It is a strange thing, watching someone drown.
First, you are kneeling in the wet sand. There is sunlight and space everywhere. The ocean waves are crashing behind you, and you are digging with your hands. The wind is blowing; a rushing sound in your ears, and you are happy. Your sister and your husband are on their knees next to you. Your children are there. You are digging them a little swimming pool out of sand.
You decide to work on a trench that leads to the water. The waves will come in and the trench will lead water into the pool, you think. A wall collapses, your sister makes a science joke, shaking her fist at the sky screaming, "Entropy!"
You'll be here all day until it's perfect, you think. It is perfect, this moment. You'll be here all day. The children walk through the pool of water, they step in a careful line down the length of your trench, their clumsy little feet covered in wet sand, caving in all the walls. They are dancing, almost. They are free little birds, singing a song under their breath.
Your husband shields his eyes and says, "You would think that with this many adults working on something this hard, it would be a lot more impressive a project." Everyone is smiling. The sun is burning your skin, the salt is burning your eyes. You stand up and make your way to the edge of the water, to rinse off.
This is when your mother approaches, full of worry and static. The sea spray is cool on your face. She yells to you, over the roar of the surf, "Do you think Adam is okay?"
Adam is your brother. Your mother annoys you. She is interrupting your moment in the sun with her jagged, peeling and curling worry. She is chronic, in this way. Anxiety clings to her like a mist. You've seen it a million times, especially near water. Every time someone wades in further than their waist, she starts getting agitated, putting a hand to her brow, watching for signs of distress. She's been this way since you were a kid. You've even pretended to drown before, just to scare her. You've been a child, and you've pretended to be eaten by a shark, just to show her worrying a lesson.
"He went to the house, I think," you say, dismissing her and planning to go back to digging a trench, fighting entropy; the tendency of things to move from a state of order to disorder, like the wind eroding a castle made of sand.
"No he didn't," she says. "He's in the water." Her voice has a shrill edge to it. The sound of it turns your stomach.
"He's fine," you say.
He, Adam, is, after all a giant. He is six and a half feet tall, so big and solid that he isn't susceptible to danger. You've seen him hold his ground in stormier times than this. He is so big and solid that sometimes, he can even disappear. He can live a life alone in the town where you grew up in a decaying old house with water stains on the ceiling and the shutters falling down, and he's fine.
"No he's not," your mother screams. "He's out there. He's in trouble."
She is looking at you, the swimmer, the water person. She is looking at you because, in her mind, we are always in trouble. We are her children, and the ocean is big, and she's always afraid. You've been out past the breakers so many times, you feel as though the deep water has become a part of you, like green, slimy tendrils of sea grass are always pulling at your feet, even when you're at home, doing the dishes and putting the children to bed. She says to you, he's in trouble, but what she really means is, tell me that he's not in trouble.
You turn around to face the ocean. He went up to the house, you think, one last time, before you see him in the water.
He is so far away you can barely make out the shape of him, a tiny round head and two waving arms like grains of rice, silhouetted against the horizon. You see that he is so tiny, he's living another life, in this moment. He is on another planet. He is set adrift where everything is quiet and lonely and blue. A jolt of electricity runs through your limbs. You begin to run. Your phone is wrapped in a towel on the blanket in the dry sand. You brought it down to take pictures. You are running and screaming, "Call 9-1-1."
Everything that happens next is like a dream. Your body is light and powerful. You can run through the sand, over the dune, down the splintery wooden walk to the street beyond the beach, telling the woman on the other end of the line, "The corner of Flambeau and Lighthouse Road," without getting out of breath. You are weightless. "He's thirty-three. He's drowning." Your phone has terrible reception. You get disconnected twice while you're obeying the voice on the phone, telling you to stay on the dune and wave to the rescuers when you can see them.
From the top of the dune, you can see that your brother is disappearing, being swept further and further away. He is a dust mote and space goes on forever. He goes under the water and you scream to the woman on the phone, "He's not coming back up!" He does, though. He goes under and comes back up, again and again, and no one is coming to help him.
You can see that your sister and husband are holding boogie boards that the kids found in the laundry room. One of them is red with a picture of Spiderman and the other is pink with the word BARBIE printed across it. You can't read it from here, but they are the same boards your daughters were using to float tentatively in the surf earlier in the day. You can see that your husband and your sister enter the water and get knocked down by the waves. There are other people with brightly colored children's floatation devices trying to get to him. They are miles away from where he is, you think. Your sister and your husband wash back up onto the shore.
Your mother appears, gripping fist fulls of her blonde hair. "Where are they?" she screams. "Where are the people who GET PAID to do this?"
She is talking about lifeguards. You paid extra money all year, drove a few extra hours to purposely vacation at the end of the world; a place without hoards of people, without mini-golf courses and proper grocery stores and chain restaurants. A place that is definitely without lifeguards.
"Stop," you snap at her. "They're coming." You don't want to have to deal with her panicking, right now. You are standing on a little hill of sand, the sea oats scratching the skin of your thighs, watching your brother die. Time goes by. Ten minutes. Fifteen minutes. Twenty minutes.
Your brother becomes a child. You can see him, at every moment of his life. Scenes from pictures that you keep in a box on a high shelf in your bedroom closet play out in your mind, as you squint to find him in the black-blue water. The Easter where you got a white rabbit, and he strangled to death trying to escape through the chicken wire of his pen. The camping trip where the tent was infested with sand fleas and Adam struggled out in the middle of the night and went to sleep in the car. The Christmas morning where we stood in front of the tree, holding matching stuffed mice from An American Tail. He is a child; we are all children, and he is going to die.
A police man wearing shorts and hiking boots is standing next to you on the dune. You expect him to pick up a lifesaver and head into the water, but he doesn't. He just stands still, holding up his hand to shield his eyes, pretending you're not there, occasionally saying things in a low voice into a crackling walkie-talkie. Crack. Just out past the sandbar. Crack. White male. Crack. Flambeau and Lighthouse. You're not sure if you're allowed to move, yet. You stand dumbly, looking behind you for lifeguards who aren't coming.
You slide forward in time, then so that you're spread thin across the past and the future. This is how our brother dies, you imagine. Mom will collapse on the beach and you will have to pick her up. We won't come back here. We might never go to the ocean again, not together, like this. You'll come back, though. You'll stand in this spot, right here, and stare out into the water, trying not to picture his arms waving for help, trying not to picture him as a kid, his big teeth and giant glasses. You'll stand ankle deep in the water and your sadness will be like the ocean. You'll toss a shell or two into the waves. Your heart will seize a thousand times, out of nowhere, every day for the rest of your existence; like someone sneaking up and tapping you on the shoulder, thinking about how he didn't have a good life. How he was always lonely. How he always felt small. How he was shy and mild and didn't know how much he was worth. He had a life like yours, only silent and with walls that felt smooth and safe; a life like yours, if you'd been a better person. You'll stand in the sand staring at the place where he went under the water and never came up again, feeling guilty about how you were all hurting, brothers and sisters, and the church stole our breath and our house fell down around us, everything stagnating and molding... only you exploded all over everything, and he didn't. Your brother died, and he never had the pleasure of exploding. He only faded into the place where the sky meets the sea and everything is quiet and the enormity of his death lay beneath him with the eyeless creatures that slither and glow in the moonlight.
Except, he doesn't die. You realize suddenly that you can see him better. He is getting closer, slowly and almost imperceptibly, he is making his way closer to where the waves are breaking, where the strangers holding their childrens' rafts over their heads are trying to reach him. "He's floating on his back!" you scream at the police man.
"It looks like he's doing the back stroke," he says to you, in a lazy, southern voice.
Inch by inch, your brother floats bravely. You can see that the water surrounding him looks brown, not the blue-black of the sky between the stars as night falls. He is closer. He is getting closer, and the air rushes back into the world, your lungs are full to bursting as you call out, "He's standing!" Waves crash over his head and you laugh, "He's standing!"
It occurs to you for the first time to wonder who is caring for the children, and a sudden fear grips you that they've wandered away. You spot them, instantly, huddled together, sitting in the sand with their little, pink arms wrapped around one another. You run to them shouting, "Uncle Adam is okay!" Your six year old daughter springs from where she is sitting and bolts down the beach, screaming in her beautiful, tiny voice, "You're alive! You didn't die!"
How strange it will be when it really is time for your brother to die, and your parents and husband. Everyone you've ever loved and hated are all children forever and we will all die, some of us drowning. Isn't it all the strangest thing?
Let's live a good life, together.