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The Day My Mother Drowned

You may think you’re prepared for the death of a parent, but you can never really imagine it

Anne Edelstein
November 09, 2017
The Great Barrier ReefShutterstock
The Great Barrier ReefShutterstock

The phone rings in what must be the middle of the night. When I look at the clock, it’s actually only a few minutes before midnight. It’s not the usual screech of a fax machine mistakenly dialed to our phone line, or the slurred voice of an occasional wrong number. It’s my brother at the other end of the line. I’m strangely unconcerned when I hear his voice, even though I know that middle-of-the-night phone calls from family members can be a bad sign. Ted is calling to say that our mother is dead.

“That’s impossible,” I say. “They’re on vacation in Australia.” Or were they still in New Zealand? “They’ve only been away for four weeks. They still have another week before they come home.” My mother is only sixty-eight years old. She’s always been “healthy as an ox,” an unstoppable force.

But sure enough as I look out at the silhouettes of the other apartment buildings against the dark sky, a few lights still turned on in the building behind ours, I’m talking to Ted about my mother’s death. It’s impossible, but it’s true. Just like that, my mother’s life has ended, and Ted and I are having the fateful conversation I’ve been destined to have at some point in my life. But it’s nothing at all like what I imagined for my mother’s death. What Ted is saying is not right. And the timing is wrong.

“She drowned,” Ted is telling me. “They were snorkeling in the Great Barrier Reef, and she drowned.” He keeps on talking and I see a picture of my mother in a state of panic, gasping for air. I can’t take it in.

I watch my husband Roy watching me, as I hold the receiver in my hand, sitting upright at the edge of our bed. Eva is now crying in her crib because we’ve decided again to try the experiment of letting her go back to sleep on her own. Eli, who has run into our room to escape the noise of the crying, has already fallen back to sleep in a mound between Roy and me.

I try to take charge by writing down the long Australian phone numbers Ted is reeling off. It’s already 5:00 p.m. the next day in Australia, he’s saying. Will the official date of her death be March 2, 1998, which is today’s date? Or will it be March 3rd, like it is in Australia? Ted reminds me that because it’s already late afternoon there, people are leaving their offices. He gives me the home number of the social worker, along with her office number in the hospital. There’s also the phone of the local police station, the boating company that took them out into the reef, and the hotel where my parents are staying. I double-check all of the phone numbers with Ted, and then because there’s really nothing else we can come up with to say, we hang up.

I tell Roy what I’ve just heard, the news Ted has just heard from my father, words that sound completely unreal. They were snorkeling. My father was out further. He kept on coming back to find my mother, who was snorkeling closer in, toward the boat, where the water was more shallow. By the time my father found her, she’d already been pulled to shore. Roy nods back at me, like he’s trying to give some validity to what I’m saying.

I try dialing some of the different phone numbers on the list, but can’t get through. Finally I connect with my father at the police station in Cairns, the town next to the Great Barrier Reef. He says he’s waiting to get the results of the autopsy report from the police. They’d been snorkeling under the auspices of a boating company, so an official autopsy is required, he tells me. Besides, the body can’t be released from the country without an autopsy. “We specifically chose this boat company because it was safe,” my father says. “The boat left from a sandy beach. Your mother was wearing a life jacket. She wasn’t out deep. There were other people there, too, from our group.”

My father tells me he’d snorkeled back and forth four times, looking for my mother, to bring her out to where he was, where the fish were more beautiful, but he couldn’t find her. The last time a man from the group swam over to him to ask whether he was looking for a woman with gray hair. By the time my father made it to my mother’s side on the beach, they couldn’t resuscitate her.

I tell my father that Ted and I will fly to Australia to meet him. “No, I want to come back on my own.” He’s firm on this. “That would hold me up another thirty-six hours if you came. I want to get home.” He’s already spoken to a travel agent, and it’s been arranged. He says he’ll settle things at the police station, go back to the hotel for his bags, and get on the very long flight back to Boston the next morning. And he won’t take the Valium they’ve given him. He wants my mother to be in his thoughts like she’s supposed to be. They had a magnificent trip, he tells me. They held hands the day before when they walked down the streets of Cairns. His voice sounds dreamy, like they were in love, like it was some kind of second honeymoon, which is almost as otherworldly as the fact that my mother has just died in the Great Barrier Reef.

Anne Edelstein’s memoir, Lifesaving for Beginners, from which this is an excerpt, was published this week by Red Hen Press.