[He is not quite six years old when he learns the definition of his favorite word. He doesn’t realize it’s his favorite word until later, but he realizes right away that if there were one word to describe his Momma, this would be the one.]
[He’s trying to color in a picture of Peter Pan in art class, except Greta has the green marker and she won’t share. He grabs it from her hand, and then she starts to cry, which is a crybaby thing to do, but they both have to make the big, long, scary walk to the Principal’s Office. Henry cries, sitting in the chair, which is also a crybaby thing to do. He swings his legs back and forth because they’re too little to reach the ground. Greta’s daddy shows up first, and the look he gives Henry as he walks into Principal Sinna’s office is not very nice. He cries a little bit harder – hard enough that his nose has run all down his cheeks, and his throat hurts.
When his Momma comes through the door, he’s scared for almost a second before he realizes it’s her. She has her work face on. But the minute she sees him, her whole face changes and there’s his Mom, smiling and kissing his snotty cheeks, and tucking his shirt back in. She goes in to the Principal’s Office, too, and when she comes back out whole minutes later, she doesn’t look mad or sad or even a little bit tired like she sometimes does. She looks strong. He straightens up in the too tall chair, because he’s strong, too.
She flattens his hair and takes his hand, and leads him to the bathroom where he rinses his face and takes deep, deep breaths. And then she leads him back to class, and hugs him tight just outside the door, off to the side where no one could see if they peaked out the window. He buries his face in her shoulder, squeezes her waist. I love you so much, my little prince. I love you, too. No more crying now. He shakes his head no.
She pulls back to look him straight in the eye. That’s when he knows it’s time to listen. Eye contact. They’ve practiced.
You will argue sometimes with your friends, like you did with Greta today. Sometimes people will want be mean, and you won’t know why. Or they will be angry with you, or rude with you, and you will get upset. He nods. You must never back down, Henry. Not ever. But you must know when you are in the right, and when you are in the wrong. And if you are in the wrong, if you take a marker from your friend without asking, if you are rude, you must admit to it. What is that called? Honesty.
He’d learned honesty the week before.
Yes, and then you must apologize. Hold your head up high, but be sincere in your regret. Do you know what that’s called? When you apologize for your wrongdoing with your head held high? Do you know what it’s called when you strive to be the best that you can be, even if you’ve made a mistake along the way? Henry licks his lips, presses his hands palms together. No, Momma. That is called grace, my sweet boy. Grace.]
He slips when he steps onto the sand, the ground not as solid as he’d thought it would be, but Coach Swan places a steadying hand on his elbow, taking the last step down behind him. “You’ve got it, kid.”
He turns to glance at her. “Thank you.” He’s not sure he has ever meant it more, but Coach Swan just shrugs, shoving her hands in her jean pockets. He studies her for a moment, wondering, once again, why it is she’s come to Storybrooke. How it is that she is here with him right now. With him, and also with his mom. “Thanks, Coach.” He nods once, steps away from the castle. “I’ll see you on Monday.”
“Last week of practice before school starts up again.”
“Yeah.” He’s stalling.
“Go.” She reaches for him, gives a gentle shove on his back. “I’ll see you in the pool.”
He’s five feet away from her, five feet closer to where his mom has stopped, at the edge of the grass and the beach, when she says his name softly. He doesn’t look back at her, but he hears her just the same, “She’s always going to love you. No matter what.”
“Can we walk?” He can’t look up at her, can’t meet her gaze, so he stares at her boots instead, boots completely unsuited for a walk along the beach. She is an arm’s length away from him; he could reach out his hand and take hers, but he doesn’t. He scuffs one foot along the sand, hears the swoosh it makes as the particles rub together. She hasn’t answered, but he can feel her eyes on him. “I want to walk,” he says it more firmly this time, and drops his swim bag on the grass at his side.
“Alright.” Her voice is hoarse. Henry can count the number of times he has seen his mother cry on one hand, but he can tell, simply by the sound of her voice, that she has been crying this morning. He stares more firmly at the sand, guilt inching its way up his spine. “Let’s walk.”
He lets her move away first, heading back towards the bench where she’d been sitting before. He follows a half a pace behind, a bit surprised when he has to consciously try not to catch up to her. He’s grown taller without even realizing it.
The beach is still empty, the gray clouds heavier now than they were an hour ago. Soon they will empty themselves across the land, out over the sea, dumping their rain back into the giant bowl of water, enough to change the salinity of the entire ocean, if only by a miniscule amount.
Henry stares out at the waves coming in, blinking only when his eyes start to burn from the salt in the air and the stiff breeze. He doesn’t know the ocean, not the way he knows the pool. It has no boundaries, no sides, no evenly spaced lanes or clearly marked depths. When he floats on his back in the Atlantic on warm August days, picking out cloud shapes in the sky above, he feels even lighter than he does in the pool, the salt buoying him up. As though the pool is Earth and the ocean is the Moon, and gravity is no longer the force he has known all his life. He can never seem to float as long in the ocean, easier though it may be – he starts to feel as though he might float away, forever out to sea, or up and up into the sky, until he’s no more than a speck of dust lost in space.
[They did a unit on Bible stories in English the year before in order to understand the prevalent themes found throughout literature. Henry was assigned Jonah and the Whale. He’d put the assignment off until the last minute, never having been to church or raised with religion. They own a bible though, as well as a Quran, and a book on Taoism. He’d pulled the bible down the night before the assignment was due, read through the story, did the assignment, and spent the next two weeks, thinking about how a man could lose himself out to sea, dreaming about how a man could survive such an encounter. He read the similar story in the Quran. Dreamed again.]
The ocean is as broad to him as the night sky above. He has never known how to love it without feeling as though he’s being swallowed whole.
“Who taught me how to swim?” There is no silence at the beach, but his voice breaks the stillness that has built up between them step by step.
His mom clears her throat, doesn’t break her stride. “I did.”
“You did?” He remembers snatches of a red bathing suit, the sound of little kids screaming and yelling and giggling in delight. He remembers a hand beneath his head and another beneath his hips as he’d learned to float, but he cannot remember those hands as his mother’s. He’d assumed he was taught in a lesson, by a lifeguard, some high school student teaching swim lessons at the pool as a part time job.
“I enrolled you in swim lessons – the Guppies – and we went several times. You refused to get in the pool each time.”
“You refused. You screamed the first few times, even after watching the other children play. The man teaching the class insisted I simply put you in the water, insisted that you’d become accustomed to it eventually. I only forced you to go in once – the third lesson. You stopped screaming, yes - as soon as your feet touched the water. But instead you went silent, and you tightened all the muscles in your tiny body. Your face was white.” She pauses, and he glances out at the water again, forever going in and out and in and out. “We did not return for the fourth lesson.”
“But I love to swim.” He cannot help but glance up at her back when he says it. She doesn’t flinch, doesn’t slow, doesn’t show any indication that she’s heard him.
“You do now. And you did. Once it was just the two of us.”
“I don’t understand.”
His mom stops walking and swings around so quickly, he doesn’t have time to look away, to avoid her gaze. She does not have her Mayor Mills face on. She is not wearing the fierce expression he remembers from the one time he got sent to the Principal’s office in elementary school. Her eyes are red-rimmed and soft, so soft, as she looks at him.
He straightens his back, does not look away. Takes her in, as she does him. They are almost at eye level.
“We went back. The lessons were on Saturdays, so I took you to the pool on a Thursday morning. There were several older people swimming, but the pool was quiet, still. We sat on the side for a long time. You were so curious about the people swimming. They weren’t splashing around like the little kids you were used to. You loved the flip turns they did.” She has hardly paused to take a breath, as though if she does not explain this to him quickly enough, she will lose him. “Finally, I got in, swam a lap or two while you were still on the side. You wanted to get in; you were practically vibrating with excitement.”
“I remember.” Because he does remember now. He remembers the screaming – all the little kids jumping into the pool. And he remembers the stillness of the pool on that morning. He remembers because every Saturday morning for the past eight weeks, the pool has been just as a still, just as empty, just as ready for swimmers to find themselves in the repetition and the peace of its marked lanes as it was so many years ago. “You picked me up and held me first.”
“You were wearing a red swim suit.”
“It was the only one they had at the store.”
“Yeah,” but he’s hardly registered her gentle interruption, doesn’t even recognize the slight embarrassment in her voice. He’s turned his body so they are no longer facing one another. Instead, he’s facing the ocean head on. “You held me.”
This time, he notes the catch in her voice. He blinks.
“We went a few times. By the third time, you were begging to go again as soon as we got out. You floated for the first time on the fourth visit. I’d never seen you smile so wide.”
He grins reflexively.
“You were swimming on your own in just a few weeks. Kicking and pulling. The regulars started to recognize you; they’d tease me about you – say you were going to be lapping them in no time. Pretty soon, you wanted to race them.”
He reaches out his hand without looking, and she takes it, squeezing his fingers. Hers are cold to the touch, so he squeezes back. “You taught me?” It is posed as a question, but it isn’t one.
“I – yes. Yes, I did. But sometimes it felt like I hadn’t, not really. You took to the water immediately, once you moved past your initial hesitation. I think I knew, even then, watching you paddle around –“ She breaks off.
Here is his mother, his Momma, his strong and steady, forever and always, standing with him on one edge of the neverending ocean, holding his hand, and crying. She is crying. Tears running down her cheeks, one after the other. He wonders, briefly, how long it will take for each one of those tears to reach the ocean, if the mass of all that salt water will pull his mom’s tears home.
“Knew what?” He prods. He pushes. He can’t help it.
She lets go of his hand to reach up and swipe the saltwater off her cheeks. “Henry.” She is the one to turn away now.
“Knew what?” He asks again. He is asking too much, he knows. It is not fair to ask anything of her, not when she has been so patient with him.
“I knew if there was ever something you’d leave me for, it would be that. The water. Swimming. I knew.”
“Leave you?” He doesn’t understand. He swallows. “Leave?”
“You know what I mean,” she snaps. He takes a step back as though she’s reached out a hand and struck him. And immediately, ashamed, steps back to his place at her side.
His mom takes several deep breaths, places her hand on her chest, curls the other into a fist before relaxing each finger one by one. Henry thinks he can hear his heart beating in his chest, before he realizes it’s the waves crashing on the shore. He counts the beats anyway. Forty-five. Forty-six. “I’m sorry.” She stands up tall, drops both hands down to her side, and looks him in the eye. “I’m sorry, Henry. I should not have spoken to you that way.”
“I knew,” she sighs, “I knew you’d leave me for the water. Not like I knew you’d go to high school and then college and eventually meet someone and fall in love. Not like I knew you’d get a job and perhaps leave Storybrook forever. Those things – I am prepared for those things. I am excited for your life, for all of the good you can someday do.” She reaches out questioningly. He takes her hand again. “I knew, even when you were just a tiny baby, that someday you’d leave this tiny town and start your own life. But I didn’t know, not until you learned to swim, that you could leave even before you were grown. That I could lose you to something I don’t eve- something I don’t under- something I am not familiar with.”
“Something you don’t understand.”
She reaches up with her other hand to brush his cheek. “Yes, my darling boy. Something I do not understand.” Honesty.
He nods, gazing back out at the sea, at the gulls dipping and gliding on the thermals rising from the surface. The ocean is immense. Too huge for him to comprehend. He prefers 25 yards. Lanes seven feet wide. Not too buoyant. No whales lurking beneath the surface. But the ocean is also strong, pounding and pounding on its shores, year after year. Drawn ever forward and back by the moon – a body lost in its own immensity out in space. You can chart the tides. They have a pattern. They are steady in their own, unassailing way. Strong and steady. He steps into his mom’s arms without thought, holds her tight tight tight around the waist. “You haven’t lost me,” he murmurs into her shoulder.
“You love the water,” she whispers back. “And I do not understand.”
He pulls away, needing to see her, needing to trace the still visible tracks down her cheeks, needing the eye contact. “I love you,” he does not hesitate. “I love you.”
“Sweet boy.” She cups his cheek. “I know that. Of course I know that.”
“You’re my mom,” his voice is shaking; his throat feels as though it’s tearing in two. He taps his own chest, just above his heart, twice. “You’re my mom.”
“Henry.” She’s trying to soothe him, to pull him closer again, but he resists.
“Swimming. God, Mom, swimming is like breathing.” His chest is heaving. He’s choking, but he needs to explain. Finally needs to try and explain. He clasps his hands together. “Swimming is like silence. Under the surface. Even when you’re pushing so hard. It’s like silence stretching all around you, holding you. It’s invincibility. It’s armor. The water is armor. The strength it takes to do a set, that’s armor.” She’s biting her lip, holding back a sob. He’s going to lose her. Right now, he’s going to lose her. “Lik-like-lik-“ How do you feel? Coach Swan asked him. When you can’t even really remember what solid ground feels like, how do you feel?
“It’s freedom,” he exhales, pushing all of the air out of his lungs. “It’s knowing you’re strong enough to escape Jonah’s whale, no matter what. It’s terrifying and thrilling and freeing. It’s strong and steady, Mom. It’s strong and steady. It’s grace.”
She nods. She’s smiling at him, and nodding, and she understands. He can see it in her face; open and so full of love he isn’t sure how he’s missed it for so long.
If he were in the pool, he would not feel the tears stinging his cheeks, he would stretch himself into a perfect streamline, tight and controlled, and he would swim even as his goggles filled with his own body’s water. He would be graceful. He would be free.
Henry stands with his mom, stands tall and true and looks her right in the eye, even as her face blurs through his tears. “I’m sorry.” He clears his throat. Tries again. “I am your son, and I am so, so sorry.”
“Henry. Henry. Henry, Henry, Henry.” This time, he does not resist when she pulls him towards her. He folds himself into her arms; holds on tight even as his body - his body that is still growing, still learning, so much younger than the ocean, but maybe just as capable of being strong, of being steady - holds on tight even as his body shakes in his mother’s arms.
“I’m sorry.” He says it again, into her shirt, pulls away to find her dark brown eyes, to say it once more. “I’m sorry.”
“Swimming,” he rests his head on her shoulder, doesn’t try to stop the words from coming, but simply lets them float up and out of him, all the way up until they are specks of dust on their way to the moon, “swimming is the best of me.”
He learned to swim when he was four. He didn’t learn from some stranger; no one threw him into the deep end and watched him struggle. He was taught to swim, by his mother, by the woman who loves him, who sat with him on the side of the pool until he was ready, who writes secret messages, and comes to his Saturday morning practices, and always knows when to admit she’s been wrong. He’s been searching for this definition for years, for this truth for years in the lanes of a chlorinated pool, and it’s been staring him in the face since he was four years old, terrified of the water, since he was six years old and fighting over markers in the first grade. “Swimming, Mom,” Henry says, “is everything I’ve ever learned from you.”