Breathing Under Water
By Sarah Bousquet
It happens in a flash, my two-year-old releases my hand and dashes off into a crowd. I chase after her, glancing only once over my shoulder to make sure my mother-in-law has the stroller, which contains, among other things, my wallet and phone. My daughter is heading toward the stairs that descend in front of the sea lion tank. I grasp her hand just before reaches them.
It’s hot, sticky August and we’re not the only people who had the idea to spend the day indoors. The aquarium is teeming with families with small children and summer campers dressed in matching T-shirts. Older kids play inside a giant whale-shaped bounce house, somersaulting onto a mat. A large interactive screen flashes with images of fish.
I’m glad my mother-in-law is here with us, that we outnumber the fast and busy toddler. She scoops her up and together they watch a sea lion break the surface of the water. Droplets spray from his snout sounding like a dog’s sneeze, and my daughter says, “God bless you, sea lion!”
We leave the bustle of the main room and enter the corridor toward the first tank, where sea bass swim with giant loggerhead turtles. As we walk through the cool, dim space, watching the rhythmic movement of the sea creatures, there is a sense of calm and peace. A sense, too, of confinement. It reminds me of the primordial waters of new motherhood. The turtle makes his way toward us, glancing ruefully with one shiny black eye, which seems to say, let me out, before swimming away, the heft of him both cumbersome and graceful.
My daughter runs ahead to the next exhibit, a wide column of water cast in purple light. White moon jellies float up and down. Music is playing and she searches for its source, as if the jellies themselves are emitting sound. I think of the amorphous days of lullabies, day sinking into night rising into day while I watched in wonderment, holding her pollywog form, the newborn body curled into itself.
In the next room a wolf fish lies at the bottom of a tank, thick and grey with vacant eyes and glugging mouth, the ghost of sleep-deprivation and delirium. The accompanying anxiety and nervous feeling that my baby, so fragile and new, was not quite of this world. The nights I wished for sleep. The days I willed her to become a little bigger, a little stronger.
A friend once cooed sweetly to my baby, “Don’t grow! Stay small.” And in my exhausted state, I feared it was a hex. Mothers of older children would look at us with wistful smiles and sigh, “It goes by so fast.” But I did not believe them; life inside the murky sleeplessness seemed to last forever. Newborn care consumed me. The constant rocking, singing, holding, was a world unto itself, both beautiful and fraught, where time seemed suspended and autonomy ceased to exist.
I felt submerged, and sometimes longed to come up for air. Whole weeks would pass without having glanced in a mirror. It was as if I were disappearing. Until I began to learn to breathe underwater. My identity became fluid, our connection borderless. Every time I looked for me, I found us.
Then it seemed to happen overnight, a magical night when she slept all the way through, a slumber so deep that when we awoke she was two-and-a-half years old, and now I wonder how I could’ve wished for those slow days to pass a little more quickly. Now I am the wistful one. It’s easy to become nostalgic looking back through the dreamy water. Easy to forget the anxiety and exhaustion, the tedium, the long hours alone. I hadn’t been able to imagine how it floats irrevocably away, the infant blurring into baby blurring into toddler tumbling toward preschool, away and out of my arms.
We are inspecting an octopus when my daughter disappears. My eyes scan the groups of children and my mother-in-law runs ahead to the next room leaving me with the stroller. I hurry after her and call out my daughter’s name, startled to hear the fear in my voice. She can’t be far away, and yet she is gone. It is too many minutes before they finally reappear, before my daughter returns giggling with delight. I hug her tightly, my heart racing, and remember the security of having her strapped to my body in her baby carrier. So different from the slippery toddler hurling headlong toward independence.
We push through the aquarium doors into the thick summer air and bright sunshine, and follow the path to the butterfly exhibit. Flowering bushes fill the tent and myriad wings flutter all around us. Butterflies alight on our arms and shoulders and heads. Here we are in the frenzied world of busyness and light. My daughter, overwhelmed, leaps into my arms. Together we name the different colors we see. She rests her warm cheek against mine, and inside that moment, it is just us. I wish for the impossible: to keep her right here, to capture what’s fleeting. Instead I will hold her as long as she lets me, set her down when she’s ready to run.
Sarah Bousquet is Brain Child’s 2016 New Voice of the Year. She lives in coastal Connecticut with her husband, daughter and two cats. She is currently at work on a memoir. She blogs daily truths at https://onebluesail.com. Follow her on Twitter @sarah_bousquet.