It’s summer at my grandparents’ lake cottage. I love the cottage because it’s full of things left behind by my grandparents’ parents and loads of aunts and uncles and cousins. Old-fashioned hats and dresses, old toys, old books. I’m five years old and I always look for the koala bear who is usually waiting for me in a closet in the living room. I wonder if he misses me between my visits or if any of my cousins play with him when I’m not here.
Some of the other things I love here: the screened-in porch that wraps around two sides of the house, the porch swing that faces the lake, the lake itself, Lake Kegonsa; we swim in it and sometimes go out on it in boats.
There are three bedrooms on the second floor and a bathroom with a tub that has feet. I saw that tub walk by itself in the upstairs hallway one night. My mother says that was a dream but I don’t think so. I don’t leave my bedroom at night, even to go to the bathroom. I’m scared of the tub and I think there might be ghosts in the bathroom. There are odd noises like footsteps and sometimes the lights go off or on all by themselves. So at night I use a thing called a chamber pot to pee in.
I’m also afraid of the lion on the wall alongside the stairs. The lion is a head with a rack below his mouth to hold my grampa’s and my uncle’s pipes. The lion growled at me once and showed me his teeth. Ever since then I close my eyes when I go past him on the stairs. I’m afraid of bats, too.
What I’m not afraid of: most dogs, climbing trees, walking by myself along the path near the lake, paddling in the lake in my Mickey Mouse innertube. I’m the most brave when I’m holding Spoodles, my favorite stuffed wire-haired terrier. Or Morgan, the blue basset hound. I love him too. I’ve dropped each of them in the lake more than once. My mom says she’s tired of fishing them out. When they come out of the lake they’re soaking wet and she won’t let me hug them until they’re dry. I know they need a hug and it makes me sad not to hug them.
What doesn’t make me sad is being in the lake myself. I love the lake and I love the pier next to the boathouse. I like to lie there on a beach towel in the sun, next to my mom and my Aunt Izzy.
One day I’m on the pier with Aunt Izzy and I spot my dad and my uncle out in a boat. I don’t know why they didn’t take me. They should have taken me. They know I love the boat. I am determined to join them. As they near the pier, I aim for the front of the boat and take a big step. The biggest step ever. But not big enough.
That’s why it isn’t Spoodles or Morgan who falls into the water this time. It’s me. Without my Mickey Mouse innertube. One minute I’m in the bright hot sunshine and the next minute I’m somewhere else. It’s cool here and the light around me is green, green everywhere. I’m slowly, gently sinking. There are sunbeams sliding down all around me and long thin green plants dancing in front of me. A fish goes by. I like being here. It’s soft and quiet. Maybe this is what it’s like to be a mermaid.
Suddenly there’s a big splash and my dad grabs my body. He pushes my face up out of the water (the sun is so bright up here), picks me up, and plops me onto the pier. He pushes himself up out of the water and sits next to me, hugging me as if something has hurt me. Hugging me like I always want to hug my wet animals after they’re pulled out of the lake. I’m confused. I liked the water and I wasn’t ready to come out.
I look up at my father’s face. He looks upset and I wonder if I should be upset too. He is hugging me too tight and saying “Don’t do that again, ever again. Wait until the boat is near.” But I thought the boat was near. The place I went to instead of the boat was interesting and sweet and fun. But I decide I should be upset like my dad. So I start to cry.
Later when I think about it, I wonder if Spoodles and Morgan feel like that when they get fished out of the lake every time. Do they feel like something wonderful was snatched away from them? And then are they scared when they see that I’m scared about losing them in the water?
I’ve never forgotten being under the water in Lake Kegonsa when I was five. That was 70 years ago. I remember the magic of suddenly finding myself in a totally unfamiliar, beautiful world. I wasn’t afraid, until I saw my dad’s fear.
Ten years ago I went snorkeling around the Barrier Reef off Belize and was reminded of that long-ago underwater experience. The same sunbeams were sliding down through the water, the same green waving plants, the same bubbles and fish (much more dramatically colorful fish) , the lovely weightlessness. A feeling of being at home in a place I’d never been before. Our guide had to call me three times to get me out of the water.
I had a similar experience seven months ago during a heart procedure that briefly went awry. I lost consciousness and sank down into somewhere I’ve never been before. I was floating. Not scared at all; just interested. Peaceful. I sensed my father, who’s been dead for nearly thirty years, there too,as if he were watching over me again. The doctor pulled me out quickly and my heart returned to its normal beating.
For a few minutes after I regained consciousness I felt a bit like I had when my father rescued me from the water beside the pier–a little annoyed, a little disappointed. And then when I saw how scared the doctor looked, it reminded me of how I felt when I saw my father’s scared face after he’d pulled me out of the water—a look that told me something bad must’ve happened to me. I’ve thought about that ever since. Both times I didn’t register that anything bad had happened. To the contrary, my whole being knew that I’d just had an amazing experience. I’ve wondered if something like that will happen when I die, that lovely feeling of floating in peaceful water, finding myself in a fascinatingly different new home.
This blog also appears in Psychology Today Blogs