I have been birthed.
I have birthed.
I am alive.
I have brushed up against death.
It’s rather easy to do.
The ocean, as seen by a little girl from Memphis, Tennessee, is overwhelming. The Atlantic Ocean, more so than the Mississippi River, was her only watery guide mark. She trusted the mischievous Mississippi, whose banks are visible from the shore no matter how high the waters have grown. The ocean was more dangerous, more powerful, and completely inaccessible to her.
I was born in Shelby County, Tennessee, quite close to downtown Memphis and the Mighty Mississippi River. Though born near a large river, I wasn’t raised to swim. We weren’t the type of people who had a pool in our backyard, or wore bathing suits in mixed company. Occasionally, my little brother and I would go to a Great Aunt’s house to swim while my mother and she chatted, but I wouldn't say we were pool people. So, of course, as a child of middle America, I wasn’t raised with oceanic skills: the ones that help you navigate and understand large water sources.
This gap of skills and understanding would become painfully obvious when, as a 30 year old, I took a job one hour from the Atlantic, in an inner harbor area called Elizabeth City, NC. Elizabeth City sits on the Albemarle sound, called affectionately, the Inner Banks. The area is in a historic swamp land called the Dismal Swamp. My father loved saying I had taken a job to teach at the Dismal Swamp school.
As I acclimated to the local culture and climate, I’d learn what brackish water is. It is quite mysterious and strange. Brackish water requires animals and plants to constantly adapt to various levels of salinity and water table height. Sharks can swim all the way from the Atlantic up the brackish streams and into our Inner Banks, and so you better believe I never swam in it. My healthy fear of sharks and early Jaws indoctrination lead to my deep respect for any salty water. I knew my limits.
Years later, while I lived there, I would get married and a few years after, I gave birth at a local hospital in Pasquotank County to a baby girl. It took me 5 days under some extreme circumstances to find a name for the baby. I landed on the name Zoe. It means “life.”
When Zoe was about 4 months old, my best friend and I took her to the beach on a Sunday. I often went to this beach on Sunday road trips and affectionately called it “church.” Billicia, another theatre professor in town, went with me this particular Sunday, a half work, half play day for us.
We found a nice spot near the local’s parking area, set up “camp” on the beach, and spent a few hours getting sandy, then wet, drying off, having a snack, and repeating until we had had our crispy fill of it. In the short strand, we stood, knee deep in the cold waters of the Atlantic, chatting about work and plays and life. I nervously held my four-month-old squirming butterball of an infant against my chest, as Billicia and I enjoyed the cool water and rocky sand beneath our toes.
What folks don't tell you about the beach in the Northern Outer Banks area is that the strand is quite dangerous due to the drop off. This means there’s a shelf very close to the beach that slips into open ocean closer than you might experience further south. The short strand creates waves that sneak up on you quickly, smashing you face first into the sand, raking your body over the rocks, ripping off your bathing suit, and then dragging you out to open ocean. Many people have met their untimely demise this way, a handful a year.
I shouldn't have been surprised when a wave did just that to me. My back was turned away from the ocean for just a moment, which is all it took. A huge wave came over me from behind, and I quickly lost my footing and the grip on my baby, finding myself face down under the water, being drug across the rocky sand over the shelf into the open ocean.
The surf has a power and a quickness that demands respect. In that moment, I had the lived experience of losing my child to a watery death. In slow motion, I saw all of the things we would never do together: I would never watch her walk or call me Mama or hug me back or tell me about her first crush or make me all of the beautiful kid art and sing her songs to me. I saw my life as not a mama. I saw the end of my marriage. I saw my future with the drowning grief that only bereaved parents know.
This slow motion montage felt like it went on for a year, but was over in my few seconds.
I scrambled back to sure footing, wiping sand out of my eyes, blinking and wiping and screaming. I couldn’t tell which way was up. I couldn’t see where the voice I could barely hear over the waves was coming from.
I’ve got her.
I’ve got her.
Shannon, I’ve got her.
Through a tiny bit of clear space in my sandy vision, I turned to the open ocean toward the voice to see Billicia holding up a screaming baby in the air like the winning quarterback with a football.
Life is so short.
Motherhood has this way of keeping you on your knees, and, at the same time, terribly grateful for avoiding some possible tragedy on an almost weekly basis. Solo parenting in particular, unrelentingly vulnerable at best, gives you a plethora of moments to practice gratitude. Gratitude for those who, just a few lengths out from you, see what the waves of life did to you, and spring into action to help you avoid certain untimely ends.
May you have a Billicia in your moment of potential tragedy, catch and hold that which you cannot replace up to the light for you to see and call your name loud enough for you to hear.
Thank you for being a part of those that open and read these essays.
I adore your support and feedback, and love to hear from you.
Grateful to be welcoming my girl back to my home on Saturday, so I wanted to give you a bonus essay before I take a few days to get us back into our rhythm together.
I’ll be back next week. I hope you will be, too.