I wake up hearing the birds singing outside my bedroom window. The wind is blowing the branches of the trees so gently and they look as though they are waving hello. I turn my face toward the bedroom door and listen for Mom and Dad’s morning sounds: the clink of cups and plates, the plunk of a fork into the sink, the man talking about sports on the radio. But I can’t hear any of that. I close my eyes and squeeze them tight to try to hear more carefully, but the house stays silent.
I swing the covers away from my body and scramble from my bed. My feet make soft pad-pad sounds on the floor. I walk into the kitchen, but no one is there. The coffee maker is empty. The radio is off. It looks exactly as it did last night when Emily, my babysitter, sent me to my room because it was long past my bedtime. The bowl that holds the remnants of our popcorn snack from last night sits untouched in the sink.
I don’t feel scared as I walk from the kitchen into the living room looking for Mom and Dad, but I’m beginning to feel a sense of trepidation. I’m not only looking for them, but for any sign that they might be near. I go back down the hallway towards the bedrooms. Their bed is made. The sunlight through the window makes speckles on the walls and I stand watching them move, mesmerized. Sometimes at night, I watch the shadows on my wall move, but I do not feel scared. But this morning, watching the dappled sunlight in my parents’ room, I am filling with a dread that I can’t name. There is a panic rising in my throat, but my body and actions remain calm.
I leave their room and walk back to the kitchen. Through the kitchen window, I finally see my father sitting on a chair outside. He is facing away from me, staring out at the lake. I feel relieved at the sight of his strong body. The feeling of being lost leaves me, even though I was not the one that was lost in the first place. He is wearing his black fleece jacket and his shoulders hunch towards his chest, a position so uncharacteristic of him. His dark hair is picking up some of the same speckled sunlight that danced in my parents’ bedroom; it glints in the blackness of his head, his jacket, and the paleness of his cheek. I am so taken by the sight of my father that race out the back door, forgetting my shoes until the pine needles and sandy soil remind my bare feet with their coolness. I feel them shuffle under the quick step of my feet.
I can smell that early morning smell of the lake. It’s sharp, tangy, and slightly decaying, as though the sun hasn’t softened it yet. I like this smell the best. So does my mother. It’s a smell that you feel, she always says. My mother loves the water. I do too, but not the way she does. She has a relationship with the water that I’ll never understand.
Dad’s head turns as he hears me come closer to him, but he never takes his eyes off the lake. I crawl into his lap. I’m getting too old for this, and sometimes he’ll push me off and tell me just as much, but this morning he simply wraps his arms around my waist and pulls me into his chest. I lean my head back into the crook of his neck and I can smell the smell that is only my father. He leans his head down and rests it against mine, and I feel his stubbly face bristle into my hair. We sit like this in silence for what I believe to be hours, but in my father’s mind is merely seconds. I curl my toes against his leg so that they will feel any vestige of body heat.
Finally, I break the silence. “Where is Mom?”
He juts his chin out towards the lake. I stare hard trying to find her on my own, afraid to ask my father again for her direction. And then I see her. I see her arm rise out of the lake and curve back down in a perfect stroke, propelling her forth in time for her other arm to reach out and then curve back into the water. She is almost at the little island at the centre of the lake.
My mother has always swum. To me, it is part of her identity, part of what makes her my mother, like the colour of her hair or the pearl earrings she wears to church. Dad told me when I was very little that my mother picked this house because the backyard was a lake and thus her ideal playground. I can swim, but I’ve never been as passionate about water as my mother. I am more like my father, who is content to sit at the end of the dock with a fishing pole, and watch the clouds make changing shapes, and catch nothing.
“Is Grandma Maggie coming home from the hospital today?” I ask. It’s a question I ask every morning, but today, it is a long time before my father answers.
“You know that Grandma Maggie has been sick for a while, right Sadie?” Dad asks me, still never removing his eyes from my mother in the lake. I nod my head.
“What happens, sometimes, to people who have been sick for a while?” he asks, pausing between each fragment of the question as if gathering strength. Finally he turns his gaze towards me, holding me there with his piercing blue eyes. I can’t even focus on the question he has asked me because his eyes are so sad. And then I realize that I don’t need to focus on the question because his eyes have told me the answer.
I feel my throat begin to feel thick, and my eyes burn. Dad hugs me tighter to him, and I turn my face into his neck, burying the tears before they start. His hands rub my back and soothe me before the sob in my throat can even be choked out, and the sadness that has started at the centre of my being spreads throughout the rest of my body, rather than just concentrating in my face.
Mom is swimming closer and closer to the shore of the lake. I can see the top of her head that is still dry and looking warm and golden, and I can see the wet reflection in her goggles. She strokes slower and slower, and we who sit on the shore waiting for her can now hear her breathe between strokes, a gasp for air each time she surfaces. She reaches the point where it’s easiest to stand and walk out of the lake. As she stands, she removes her goggles in a fluid movement, and then turns her face to my father and me sitting together in a rickety old Adirondack chair. She brings a hand to comb through her hair, then her other hand, but she stops, both hands now covering her eyes, and her shoulders begin to shake. Dad gently picks me up as he stands, then turns and sets me back down in the chair that is warmed from his body. He walks toward the lake and my mother, and steps into the water fully dressed without even pausing. He reaches her, and pulls her into an embrace, but she crumbles to her knees. He kneels down with her, holding her in the water, rocking her gently as she cries loud wracking sobs that make me shiver. But I don’t move.