Two Jellyfish

By Catherine Shields

I remember how we met fifteen years ago. We were in a dressing room, and I had come to the pool for physical therapy sessions with my two-year-old daughter, Brianna. You stood on the opposite side of the bench helping your little boy. You lifted his shirt over his head, then tied the drawstring on his blue bathing suit. You both had hair the color of a burnt orange sunset. Yours tumbled over your shoulders, and when you glanced at me, you wore a wide, welcoming smile.

I smiled back as I finished pulling the bathing suit straps over Brianna’s shoulders. You hoisted your child onto your hip, then introduced yourself and your son. Your name was Amanda, your son, Max. You said you’d been bringing him for the last few months.

You bent toward him and smoothed his red hair with your palm. Max’s head bobbed on his short neck. He had blue, almond-shaped eyes, and a face that flattened across the bridge of his nose. Down syndrome.

I prayed I didn’t stare and wondered if you were used to the way people reacted. We walked out of the changing room together, carrying our children. You told me Max was two and a half, but he hadn’t learned to walk yet. You heaved him to your opposite hip. At that same moment, Max yanked the top of your blue and white striped suit and exposed your breast. You squealed with laughter, then unhooked his grip. He chortled as you shook your head. You said he knew what he was doing, that he liked testing you.

I laughed along with you, then told you about Brianna’s cerebral palsy, how she didn’t walk until she was nineteen months, was still kind of wobbly, and that I carried her whenever I was in a hurry. But I didn’t share my secret shame: that I was angry every time I picked her up, that when I looked at my daughter, I saw all the wrong turns I’d taken and all my possible mistakes, that I wanted to fix what I was sure I had broken.

You didn’t stop smiling as we walked to the pool. I searched your face for some sign of unease and found nothing. Max happily babbled. You placed gentle kisses atop his head. Your pride in him radiated. For a moment, I was flooded with envy. You seemed to say to the world he was perfect the way he was. Why couldn’t I feel that way? I had felt the constant hum of failure every day since Brianna’s diagnosis, certain everyone else could see it hovering like an aura. My entire pregnancy I had done all the right things. I had been so careful, and yet, there I was. And you? Serene mother love.

You said you wished you had more time to work with Max, but you had a full-time job. Fortunately, your boss allowed some leeway. You said you were thankful you could bring Max to therapy, that it was hard being a single mom, that Max’s father left a few days after you found out the baby had Down syndrome. Before we moved down the steps into the shallow end of the pool, you told me your husband couldn’t handle it, that you didn’t ever expect to hear from him again. I paused behind you, stunned by the casual dismissal of your husband. There was no hushed and hurried whisper of divorce. You didn't avert your eyes or bow your head. You stepped down into the water and I saw something I had yet to discover. The power of acceptance. 

Tommy, the physical therapist, waved from the other side of the pool. He instructed us to grab floats. The session started, the water was warm as a bath, but all I could think about was how you could be so self-assured.

A woman climbed into the pool and apologized for being late. She carried her child and crooned as they sank deeper into the water. The girl moaned, her reed-thin limbs gnarled, her hands curled inward. I bit my lip and cringed, then immediately chastised myself. I knew better than to play the game of ‘at least she’s not;’ at least Brianna’s not in a wheelchair, at least she can speak, at least they can’t tell by looking at her. Two months earlier, the neurologist had explained it was not a simple case of developmental delay. There was no cure for cerebral palsy, yet I believed enough therapy would fix everything. My perfect child would recover and be whole.

Tommy said he was going to teach the kids how to float on their backs. He showed us how to hold our children under the arms and lie them in the water. Brianna thrashed, screamed, and wrestled with me as I tried to dip her backward. She kept yelling, ‘Mommy, no let go.’ Tommy swam closer. He slowly waved his arms up and down making exaggerated movements. “We’re going to pretend we’re jellyfish,” he said. He reached out and took Brianna in his arms. She floated.

A few feet away, you trailed Max through the water and urged him to stay on his back. Amanda, your tranquil smile remained. You were unflappable. You spoke softly into Max’s ear, intimate words. A grin stretched across his face as you sang about a jellyfish family. In that one moment, I wanted what you had. You embodied acceptance. That was something I hadn't yet learned. I wanted the peace of surrender and the sense of pride for an imperfect but magnificent child. And as I looked at Max, I saw Brianna. As I looked at you, I understood who I could be. 

After our session in the pool, I never saw you again. Perhaps you and Max returned on a different day. Burnt orange hair undulating in the water. The beautiful wholeness of mother and child bobbing in the water.

Two glorious jellyfish. Floating.