We are made up of mainly water. Blood, sweat, tears. We all begin in water. And if you are a woman, you begin in the amniotic fluid of your grandmother, your origin, in the water that comes before you, and she began in her grandmother, and her grandmother before her and on and on. Water drives the forces of life, from lack of water, to a deluge, which destroys everything as with a tsunami. We describe our emotions in water. Boiling Mad. Cold as ice. But you can’t capture and hold onto water in your hands. You can’t save it in a paper bag or carry it on your back. The more tightly you grip your water, the less you have. It can form itself into any shape. Water flows. If you are caught up in a rip current, you have no choice but to go with water.
A formative moment of my childhood was when my Father took me down to a raging, flooding, angry river. He threw in an empty can and told me to look at how fast the current was moving. It was his warning. Men understand water, too.
I remember a special jar my mom brought back from a trip to the middle east. I spent a lot of time looking at it. It was a jar, she said, that was made to hold a woman’s tears from birth to death. I would look at the beautifully crafted tiny jar, knowing, even then, that it couldn’t possibly hold a lifetime’s worth of tears. Of my tears. I recently had a discussion at a buddhist monastery, and the woman leading the discussion started talking about a woman’s tears, how we can cry over lovers, and family and life, enough to fill an ocean. She looked at me when she said it. Even though she’s never seen me cry, yet she knew of my tears, the weight I carry.
My grandmother carried me, inside my mother, when she carried my mother. I think about my grandmother’s life often. And the weight of her water. She was forced to leave school in the third grade. She worked in a sweat shop in DC. Her parents made her marry someone twice her age when she was fifteen, and sent her back to him when she tried to escape the marriage on her wedding night. Her new husband was the older brother of the boy she actually loved. But he drowned. My grandfather was injured in World War I. And so despite his trauma he gave my Grandmother seven children. Then he left her to raise them all during the great depression. Looking back, I don’t know how she did it, but she carried her weight, the weight of life she wasn’t able to choose for herself, and the weight of seven children. Fearlessly.
Water follows my family wherever they go, religiously, relentlessly. My sister died at 45 of too much water. Pneumonia, with the weight of my brother in law’s terminal cancer diagnosis. And the weight of my Dmitri’s disabilities. Dmitri was born in too much water, ascieties, his little tummy swollen like a football with all the fluid.
I remember talking about life with my brother in law, when we were closing in on the end of his. I stood in his living room, helplessly crying over the loss of my sister, sobbing uncontrollably when he talked about the reality of a lifespan of someone with Down Syndrome. Filling up my tear jar, to overflowing.
But in so many ways I am lucky when it comes to water. My father, was a life guard. Really in two ways if you think about it. One, for the red cross, certified to protect those that are swimming, and two, as a preacher, helping those who needed it in navigating their lives. And so, when I was four, he taught me to swim. I remember it distinctly. It was his first job after his nervous breakdown, and he taught me in the company swimming pool. Just me, and him, and the chlorine. After that I took the whole series of swimming lessons at the local country club, all the way to lifeguard certification, but then quitting because the requirement was that you jump in with bricks on your feet. Anyway, a crucial component of the penultimate swimming class was that you learn a technique for treading water for up to 12 hours, say if you were submerged in the ocean, or caught up with a current, or had fallen into a large body of water but no one had missed you yet. The method is a total antithesis of what you would think when you think of treading water. You learn to rest the upper portion of your body in the water, as if you are floating on your stomach, and tread your legs beneath you. If you practice this with american crawl style breathing, you can hang on for a very long time.
I have learned to carry the weight of water. For myself. For my sister. For her husband, as he struggled with fluid in his lungs during the last months of his life. For my daughter. For my Dmitri. The past year and a half have been an ordeal of sorts. Sorting out his health concerns. It seems he has trouble carrying his water. But thankfully for now, he can carry 50% of it, and despite another doctor scaring the hell out of me with words like “Dialysis” and “kidney transplant,” the doctor in the nephrology department that gained my trust tells me you can live on 50% for a very long time.
And so, I carry this new weight of water, with me. Learning how to wait out the news, treading water in my own way, learning to rest and breathe, thoughtfully, but in ways I didn’t expect. Thankfully I have learned to carry water from the past, from those that carried it before me, and knowing that while I may fill my own tear jar, I can carry the weight of it all, and the weight of my children. Because of all the people who came before me who carried their weight in water, and without knowing it, they carried a bit of my water too, until I was strong enough to bear it on my own.