As I unrolled my blue beach mat—too large for one person—on a “safe” part of the beach, my mind stumbled over all the seemingly unimportant but critical details it usually stumbled over while I meticulously set things up. Of prime importance was the time because if I missed the 10 a.m. to 11 a.m. window when the sun was still in a pleasantly warm avatar and not yet a fire-spitting demon, I would not able to see anything because my mind would be preoccupied with avoiding death by dehydration while my exposed skin would turn into a red, itchy hell.
To avoid being run over by little scampering feet, my toes being slashed off by whizzing Frisbees and my nose being smacked by a ball, I chose a corner of the beach away from the flurry of romping children and youngsters, who—devoid of pedestrian concerns like dehydration and sunburn—spent all days frolicking on the beach and splashing in the water. Blocking out the high-pitched shrieks and the excited yells was easy as I plugged in my headphones and switched to the sounds of the gently rolling swells of the ocean and water lapping at the seashore, which combined with salty tang carried by the balmy breeze to create perfect verisimilitude.
As I was generously rubbing the sunscreen lotion on my exposed body, I realized I didn’t have much cellulite for a forty-nine-year-old woman, who has, more often than not in the past five years, chosen destructive indulgence in food and liquor to deal with her troubles. I knew when I moved to this beach town after my marriage ended, people who didn’t know me very well assumed I’m moving on after all the years of pain and suffering. They had no idea I moved here for a very specific reason and not once in the past 730 nights had I left my home during the night for anything other than work.
I drank gulps of water and settled down on the mat—our nearly tattered, old family beach mat that I couldn’t get rid of. Too many memories as fresh as firm ice cream on a sweltering day. And as sweet too, I thought as I lay down on my back and closed my eyes, the gentle sounds in my ears blocking out all the external noise.
I began the routine as I usually did, focusing my attention on my toes, willing them to relax, and in a slow cadence, moving my attention to my feet, my legs and upwards toward the rest of my body, one body part at a time. This was critical because not relaxing enough gave me a superficial experience and not the immersive lifelike sensations I was after. I focused on the warmth of the sun on my skin as I mentally traversed each body part and it relaxed me further. My breaths were deep and even, and my heart rate significantly slowed.
I visualized myself entering a monumental edifice with a glass exterior in which I caught my reflection. I was in my twenties, a healthy glow of youth and happiness on my face. I briskly entered the building and advanced toward the elevator, which opened immediately, its sensors alerted by my arrival. I entered the elevator and pressed key number 10. The keypad was inverted of course with 0 at the top and 10 at the bottom. The elevator noiselessly started descending one floor at a time and at each floor, I reminded myself of going deeper and deeper into my subconscious mind, urging myself to relax. I counted from 1 to 10, a heady feeling of weightlessness pervading my body as I drifted deeper and deeper into the depths of my subconscious mind.
On the -10th floor, the elevator door opened into a cavernous room with an enormous screen facing a comfortable couch, where I took a seat and began watching my life unfold on the screen. The day I suspected I could be pregnant, but those feelings had arisen many times before, disappointing me with false hope each time. This time though, I knew. Even before the test showed a positive, even before I saw her on the ultrasound, before I heard her heartbeat for the very first time, I knew. My daughter. She arrived hale and hearty and screaming her tiny lungs off.
I recalled her sleeping on my breast, curled up like a beautiful bud that would soon blossom into a lovely girl. Through ages of one to three, she gave me a hundred kisses—literally a hundred kisses—every day. Steadfastly loyal to me, she showed me in her little ways how much she loved me and what I meant to her. Like when I had an argument with her grandmother and she refused—adamantly refused—to eat the cake baked by her grandmother simply because Granny made Mommy sad. It didn’t matter she didn’t fully comprehend the words we spoke or the thing we argued about, she was always firmly on my side. Even though I told her to eat the cake, she wouldn’t. Her refusal to eat the cake was both heartwarming and heartbreaking at the same time.
I caught a glimpse of her seventh birthday party when—it was the peak of the pandemic—her Dad and I had brought home a petting zoo. Dressed in a new blue party dress, she’d held her hand out to a yellow-headed parrot. She’d loved the albino python as it slithered on her lap and finally settled for a nap in a cosy corner. But most of all, she’d enjoyed watching the turtle with the distinctive and attractive shell markings as it walked with its webbed feet over the length of her arm.
At ten years old, she was accompanying us on hiking trips, the ardent adventurer and outdoorsy girl that she was. Her reading proficiency was advanced and she had already devoured the entire collections of Harry Potter, The Famous Five, Nancy Drew, and anything to do with adventure, dragons and beasts. By fourteen, she’d tried and enjoyed bungee jumping, rock climbing, river crossing and rappelling. She was bright, fun and kind—my golden child.
When I was in my subconscious mind, I didn’t have total control over what my mind showed me next, which was why I was trying hard to steer my thoughts away from the point they were hurtling towards. The day my world shattered. Stage 4 intestinal cancer that had already metastasized to her lungs, liver and the lining of the abdominal cavity. The image of her tiny body ravaged by surgeries, chemotherapy and radiation therapy was seared into my mind. During the last two months of her life, I spent every waking moment with her, telling her how much her Dad and I loved her and what wonderful times we’d had with her. I made her promise to let go when the pain became unbearable for her. We made promises too. Her Dad promised he’d quit smoking, which he did after he’d been smoking every day for twenty-six years. I promised I’d open my own restaurant, which I’d been successfully running for two years now.
But we couldn’t stay together, her Dad and I. Every time I looked at him, the gaping hole in my heart began to ache for her and I could only find refuge in alcohol. Every time he looked at me, he wondered how heartless I was to move on so quickly after the death of our only child. What he didn’t know—and I could never tell him—was that to fulfil my promise to her, I had to pick myself up and go to work every day. To do that, I had to focus on things other than the gaping hole in my heart. To do that, I met my daughter every day in my subconscious mind. The sun—yes, the sun—enabled me to enter a profound state of visualization, in which I met my daughter every day. Our special time. I relived our memories and sometimes, created new memories as I pictured her graduating from high school with her gang of friends, celebrating her twenty-first birthday, marrying a wonderful man, having three babies, one of whom she named after me.
It was her last night, just a few minutes before. I was lying next to her on the hospital bed, caressing her forehead, sniffing her hair, hugging her tight, whispering words of love in her ear, going through the worst sort of pain any human being can experience. The wretched helplessness of watching your child suffer and not being able to do anything about it. I was already eyeing the eleventh-floor hospital window through which a light summer breeze was blowing in—the route I would take to follow my daughter to wherever she was headed. I didn’t want to live in a world she didn’t breathe in. I couldn’t.
“Mom,” she said, breathing raggedly.
“Yes, sweetheart,” I said, sitting bolt upright. She wasn’t much up to talking these days, understandably so.
I saw what a struggle it was for her to even lift her face to look me in the eyes, her long eyelashes forming dark shadows over her hollow cheeks.
“I’m tired,” she whispered, closing her eyes.
I knew it was time. I called out to her Dad, who was dozing on the nearby chair. He scrambled to her bedside, his eyes bleary.
“Dad,” she managed to say.
“Yes, baby,” he said, kissing her hand.
She opened her eyes and looked at me. “I love you both. I... I want you to be happy,” she said, looking at her father.
At this, her Dad broke down, covering his face with his hand.
“And Mom,” she said, looking at me. “There’s a kid in the water. He’s drowning,” she said, her voice laced with urgency. “Can you help him?”
“What?” I whispered. Her Dad didn’t seem to have heard anything. He just kept sobbing into his elbow.
Her eyes were now alert. “The kid in the water, Mom. Help him.” I heard her as clearly as if she’d spoken in my ear.
My eyes flew open. This was not usually how I woke up from deep visualization. Generally, I entered the elevator and counted from 10 to 0 and opened my eyes only when the elevator reached the ground floor.
I stood bolt upright, blood rushing to my head. There was nothing bizarre around me. Just families having the usual summer fun. My gaze skimmed over all the little kids, trying to remember if I’d seen anyone before who wasn’t around anymore. The boy in the shark swimsuit. There were two of them, identical twins around five years old. Now, I could only see one of them.
I began running towards the water, my mind scanning the surface of the waves for any sign of a child. And then I saw him, his brown hair shimmering in the sunlight, his head bobbing in and out of the water as he tried to stay afloat. I dived into the water, its pleasant coolness permeating my body, and I swam as hard as I’d done anything in my life. I swam to save the life of the child, whose parents were probably still unaware that their boy had waded into deeper waters. I swam hard because my daughter had spoken to me today, the first time in three years she’d shattered the boundary between possible and impossible, and appeared in my subconscious mind, urging me to save a life. Even now as I swam towards the drowning boy, I could hear her beseeching whisper in my ear.
Save the boy, Mom. Save him!
My concentration slipped and my airway was flooded with salty water, which I coughed out fitfully. I was close now, less than thirty feet away.
Come on, Mom! You can do it!
I scooped the little boy in my arms and raised his head above the water. My heart sank on realizing he was unconscious. Supporting him with one hand, I swam towards the seashore as fast as my exhausted limbs allowed with my daughter urging me to go faster. Even over the lapping of the water, I could now hear terrified screams coming from the seashore, which grew louder as I rapidly approached the shore. Through my peripheral vision, I could spot a bunch of people wading into the water towards us. They grabbed the unconscious boy and quickly carried him to the seashore, where someone, presumably the boy’s father, began CPR while I collapsed on the sand, my limbs finally crumbling from exhaustion.
I glanced sideways. The child’s mother was already sobbing, clutching her other child, while the father was frantically compressing the child’s chest and intermittently checking if the boy had started breathing. My eyes were drawn to the infinite blue sky above me, splashed with amorphous white clouds. I closed my eyes and began praying to God to spare these parents the grief of losing their child. I was once again praying to a God I had turned away from in these past three years because what kind of a God allowed a sixteen-year-old to die of intestinal cancer?
And then I heard sputtering and coughing sounds coming from the little boy. The family erupted in joy. The boy was—or was likely to be—okay. I heaved a deep sigh and closed my eyes as a tiny tear escaped my left eye. I had received my answer. The same God who saved a five-year-old boy from drowning.