cry, and I wasn’t ready for the places that action would take me.)
When Ronan started to protest Rick walked him up the ramp and out of the pool. I kept thinking of baptism, of those full-body immersions in the Jordan, or of the mikveh, when the whole body goes in one way and comes out different, changed, pure, whole, rearranged, saved, hallelujahed, whatever. “He’s taking the waters,” Rick joked as we drove home, as if Ronan had attended some 19th century spa bath house in order to cure his various upper-class ailments. “If only it was a cure,” Rick said in a damp voice, and I didn’t have the guts to look at his face in the rearview mirror. When we got home I put Ronan down for his nap and practically brutalized our exercise machine to an episode of MI-5, the British spy show to which I am happily addicted. Terrorists and bomb threats and back stabbing politicians and at the end, everything is resolved. Everything is put right.
Watching Ronan float near those other babies, and yet outside of them, feeling only his body in the water, suspended, his dad’s hands supporting him, the echo of laughter and voices, I had one of those moments where the situation I was witnessing had to be a dream, or, more precisely, a nightmare. It could not be happening. My baby, floating there in the water — truly innocent of what is to come, truly happy? (one hopes) in the moment, truly himself, truly helpless, truly loved. He smiled at the therapists (he knows a good looking woman when he sees one) and cooed and kicked a little bit, but not much, and less than he did last time. Is this happening? Can this possibly be real? How does the mind bear it?
Changing him in the family dressing room as Rick got dressed, there was a woman sitting next to me who kept repeating “Where are they? Where are they?” and her companion, her therapist, kept repeating, “They’re right there, Bridget. Can you see?” She brandished a packet of photographs. “Do you see them? Right here, honey.” “Where? Where?” The girl continued to ask. Whywhywhy?
Yesterday while driving home from Nancy’s I heard an old Indigo Girls song that I hadn’t heard for years. Secure yourself to heaven, hold on tight the night is come. Fasten up your earthly burdens, you have just begun. I had, suddenly, the image of myself in a Ford Escort, murky summer light slanting through the window into my lap, learning to harmonize with my friends Jeni and Shauna as we drove through the miles of cornfields unrolling between Lincoln and Kearney, Nebraska. I remember how I had adored them, and now I haven’t seen or spoken to them in over twenty years, and the sweet moment felt suddenly bristling, a barb, a reminder of time, the way it leaves only the effluvia of memory, the remnants of its travel, moments like little rocks scattered at random. During that time of the memory those two girls were my whole world, and now? My tears were sudden and violent but quickly faded. Is this world just the beginning? If Ronan has no earthly burdens to fasten up and chuck to the sky, will he not be as secured to the heavenly realm? Am I going to be bursting into hysterical tears in my car while driving along interstates and highways for the rest of my life, brimming with questions that nobody can answer?
Where am I? What is happening in my mind? How does one bear this? (There must be a way — right?) I thought of the poem by my friend, the poet Katie Ford. We met at Harvard Divinity School, and she was working on poems that later became her first, stunning collection Deposition. Much of the book seeks to narrate, poetically, the experience of walking the stations of the cross; not just from the perspective of Jesus, but through the eyes and hearts of those who had to watch him suffer. She evokes the pain of being a witness to suffering, a watcher of pain. She describes what it feels like to have no choice, to be helpless. Years ago when I first read the book, it was this poem that hit my gut the hardest (and, I would argue, a good punch in the gut is what all good poetry is designed to do), but now it hits me like a series of bricks — boom boom boom. I know several of the lines by heart, and I spoke them silently to myself as Rick whisked Ronan around in the water, and when I got home I read it again and again.
Station the Thirteenth: The body is placed in the arms of his mother
ON TAKING THE BODY OFF THE CROSS
The moon seems close, the docks are saturated,
a small boat rocking like a light seed caught
by the torn thread of a web, its catching
noticed only as what has not been heard,
like delay, rain or snow, the hiding
of an envelope beneath ground. There are
night-moths over the water. Their shadow
or pieces hover in the instinct
of what mass might be. Loose logs thud
up in the dock — wet wood on wet wood,
like a falling horse, its thin legs tangled,
its belly a brown sack that hits ground
first, the freight of a sandbag we lift
and throw so we can go on living here.
-From Deposition (Graywolf Press, 2002)
Our burdens stay on the earth, I fear. They don’t dissolve or dissipate or get resolved. They have weight and mass and agency. Experience secures a person to no “other” place, no better world. The water is rising, all of it, the waves and the groundwater, and finally the ground, and we throw the bags aimlessly, not caring, creating a wall to keep the force of the water out, even if we know it will break, even if we know it won’t stand, we throw and throw and throw, against water and dirt and trees and fire and the sky.
Today’s station: Rick walks out of the pool with Ronan in his arms. Water drips from his fingers and toes, from the ends of his hair. His father’s footsteps create ripples in the water that echo all the way to the other side of the pool.