I couldn't think anymore. The pain was too great. All I could say was, "Wow" before my throat constricted and I didn't trust myself to speak. I turned away and I told the kids we were leaving. They flocked around me, asking me what was wrong. I waited until we were out of sight of the front gate of the pool before I stopped and let the sobbing start.
"What's wrong? What did the pool man say?" they asked. I didn't even know how to explain it to them. He thinks I'm a bad mommy.
* * *
I was completely blindsided. Charlie was on a towel, trying to warm up. Elizabeth had bumped her chin so she was sitting with Adam a few feet behind me. Eddie was jumping into the water over and over, as he loves to do. And Lucy was floating around, her three favorite noodles under her arms, paddling away in her Little Mermaid swimsuit. Then I noticed the Pool Man coming up to us.
"She can't be out there with the noodles."
I was so confused. "Out where?" I knew that toys and things weren't allowed past the rope that marked the shallow end. But she was on our side of the rope.
"Out there. In fact, I'd prefer it if you didn't use noodles at all, especially since you're not in the water with her." I was sitting on the pool steps, six or seven feet away from her. I looked at her red curls, so bright in the sun. I started to feel a terrible burning in my face but my mouth seemed frozen shut.
"She can't swim, right?" he continued, and again told us he preferred we'd use a life jacket or something else. Adam started to ask him about the rules about noodles. I waded out to her, a burning darkness spreading inside of me. I brought her up to the steps, took the noodles and put them on the pool deck. The Pool Man walked away. I sat on the steps for a minute. The pool was almost empty. A half an hour ago, it had been crowded with kids splashing and laughing and moms and a few dads sitting on the steps, chatting or throwing balls to the bigger kids. There were lots of kids with noodles. There were lots of moms sitting on the steps.
"F*** this. We're leaving." I said. I called out to the kids to get ready to go. Adam protested. He wanted to let the kids stay. I sat on the ground and cried. Eventually I left with Charlie, the cold one, my head swirling with everything I should have said and should have done.
When Charlie and I got home, I felt them coming, one by one: the crying jags; the numbness; the desire to hide; the ruminating thoughts. All the depression symptoms came back, familiar but no less dreadful. I didn't want to make dinner. I didn't want to talk to anyone. I just lay on my bed and let Adam do all the work. I pitched in to get the kids to bed, but that was it. Later that night, I talked it over with him. I talked it over with my mom. I talked it over with my friend, who'd witnessed the scene. I knew I should use the skills I'd learned at Crazy School, but I didn't even want to. I could challenge my thoughts. I could act opposite of the emotion. I could do something to distract myself. Maybe I'll just feel better in the morning, I thought. But one thing I did want to do. I wanted to talk to Pool Man again, on my terms, with my thoughts collected and my emotions under control.
This morning, I took the kids on our pre-church walk. In our Sunday best, we walked through the park to the pool. I explained to the kids that I was going to talk to the man in charge of the pool and that they needed to be quiet and wait patiently. What I really meant was, please don't act out of control. Please don't make me look bad. When we got to the gate, I asked to speak to the Pool Man. He came out and I said I wanted to talk about what happened yesterday, to find out more about his concerns. I explained that we were happy to comply with pool rules, but that I'd seen other children with pool noodles before, and other moms sitting on the steps watching their kids play. Why was I being singled out? He told me he was "very concerned." I think he used that phrase a half a dozen times. He referred to our "history" at the pool. Earlier that week, Elizabeth had been helped by a life guard. I was in the bathroom with one of the triplets. My mother's helper was in the water with the other two and Elizabeth was further out. She'd gone to get a ball and had cried for help. She later told me she could touch with her tippy-toes but she was too tired to swim. Neither the lifeguard nor my mother's helper mentioned the incident to me. I didn't find out about it until I was turning in a form at the neighborhood association office and the office worker mentioned it. "My daughter has four kids," she'd said to me, a look of great concern on her face. "So I know how hard it is to keep track of them all." My mind had gone blank then, too, mostly from shock that I hadn't even known what had happened. But hours later, the subtle condescension in her voice made me burn with shame and then anger.
The Pool Man's face wasn't one of pity. It was steeled. His eyes were narrow and his mouth pinched. He told me he'd seen me "rescue" Lucy a few weeks ago. She'd gone out too far and was in distress and I'd run to get her. The lifeguard hadn't even noticed. He talked about how he's seen how Adam or I will stay in the shallow end with the four kids while the other goes off the diving board a few times; about how we let the kids take turns jumping to us in the deep end. "It's just too hard. Too many kids," he said. I was getting more and more agitated. I asked him how many kids he had. When he answered "two," I said, exasperated, "Then you don't know what it's like. This is what we do. We think we are keeping our kids safe. Where I come from, having four kids isn't a big deal." He repeated that he was very concerned about my kids' safety. I asked if he was targeting us because we have a big family. He said no. "So should we only come if we have four adults?" Again, he said no. Then he told me that he and all the life guards are aware of us, that they've discussed us. That's when he said, "When you guys walk in the gate, we're all on high alert."
The crash this time was further still. At dinner, Adam and I were struggling to get the kids to set the table, sit down to eat, and be quiet for the blessing on the food. Everything was a battle, and every kid was either crying, whining, or yelling. I walked away from the table, lay down on my bed, and wondered why I even bothered, why I put myself through this. Then my old friends came back. They'd be better off without you. Wouldn't it be better and easier if you just died? I imagined it. I thought of plans. It soothed me and scared me. As soon as Adam came in I told him I'd been having suicidal thoughts. He coaxed me back to the dinner table and the rest of the night with the kids went okay.
Now they're in bed. I've discussed it again with my mom, with Adam, and with my friend. "He's the one with the problem," they say. "It's about him, not you." "You're doing a good job." But do they really understand? What it's like to be a circus parade everywhere you go? To feel like a pariah at the library when three of your kids are running in all different directions? To want to melt into the earth when you're trying to get them all across the street and one breaks away and runs. You're on high alert, Mr. Pool Man? Try living my life! I'm ALWAYS on high alert! If I were to let that fear rule me, I'd never leave the house with my kids EVER! But deep down, there's the awful monster that eats away at all your confidence and contentment every time you make a mistake, or doubt yourself, or get a rude comment from a stranger about your parenting. Maybe I am neglectful. Maybe I shouldn't try taking them anywhere by myself. Maybe I am a bad mother.
When I walked with my children away from the pool this morning, I felt like I could never go back there. And tonight, I felt like I couldn't even go on. But I am going on. And I will go back to the pool. I'll let you know how it goes, and what I figure out about myself in the process.