Underwater Beams

By: Nancy de Guerre

I think about you sometimes, though it’s been so long. That day on the lake in the little tin boat. We had fishing rods and books and the sun beat down on us. You wore that Indiana Jones hat, and I had a big floppy one. It was like we were a couple of movie stars. The summer just after my mother died. You stuck the wriggling worms on the sharp hook, and I lay back on a life jacket and read love poems to you.

She would have liked you, my mom. He’s nice, she would have said. And funny too. Hang on to that one. I wanted to tell you about her, but I couldn’t. I can still feel the heat of the sun that day. The sparkle of it on the water, and you standing there in the gently rocking boat, casting your rod and listening to me read. The slight tilt of your head to show you understood, and that way you had of tugging the line. Almost, but not quite, cocky.

The sun was so hot that day, I burned the backs of my legs on the metal seat. I dove into the water and swam, eyes wide open, through the underwater beams of sun. I came up wet and glistening, ready to tell you, but I didn’t. I couldn’t shake the last image of her dying—the gray hair plastered to her head, her effort to sit up when I entered the room. I read to her near the end, the classics she loved, like Jane Austen and Dickens. She was wan, with machines hooked up to her arms, and she tried to laugh at the funny parts.

You had this way of jigging the line and reeling it back in when you felt a tug. Smooth and self-assured and always focused. Every once in a while you’d turn and give me that subtle smile, kind of distant, but it let me know I existed. Later, that’s what I remember most. I wondered if you could love in the way that you fished.

I wish you could have met her. He’s a riot, she would have said.

My father hated fishing, and he really wasn’t sure how to love. For the longest time he visited her regularly, bringing hot tea and her favorite sections of the daily paper. He carried a plastic grocery bag full of reminders from home and showed her often his precious album of clippings about the next trip they’d take together. You met my father, but that doesn’t mean you could know what my mother was like. The last time I saw him we sat in the kitchen where my mom used to make tea. He took two mugs from the painted cabinet and we drank instant coffee at the kitchen table, surrounded by greasy splatters and old crumbs. He sleeps a lot these days and refuses to get the surgery his eyes need.

Sometimes you reminded me of him. Sometimes when I was with you, I couldn’t breathe.

When I was little I wanted to be a ballerina. My mother took us into the city every year to watch them dance across the stage in toe shoes, fingers poised gracefully. The male dancers lifted the ballerinas over their heads so effortlessly—it was as if they were made of cardboard. Sometimes I closed my eyes tightly and imagined I was on stage, looking out to the audience. I would see me there, beside my mom, both of us smiling broadly.

You would have liked my mother. Come in, she would say, hovering at the door when I dropped by. Hesitant, yet welcoming. She was unassuming, never wanting to interfere. Am I interrupting something? she’d ask when she called on the telephone. Oh, she might say when another one of my men had gone. Ohhhh was how she said it, her voice dropping low, and I could feel the disappointment that covered the bigger thing underneath. The sadness. But he was so nice, she’d say. Oh. Sweetie.

My mom liked to eat a cheese sandwich on the couch while she watched a game show. But not with the good cushions because they were to be used only for visitors. They were gold and squishy, with dangling fringes. After dinner my father would sit in his basement study wearing headphones, swirling in his office chair while he worked. “Constantly in the darkness,” he was. My favorite line from a Joni Mitchell song. Her words, but it’s the way I feel.

Sometimes I think what I do best is cry.

After a while my father stopped bringing the plastic bag of trinkets. He made excuses at first, and then he just stopped coming. In the end, he couldn’t say goodbye.

My father never got over the death of my mom, but I did.

It rained so much that summer by the lake. The rain made everything grow, you used to tell me, even your heart. A chance to love me more than ever, you teased. But that morning the sun shone, and everything was so overgrown we could hardly see our way through the trees. The earth was rich and swarming with life, raindrops shimmering on the leaves.

On wet days my mother wore a yellow raincoat and one of those clear plastic hats that tie up under the chin. When it dried off, she could fold it back up and stash it in her purse, ready for the next time. You never know when things might shift, she’d say.

I’m not sure if she knew it was her last day when she asked me to wash her hair. She couldn’t shower, so we used a dry shampoo. I massaged her head and let her look in the mirror when it was finished. She pretended to like it and thanked me about five times. That same morning, a while later, she asked me to make sure Cookie was included in her obituary. Cookie the cat.

You never know from moment to moment what really counts. Sometimes you just have to hold your breath and pray.

It rained the day your father died. Long after our summer at the lake, months after I thought we had nothing more to say, I spotted you through my streaming windshield. I wanted to hide, but your face was contorted and wet. Be with me, was all you said. I took your hand gingerly at first and squeezed it as we rode the elevator in silence. I watched you from the metal chair in the corner of his room, holding my breath and the dripping umbrella. Your father small and unmoving, eyes fixed on the ceiling. Your shoulders shook as you reached your arm across his body. You picked up his limp hand and leaned in close, whispering words of forgiveness.

I think of you once in a while, but not too often. A man alone in a red truck, unencumbered.  In this dream I have, I swim underwater through beams. I can hold my breath for the longest time. It’s cool and clear, and from high above, the sun pours down to make a million shades of green. Huge beams of light, branching like tentacles toward the bottom of the lake. I weave my way through them, pulling effortlessly, until finally I come up to the surface for air. I see you there, leaning over the side of the little tin boat, waiting expectantly. I tell you then about my mother. About how she lived, and how she died. I tell you everything. You tilt your head in that way of yours and reach out to touch my cheek. It’s okay, you whisper, and it is.

I don’t mind the rain so much these days. And I think that when I’m close to dying, when there’s almost no time left, I want you there. And I won’t want to let you go. I’ll be overwhelmed with love, and so much more that is hard to explain.


Nancy de Guerre is a freelance writer and editor from Toronto, Canada. Her degree in English Literature and French has taken her in many directions, but she is delighted to come back to what she loves most. Nancy enjoys writing short stories, memoir and creative non-fiction, and is eager to begin her first longer work. Her pieces have appeared in the Globe and Mail, the Indiana Voice Journal, and more. Nancy lives and writes in Hamilton, Ontario. She can be reached at nancy@wordwise.ca.