Sam emerged from my abdomen three weeks late with a strangled scream, not the boisterous cry I expected. Squelched by fluid in his lungs, he went silent quickly. Concern swam up my half-numb body.
He spent his first New Year’s Eve behind the bars of an infant hospital bed receiving special visits from all the nurses since, at nine days old, he was the youngest child in the entire building. RSV turned to pneumonia quickly, though in the beginning the only sign of a problem was the slightest flaring of his tiny nostrils as he tried to breathe.
Noise defined our two weeks in the hospital: the beep of hospital equipment, voices of nurses and doctors, alarms going off when blood ox levels plummeted. The only noise I can’t recall was of Sam crying. I’m sure he did; there wasn’t a part of him without a tube or a needle attached, his tiny baby body turned into what appeared to be Medusa’s head. But it wasn’t the central sound of those days, not like it would have been with one of my daughters. Sam suffered quietly, healed, and came home apparently having learned that there’s no reason to make a fuss.
It’s the blood that makes me start counting. When Sam’s five year-old head crashes against my mother’s counter as he runs around the kitchen, I hear the impact though I am sitting across the room. Instead of crying out or turning to look for an adult to blanket him with comfort, Sam bolts. His thin legs carry him to the end of the apartment where he makes an attempt to barricade himself in the bathroom. I wedge my foot in the door first. His hand presses on the wound as silent tears make their way down his cheeks.
“Sam, let me see. How bad is it?”
He just shakes his head, and I finally force his rigid arm to his side so I can examine the wound. That’s when I find the blood, a steady trickle staining his brown hair, creating sticky clumps.
“Why didn’t you tell me? Why did you run?” I ask, but I know I won’t receive an answer. He allows me to lead him back to the living room, to press a towel to the area until the blood stops, but he refuses to talk about what happened. His silence feels like an accusation, though I’m not sure of what.
“Nothing happened. I mean, he seemed fine the whole time,” the dental hygienist says to me, though my son is sitting in the dentist’s chair minutes after his x-rays with crocodile tears running down his cheeks. We are a month away from the head bleeding incident, and just like in that situation, he again chooses silence.
“Sam, were the plastic things they put in your mouth too big?” I ask gently.
He shakes his head vehemently, pushes his fist into his eyes trying to stop the tears.
“I just don’t know,” the hygienist continues, and I recognize her words as a defense.
“It’s okay. He’ll tell us when he’s ready.”
We’re in the van, dental cleaning over, balloons obtained, before Sam says, “It was the sweat.”
“What was the sweat?”
“The reason I was crying. That big thing they put on me during the pictures, it made me sweat. I couldn’t make it stop.”
My mind recalls the heavyweight apron used to protect people from radiation exposure, the one that sat atop Sam’s body during the x-rays. I hesitate before turning the key and starting the engine.
“Okay. Thanks for telling me.” I see his face in the rear view mirror; he gives me the very slightest nod.
“It’s just I don’t want water in my face and this is going to be the worst week ever,” Sam says.
“It’s not a week, Sam. It’s two weeks. Two wonderful weeks of swim lessons!” my eldest daughter, Wren, bellows. Her words cause Sam to shrink even further into the beige recliner.
“Thank you, Wren. That will be enough,” I warn.
“I don’t want to do this.”
“I’m sorry, son. You don’t have a choice.”
The day Sam almost drowned he had slipped his life jacket off since he was a big boy and his older sister didn’t need one anymore. He said he’d just stay on the steps, and I agreed to this idea because I knew how he loathed having water in his face.
He was forced into the water by a pool jet he stood near, and it was only when I looked up and saw his mahogany hair bobbing but the rest of his head completely submerged that I realized it was true what I’d read: drowning does not look the way you imagine. It was so very quiet until I pulled him out of the water and he sputtered, chlorine-laced liquid making its way out of his mouth.
Hence the reason for the lessons. The morning they start, he complains but stops just short of all out refusing. He isn’t rude to his teacher, though he doesn’t speak to her audibly, choosing to communicate only with nods and high fives.
It’s painful to watch, to know that in this case I pushed him into the place where he feels the need to withdraw. I remind myself of the near drowning as he sits on the top step, shivering both from the unseasonably mild weather and fear.
His classmate catches my attention, a tiny girl with a pixie cut who’s wearing a teal bathing suit. She is physically fighting her dad, her long brown legs flailing, her voice shrill and determined. Each time he tries to put her in the water, she kicks and attempts to wrap her appendages around him, refusing to even let a toe touch the moisture. He relents, carrying her around the entire class, pacing the pool and speaking softly into her ear. The look on his face is familiar to every parent I know: defeated, desperate, exhausted.
My eyes find Sam again, still sitting on the top step, his lips quivering from the effort of holding in his tears. Unlike the little girl, he doesn’t make a sound in protest. In the eyes of many, that makes me the lucky one. But I look at the father with his daughter who has no problem expressing her dissatisfaction, her fear, her hurt regardless of who it inconveniences. There’s power in that, in a voice screaming over the expectations of life. I look back at the father who has assumed a position of defeat and wonder which one of us should be more concerned.
We venture to the car when the second day of lessons ends, Sam no happier to be there and still refusing to talk about it.
“And I am friends with ALL the girls in my class, and did you see there are only girls in my class?” Wren asks, barely stopping for air. “Also, I think my butt is hanging out of this suit, can I get another one?”
“In the car, Wren, let’s just get to the car,” I say, pushing the stroller that holds her sisters and glancing at Sam who is staying close to me, the fear of being asked to go back in the water still strong.
“Sam, did you see me swim to the bottom of the pool? I touched the bottom!” Wren asks as soon as she is in her seat.
Sam nods and gives her a half-hearted smile. He opens his tiny rosebud mouth but hesitates. Then he asks, “Did you see me? I mean, at all? I floated on my back and put my face in the water.”
“Of course I did! I was spying on your class the whole time!” Wren exclaims.
Sam smiles. “Yeah it wasn’t as bad as I thought, but I still hate it. But I am a good back floater.”
“I saw you Sam. I waved at you, did you notice?” I ask a little too enthusiastically.
He nods and smiles.
“You did a great job.”
He continues to nod, and I imagine he is too overcome with a mixture of internal emotions to speak. I nod back, understanding the gift he’s given by finding the one good thing he can in this experience. He is a pretty good back floater.
When he sleeps, I still creep into his room at night. His legs are long, but he usually sleeps with them tucked in to his stomach, unconsciously reverting back to the fetal position, to a time when I could use my body to protect him and use his kicks as an indicator of his mood. Five years later, I still fear the liquid that tried to drown him as a child will rise again while he rests and that he will lay there in a cage that is now self-imposed and never cry for help. His asthma makes this possible, but I think my real fear comes from his every day habit of retreating from those who love him best.
As he sleeps, I stare. He doesn’t stir as I place a superstitious hand on his belly, count his breaths until I get to five, starting over if even one seems ragged or unsteady.
I contemplate his status as the only boy, the middle child. I wonder if trauma from his early hospital experience caused him to have difficulty expressing himself. Is it just that he is so much like his father, someone who doesn’t bother people with his feelings unless forced? I don’t know.
All I know is that the veil dropped a bit today with the question, “Did you see me?” It’s my only clue to follow, and a small one at that. And the answer is yes, of course, always, when he runs or cries or soars. Of course.
About the Author
Kristy Ramirez writes fiction, nonfiction, poetry, love letters and grocery lists. Her work has appeared online in Literary Mama, Parent.Co, and SheLoves Magazine, among other places. She lives in Texas with her husband and four children and is trying to finish her first novel. Catch up with her on Twitter or on her blog, Lives In Progress.