By the time I went to school, I knew the world was changeable the way people were changeable, especially people like parents, with their moods and regrets and sore shoulders. Over the winter holidays, the world was lit by little yellow bulbs on garlands. There was the peacefulness of surprises that would come and that would not be terribly surprising: our stockings always held one orange, one apple, and a pack of chewing gum, along with something else like stickers or brand-new socks. In the car, the world grew purposeful; at the dollar theater, where our dad could take us to see The Princess Bride on a Tuesday afternoon for fifty cents apiece, the world grew relaxed.
Swimming pools turned the world glamorous. Every year my sister and I would look forward to the afternoon when Tulsa’s public pools would open. The pools hosted block parties with free sandwiches served in a long, perfect row, like the world’s biggest snake just lurking in the shadows, and even free cups of pop, which was prohibited at home.
In high school, I would make friends whose parents owned their own pools, but back in elementary school, the swimming pool was still a gift the world would only give for a precious few months out of the year, and only when our parents could make the time to take us. We occasionally also stayed in motels on our way to see our grandparents in Kansas or on our annual family vacation in Nebraska, though these places rarely had pools. But when they did, then the world shot clear up to the tip-top of the peak of glamour, and my sister and I became princesses from Lichtenstein or maybe Switzerland who’d been kidnapped by the Oklahoma criminals who called themselves our parents, and accordingly, on those rare nights, we would not speak to them at all.
Glamour and heartbreak have one thing in common: they both wear off faster than you’d think. By the time I turned ten, I was an old hat at hotel pools, stomping around on the damp cement that encased them like the world was an old, filthy toy I no longer had time for. I no longer cared about underwater handstands, or floating. I slipped quietly into the water wherever the ladder was, suddenly incapable of leaping with abandon.
In the same way, I became inured to the strangeness of hospitals, to the never-ending cries of children in pediatric wards, or the somewhat softer but equally painful sounds their relatives made in the hallways as I drifted by.
It happened in the blink of an eye. One day my sister and I were at school, as usual, and then she was having her first seizure—the first of the many thousands that would come. We rode in ambulances only for the first few times. After that we just carried her out to the car, not even exceeding the speed limit.
When she was six, my sister had brain surgery at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, and for a while my grandparents paid for a hotel for themselves and my parents and me. Every second I could, I spent with my sister. But when she was asleep or I wasn’t allowed, my grandmother would take me swimming and read a magazine on a lounge chair while I stood motionless in the very center of the pool, breathing in the chlorine, the water severing my torso like a magician on TV.
When the grown-ups told me my sister was going to be fine, I knew from their tone not to trust them, even though I couldn’t yet figure out what the opposite of fine would be. My sister and I had known for a long time that grown-ups weren’t to be trusted. They lied to us about how the apples and oranges got inside our stockings, and they lied outlandishly about swimming, like that pee would turn the water red. The worst part was not the betrayal, but rather the necessity of continuing to listen, just in case amid all that drivel there might be something that would protect us from some danger so terrible we couldn’t even begin to imagine it ourselves.
Because the watery world was the most alluring to us, we assumed there might be something to all their warnings about aquatic disasters. Otherwise, swimming was too good to be true. We had never known a person who had drowned. We had known a girl who got kidnapped. She was a classmate of mine; it happened on the day before my birthday; I don’t remember her name or face or anything about what happened, only that my birthday did not take place that year.
But we both belonged to an organization called the Camp Fire Girls that rewarded heroism, and every year at our big gathering, some girl would be honored for saving some other girl’s life. I think that made us both hope to save each other someday. That is, at any rate, the effect it had on me.
I always expected my sister to nearly drown. I hoped every summer it would happen. It never occurred to me that I would not be by her side; it was outside the realm of the conceivable that I would for any reason be unable to rescue her—that for any reason she might actually suffer, let alone die.
Once she slipped in a stream, and I grabbed her by the strap of her overalls and tried to drag her toward me until she squealed at me to stop. The water was so shallow I was dragging her over jagged rocks.
When she was in the hospital, and I was at the swimming pool alone, the possibility of my sister vanishing entirely turned the world solid, ejecting all of us, making me too miserable to move. I tried to make friends with the other siblings, and even the other sick kids when they were in periods of outpatient care, in remission or just waiting. One day I played a game in the pool with a boy around my age, nine or ten, who had leukemia, both of us pretending to be pirates, our treasure of a couple of wooden blocks he had stolen from the waiting room at the clinic, thrown to the bottom of the pool.
His presence did nothing to diminish the absence of my sister, but it did restore a little air into the world. My grandmother looked over from her magazine and smiled at us, and I smiled back. Then, all of a sudden, the little boy who had leukemia swam up, pinched my bottom, digging his nails as far into suit and skin as he could manage, and then swam off again.
The world of childhood can seem so much more instinctual than the adult world; children’s behavior can verge on animalistic. On that day, I did not hesitate. I did not, out of sympathy, move on to some new aquatic game. I did not try to reason with him, or explain to him my feelings. I didn’t even yell. Instead, I just got out of the pool and informed my grandma we were leaving. When the boy tried to follow, dripping helplessly onto the concrete, I ignored him. He was dead to me, even though it had already been explained to me that he was dying.
I often think about the disappointment in my grandma’s eyes that day. It was a disappointment I had no sense of yet, the disappointment of all the contradictions of the universe thwarting her progress toward hope. We never talked about what had happened, and I never told anybody else. I knew at the time that I was deciding how to feel, rather than feeling, deciding to have this particular principle rather than any other.
Yet now when I look back on my smaller self I don’t see a conveyer belt of moral precepts. I don’t even really see a self. I see a fluid being struggling to adapt to the damming off of its sister, the first real indication of the boundaries between other and self. I see a creature that felt pain in its veins every time my sister’s blood was taken, that scrambled to escape while she was held in the gigantic tube of an MRI or a CT scan, and that stopped being able to swallow a burger by the side of the road after making the connection between animal suffering and ours.
In some ways, my boundaries have remained permeable. I have now been a vegetarian for thirty years. Now, when my sister has a seizure, or when her lupus or rheumatoid arthritis act up, I must remind myself that our bodies are separate, that they always have been, that I can help her better if I’m not ailing, too—and that often enough my attempts at rescue only bruise her more.
I still think about that boy, and sometimes I associate him with later, more serious assaults by grown men; other times I regret hurting a sick little boy’s feelings, depriving him of a worthwhile distraction, even just a small thing that would have helped him pass the time. But on that day, I did the only thing I could have done.
In my early twenties, my Fulbright stipend proved generous enough that after my year in Warsaw I took my first adult vacation in Dubrovnik and afterward on the beautiful Croatian island of Brač. I had never seen the sea before. The Adriatic overjoyed me. I photographed the sand and shells and pebbles as the water washed over them, bursts of brilliance and their afterglows, their steady tempo. I combed the sand for shells I kept in an old blank CD case to give to my grandma when I had enough.
At first I was scared to drown or accidentally infiltrate a school of fish, in the same way I was scared of getting lost and getting hit by buses and of completely cloudless skies. But, after a while, I started swimming again. Heartbreak and glamour fade, but everyday joy—just like everyday strain—fades less.
Jennifer Croft is the author of Homesick, out September 10 from Unnamed Press.