My first memory is of drowning. I was about three years old, the story goes. I wasn't old enough to know how old I was, but I remember what happened.
We lived in Long Beach, California, and my mother took my older sister and me to the beach nearly every day. I didn't know how to swim yet, but I was too young to know I didn't know how to swim, so I walked off over the dunes and into the ocean. Why my mother's hawk eyes failed to watch me do this is something I don't remember.
The water was lovely. I sank. My diaper filling up with the sea helped sink me like a toddler stone. I rolled around in the wet blue world. I saw a bright pink anemone waving its silky tentacles. It was funny. Light like rain fell through the water. I wasn't afraid. It was beautiful. I don't remember my lungs filling. I didn't struggle at all, just floated and rolled and drifted in the buoyant silence.
Then came the grabbing and pain. My father lifted me up and carried me to the beach. He lay me down on the sand. Surrounded by a circle of yelling people, I was terrified. Spears of fire spread through my chest. I don't remember what happened next. I remember wishing I was back in the ocean. It was better there.
Another early memory is when I ate almost a whole bottle of aspirin. I was about four years old. My mother left the house to talk with the neighbor across the street. I looked out the window, saw them standing on the lawn. I quickly dragged a chair over to the cupboard, took down the Bayer aspirin bottle and ate as many as I could before my mother came back into the kitchen and figured out what I had done. I remember her being calm, and she was not a calm person. Then my father came home in the middle of the day, which was really odd, and said we were going to the park with the merry-go-round. I was so excited! This was special. So when I ended up at the hospital on the hill with a team of doctors and nurses dressed in weird green outfits and gloves and masks strapping me onto a board and shoving tubes up my nose and mouth, I screamed and screamed and screamed. Afterward, I did not eat the lollipop the doctor gave me. I was furious at my father. What a betrayal.
My third earliest memory is when I was four or five. I was sleeping on my stomach, and someone came into the bedroom I shared with my older sister and stabbed me in the back, the knife going straight through my heart and into the mattress. I screamed like bloody murder, because, yes, it was bloody murder. The next thing I knew, I was sitting on my father's lap in the living room. My mother sat in the chair beside us. It was late, I could feel the lateness in the dark of the room, just one lamp on, making the rug and curtains glow. I had never been up that late before, and it was strange and wonderful. Just the three of us, sitting quietly in the middle of the night. I don't remember if I told my parents about my dream, but I do recall pointing out the fish in the air around us. Colorful, neon-fish swimming in the pool of living room darkness. It was fantastic.
What does any of it mean? I don't know. I know I loved living by the sea with my parents and older sister and a parrot who swore in Spanish. In the little bungalow surrounded by palm trees on Lanai Street.
And I know this: I was so young, I never thought about God, but the day I almost drowned, I knew the dark sea loved me.
Causes Susan Browne Supports
Run Together, A Race to Raise Money for Leukemia and Lymphoma Society