A month after your suicide, when I’ve quit fearing a return to routine would mean I never loved you, I restart my daily swims at the university aquatic facility. 

The facility has two pools. Fitness, eleven-feet deep, where recent high school swim stars flash down cool-water lanes, chlorine-bleached hair tucked under bright swim caps. Leisure, four-feet deep at most, where professors emeriti freestyle with saggy arms, buzzed nineteen-year-olds aim an inflatable ball at a hoop, and soft-bellied mothers soak with swim-diapered infants in water near the temperature of a womb.

Before you died, I chose fitness and swam for forty minutes without stopping. Today, I choose leisure, slow-motion stroking down a lane roped off next to the hoop. I can put my feet down mid-lane when I start crying, and the warmth eases grief pains in my chest.

I use the breaststroke, the stroke you taught me, your teenage sister, fifteen years ago, after you took swimming lessons at age seven. In the pool, I think about the way my body mimics yours that day in a West Virginia lake, your suntanned hands parting brown water, your bitten-off toenails seeking purchase in the mud. I breaststroke with my head up, snapping turtle style, since no one taught you to plunge your head underwater.

After twenty minutes, I give up. I paddle to the edge and cling to the pool deck, knees between my torso and the concrete wall. You never saw this pool, but I see you in water. In the lake at seven, in our grandparents’ wood-framed aboveground pool at ten, your legs pockmarked from mosquitoes. In another university pool, the first time you tried to go to college, when you watched movies from an inner tube with a can of Coke. In the Atlantic Ocean, two years ago at Myrtle Beach, when you defied the shaggy-haired guy in the lifeguard chair and floated toward Portugal on a bodyboard.  

When I climb out, I find myself standing in front of a chart taped to the shiny tile wall, warning swimmers about a way they can drown. I’ve read it before, idly curious, but now I study the steps: hyperventilation, O2 drops, unconsciousness, drowning. Each panel features a dark-haired Caucasian man, drawn thin enough and young enough to resemble you at twenty-two. I imagine your black hipster glasses onto the young man, even though you didn’t swim in glasses, and your glasses were on your nightstand when you died.

In the first panel, the young man stands open-mouthed on the pool deck and “overbreathes,” from exhaustion or on purpose, gasping in O2, forcing out CO2, throwing off the balance in his bloodstream. In the second panel, he cavorts under blue water as his O2 drops, legs kicking and arms outstretched. If he hadn’t overbreathed, his rising CO2 levels would have triggered an automatic breath, sending him choking to the surface. Since he did overbreathe, his CO2 levels can’t climb high enough to signal danger while he’s awake. Third, his CO2 rises higher, and unconsciousness sets in suddenly. His limbs droop, his head points toward the bottom. In the final illustration, the young man is underwater, belly up, lungs full of water from a breath he took while unconscious, and I can tell from his face that he’s dead.

Dripping onto the pool deck, goose-pimpled arms squeezed across my chest, I feel closer to you than I have since you died. I know you didn’t drown; you hanged yourself in your closet. And unlike that clueless cartoon man, you knew what you were doing, or at least understood the orders your brain gave you in a post-manic moment of despair. But still, you died from a lack of oxygen, and this chart gives me a window into the last moments of your life.

One reason your death hurts so much is I feel shut out. You can’t tell me about it under buggy porch light on our parents’ deck, or even call me, storytelling between puffs on a Marlboro. And now here it is in front of me. Hyperventilation, O2 drops, unconsciousness, drowning. The cartoon young man crouches in his closet, leather belt looped around the closet bar and his neck. O2 drops, CO2 rises. I watch you in the chart until my hair stops dripping and my swimsuit is nearly dry.

Sarah Beth Childers is the author of the essay collection Shake Terribly the Earth: Stories from an Appalachian Family. Her essays have also appeared in Pank, Colorado Review, Quiddity, Guernica, and elsewhere. Originally from Huntington, West Virginia, she now lives and writes in Stillwater, Oklahoma, where she teaches creative nonfiction in the MFA and PhD programs at Oklahoma State University, serves as the nonfiction editor of the Cimarron Review, and enjoys Oklahoma’s six-month outdoor swimming season.

Photo by Elizabeth Fackler