It is difficult to see underwater without some kind of intervention, some kind of separation between eyes and water. Even my shortsighted fish-eyes need help, though most of my childhood was spent gazing at some blurry submarine landscape, and bearing the sting afterwards.
The first time I saw the bottom of the sea I got a fright, and drew saltwater into my lungs with the sudden intake of breath. I coughed a bit, and then went down for more keeping my feet raised in order to push my head down, to stop it floating up and out. I was wearing a huge hard plastic underwater mask, like a piece of cartoon headgear, which flared from my face towards the clear oval of vision in a swathe of sharp green plastic. The world of the sea was suddenly revealed to me, and I saw with a shock that it went on forever and ever and ever.
The huge mask was problematic when swimming in the waves, as one's head was tossed about like a large and bouyant bucket by the ceaseless pull and push. But I have never forgotten the lure of that world stretching out before me, where the pale ocean floor continued forever into infinity, the bright dancing canopy of the ocean overhead. I thought to myself with a thrill of fear: I want to swim forever.
My mother hauled me out by the straps of my swimmers.
Around the edge of the rock pool is where the rip leaps in and around, and creates a flurry of sand and small bits of weed. The ever present flock of spotted toadfish seem to exist solely to swim against the in and out of it, turning this way and that in charming unison, their wide spaced goat-like eyes unblinking. When the tide is low, deep turquoise pools are laid open, disempowered and benign, full of stranded toadies, but the tide comes back in and they revert to spinning hollows of light, dark, and fragments tossed about in endlessly moving water. The rocks hunch in their secretive manner, clothed in cloaks of dark red weed knitted by the tide, flecked with sand here and there. Down low it is dim and dark, it is hard to see.
I have rinsed the salt from my hair and driven across town, keeping my attention upon the roads, the directions. I am right on time for my appointment, and I sit down on a blue chair and cross my ankles. The hair at the back of my neck is damp: I realize that I have done nothing but twist it into a wet knot, leaving it uncombed, but I think also that nobody is really looking since these rooms are part of the Sydney IVF clinic, and everybody preoccupied with their own private hopes and sorrows. I am able to watch, as closely as I wish, the actions of everybody in the room, before I am shown into my own room, with a large screen above the chair, waiting to map me out. It is a larger, clearer screen than any I recall. The nurse asks a few questions, how many children do I have.
Two, I answer.
I am compelled at that moment to explain that I have been through this four times.
Four times, she says. Four times pregnant but only two children?
Thats right, I answer.
I do not elaborate, thinking instead of the time I saw a heartbeat glinting like a lighthouse, the time I saw those little hands flex and startle, and finally let myself exhale and love. I do not explain seeing that inert shape at fourteen weeks, like a stone at the bottom of a pond, lying still, no beating heart, no trace of light. I keep myself quiet and watch the sea inside of me, up there on the screen and say nothing. The blunt white muzzle of a very clever camera becomes a pair of underwater eyes, revealing my hidden ocean.
The shapes and hollows are aquatic and submarine, with flecks of light and dark shadows. Waves of sound mark the beat of my heart and the tides of my blood, so eerie and strange to see this space unoccupied, like watching the empty flow of the tide after the storm.
The nurse maps my inner fronds, the darker spaces. We listen to my blood, the soft thud of waves, moving in a fluid fashion from place to place. My chest tightens. My body cannot help but remember the joy, the looking, the finding. Those tiny fingers, all of them with their thumbs in their tiny aquatic mouths, the rolling and the turning. Those two creatures who are so formed and loud and airborne now, those other two that shine endlessly in the quieter stretches of the ocean, silent and bright.
It is strange, to be so uninhabited.
Incredibly, a newborn howls through the partition wall, followed by muted adult voices. I look quizzically at the nurse, who smiles and shakes her head.
That's pretty hard for some people in here, she says.
The crying is protracted. If it continues, I think, I will begin to lactate.
I lie there with my thickened chest, the shape of a flood of tears forming in my heart. I am remembering something else which often threatens to fall out of the edges. I remember being alone, watching all those hearts, those fingers. I remember greeting them all: my daughter like a small bear, my son who flung his hand up high, that bold soul leaping with arms raised to be the youngest then deciding to remain undersea, and the last one, who stayed incredibly for so long, whom I almost managed to convince that the world was a wonderful place, but who held her breath, and fell asleep on my ocean floor.
I remember it was only me who greeted them. Just me, their mother. I wonder now if I should have insisted, rather than ask, for company and be refused. Too busy, no time, no interest.
It is said to be churlish to bring up such things: that I was always alone.
But the fact was, it defined everything. It made me set back my shoulders, bear the solitary acts with as much grace as I could manage. Nobody else but me even so much as glimpsed the sea inside of me, when there were creatures furled in there. There was no "we loved him" or "we loved her".
Twas just me.
I'd not thought I had tears left for that, but I was wrong. In this unexpected moment in which I gaze into my own oceanic depths, and listen to the solitary beat of my own blood, this overcomes me.
Of course, there are many courses in life that I have not had to manage. I swim out into the open sea along the furrow next to the pool, the rip carrying me beyond the hunched woolly shoulders of the rock platforms, past the deeper pools and out to where the waves grow high like sharp blue dorsal fins trembling in the sun. I think of Katie, who was deserted with two babies, I think of Mary who was deserted at 36 with none, and of Jane who left empty handed. I think of Anne and her brand new breasts, her harvested eggs waiting in some dark storage for just in case...and I think of the fine babies they might have had for me to hold, to talk to.
I think of Georgie, whose firstborn leapt from a clifftop aged 17, a few months ago. I think of the hopeful eyes of the women hovering in wait for a scan to tell them that, somewhere in their private watery hollow, new life has been persuaded to take hold. I think of those who will never see anything but emptiness and silence in that underwater place up there on the screen.
Everything is relative, I think, as I head out towards the looming dark shape of the headland. I look at the small fronds of seaweed as I swim, at all the tiny points of light which trail from my moving hands as I disappear into the sea inside of me. I hope to myself that all these aquatic maps will, this time, be empty, and that what they find
Nothing but everything as it should be.
The sea tries half-heartedly push me under, but I'm not having any of it.I swim on: the points of light are buoying me up. Against the horizon my son hunches over his bright yellow board, gives me a wave.
I swim forever.
I am not having IVF, just a thorough look-over.
Paintings from Body of Water, 2010