My mom likes to wade deep—up to her armpits. And she is a small person. If I am wading upstream from her it is not unusual to see only a pair of arms, a rod, and a cowboy hat clearing the surface of the water. I watch for the reassuring wave of the rod, and then I can settle back into my own fishing for a bit. We are mother and daughter on the water, and we keep track of each other. Do not range too far. Stay where I can see you, or at least just around the bend.
At some point I became frightened that this was not enough insurance against the freight-train current of a big river. I bought her a life vest, one of the small ones that inflates instantly when you hit the water. It was pink, and I think she was less than thrilled, but she wore it dutifully for a whole season, and even tried it out once on a slippery day. It has since been relegated to a storage bin with discarded long underwear sets and extra hats. Occasionally I scold her that she should be wearing it. She placates me, tells me she will get it ready again for next year, and we move on.
I sometimes wonder what I would do if she actually did come floating by me in the little pink life vest, bobbing farther and farther downstream through the rushing water. I play the scenario out in my mind. Would I just happen to have a handy rope nearby? Would I run, screaming up and down the bank like a banshee, or would I swim the river myself in the hopes of saving us both? This is the more likely, though equally foolhardy, option.
The life vest, it seems, was a silly idea. My mom has braved 70 years of unsure footing, deep waters, and powerful currents. She’s not going to stop now, but the tug of that invisible tether between us is one of the earth’s most primal callings. I’ve felt the pull of that cord more so than ever these days as I wade through the existential quagmire of American life, trying to keep my boots firmly planted, trying to step with intention from stone to stone, to find a clear path through murky, desolate waters and currents that I am struggling to understand.
I feel myself hoping for a life vest.
I called her from the Washington Monument on January 21, 2017, and told her I wished she were there. It was dark, and all of the memorials of the D.C. landscape lay out before me, illuminated, silent, as if holding their breath. She talked about how her 70 years of living through all sorts of upheavals helped her to stay calm, to somehow keep her head in order, though she was marching too. I felt her steady perseverance. And not for the first time in my life, I could feel her standing behind me.
Wade deep. I’ve got you.