The Dark Water, non-fiction

The Dark Water
by Joanna Streetly
Between Interruptions: Thirty Women Tell The Truth About Motherhood
Key Porter, 2007

My niece Helen sank “down, down, down.” There she was, on the bottom of the pool, like a lost toy. She’s three years old now, but she still remembers that time, one year ago, when she jumped in after her brother. Her father turned to pick up her life jacket and when he turned back, she was gone. It happened that fast.

Children and water can be a lethal combination. I knew that, though I didn’t have children at the time Helen jumped in. But I couldn’t have imagined how much that vulnerability would affect me when I became a mother, even though nearly every aspect of my life revolves around water. I would never have guessed how often I would think of Helen sinking and imagine my own child sinking, too.

I consider myself a calm person, not given to dread or fear. When, I became pregnant, the last thing I worried about was my unusual living situation. I own a house in Tofino, on the west coast of Vancouver Island, but I don’t live there. I keep a small basement space for an office, with a shower, a bed and laundry facilities, but when I go home, I go to a little floating house anchored near an island in Clayoquot Sound. I’ve lived this way for more than ten years. About half of that time, I’ve lived alone; more recently, I have been living with my partner, Marcel. By motorboat from Tofino, it takes us about 20 minutes to get home and every time I walk through the door, contentment fills my lungs—a stirring mix of joy and peace, something I’ve never found anywhere else. There’s a woodstove for heat, a propane stove and oven for cooking, rainwater in the tap and solar panels for the lights and music. It’s quiet and rustic and deeply satisfying. An ardent sea kayaker and lover of the outdoors, this way of living has never stopped me from doing anything before; in fact, I have always found great comfort and inspiration in my wild home, where the water slips in and out of the bay outside my windows and the birds and the animals treat me as part of the scenery.
I discovered I was pregnant on my 35th birthday. It was near Christmas and I was in England visiting my family. Marcel was in Tofino feeling broke. I dreamed that I was standing on a pebble beach watching vast surges of water wash in and out. I was talking to a friend, who reminded me that I was going to have a baby. When I woke up my breasts were sore and I had to rush to the bathroom.

I took out my diary and counted days and hours, including jet-lag. No, I thought. It can’t be! A baby? Change? But I like everything the way it is!
I made a late-night overseas call to Marcel. He had never been interested in starting a family, whereas I’d seen it as something to discuss “next year.” Marcel decided there was no point being negative. “So,” he said, after a short silence, “Right on! We’re having a baby.”
As expectant parents we were confident that our relationship would endure, but we found it impossible to envision our future life. How could our tiny house accommodate the trappings of another person? We have 400 square feet of open-plan floor space downstairs, with just a little less than that in the loft. Large windows look onto the water and have always given the illusion of space. But illusions cannot house a growing family. We hashed out a plan, then reverted to a state of vague denial.
I imagined that I would maintain my outdoor activities by hopping into my kayak every evening after the baby went to sleep. I had no clue how much I would rely on naptimes to carry out the basics of survival like meals and cleaning. I didn’t think about the rain and the open motorboat and how often I might end up being confined to the floathouse during the winter. I fabricated a floatation device for an infant and I didn’t worry about anything. I was being positive.
I wrangled enough work at the front desk of the Tofino hospital to get maternity leave, security that my work as a freelance writer and illustrator could never provide. I wondered what would become of my latest book, a novel I had written, which was being reviewed by various publishers, none of whom had gotten back to me.
Marcel made lists of things to do before the birth: Make money. Cut firewood. Build the baby’s room.
When the doctor told me that the baby could come “any day,” I fell off my cloud of denial with a thump, panicked and waddled home to nail in the last boards. Suddenly the whole pregnancy became real. Suddenly I needed a real room to put a real baby in. Oh my God!

In the end, our daughter took four days to be born—an expression, perhaps, of her relaxed personality. The arrival of two of my sisters from England, and daily visits by the midwife, made this a joyous, stress-free time. Since Marcel and I had not been able to imagine ourselves as parents, we had no plan to conform to. We fell into step with Toby’s rhythms and marvelled at everything.
We were staying in a house on land, with the luxuries of a bathtub (hot running water!) and a washing machine and electricity. Two days after Toby was born my novel was accepted for publication, so we were doubly celebrating. Brimming with milk and hormones, I joked that I was suffering from post-natal euphoria. But I had another maternal condition developing, too. As I watched my little child grow, ounce by ounce, something else grew within me: one part universal mother; one part tigress; one part vulnerable woman with child. Like a second self, this new addition to my psyche was visceral and radical and she shadowed all my thoughts.
I remember picking up a newspaper and seeing photos of the Russian hostage crisis: 331 people killed by Chechen rebels, most of them children. Dead children! This was monstrous! Motherhood stripped me of the filters that keep such atrocities from piercing the heart. I wept and wept. I felt as if these were my children. What is war, I realised, but humans killing each other’s children? Would I be able to protect my daughter from this vile world? How could I protect a being so tiny?
A female salmon lays hundreds of eggs in the hope that just a few will survive. I imagined my daughter swimming down life’s river—danger everywhere: war, disease, car accidents, plane crashes, drugs, men. . . . How could I deliver Toby safely to adulthood? My mind reeled with the enormity of my task. Even breast milk has now been found to be laced with PCBs and other toxins. Was I poisoning my baby as I fed her? Or was I inoculating her against an already-poisoned world?
Over the phone, my mother referred to the “terrible responsibility” of motherhood. No kidding. The word “maternal” was taking on new meaning for me. How was I going to navigate my maternal course without using fear as a compass point? My own mother never let her fears interfere with her children’s lives. Could I do the same?

Small steps. I found that I could keep my anxiety hidden most of the time, even from myself. We arranged to move back to the floathouse, resuming a life that was normal to us. The thought of this helped—anything that could bring my old self to the fore. On moving day, the boat was loaded like a gypsy caravan and the September weather was glorious, the kind that makes you feel as if the best of summer has only just arrived. We all enjoyed the boat ride home: the slick water, so full of light, the sun so warm on our faces. We felt as if the day were a welcome in itself.
At home, I carried Toby out of the boat and stepped from the garden dock to the floathouse, a distance of about two feet. And I did what I have done every single time since. I looked down. Dark water swirled beneath me, nothing reflected in it, nothing revealed by it. I thought of the baby—my baby—falling, sinking, swirling, vanishing beneath that wordless surface.

In Clayoquot Sound the average tidal variation is ten feet. That volume of water is exchanged about every six hours. This means that the view from my house is constantly changing. At low tide, small, tree-covered islands are stranded in an expanse of tidal mudflat. At high tide, branches brush the water and the islands look as if they could pull up anchor and float away.
This same tidal change creates a constant waterflow under my house. Sometimes it’s like living on a river. When I think of Helen sinking in the shallow end of the pool, I imagine clear, turquoise water—everything in plain view. When I look overboard from my house, I see dark water, moving fast—twenty feet deep, but seemingly bottomless. Once, my cell phone accidentally slipped in. I watched its glowing green digits for about five seconds. After that, nothing.
As if it is my duty, I visit the dark water in my mind’s eye every night before I fall asleep. I try not to stay too long with my vision, but it’s always there, waiting for me. For a person who has never been particularly fearful, this is a new experience. I feel as if I am diving into the darkest part of my psyche and I don’t stay long. The water shows me how quickly my joyful, feverish love for my child can be destroyed. About five seconds. After that, nothing.

When I first came to Clayoquot Sound, I worked on the water seven days a week guiding whale watching and kayaking trips, camping on tiny islands, exploring wild, foam-strewn beaches. The water permeated my living in so many ways—a constant drip in my bloodstream. Never before had I felt so alive! Every time my work visa came up for renewal I considered leaving. But every time I thought of living away from the water—this water—I feared it would be like closing my eyes and living the rest of my life asleep.
And so I stayed, never losing my connection to the water; instead, progressing to a love of the wild places that the water took me to. I had many wildlife encounters, which I wrote about in glowing terms. I felt as if the land had welcomed me; that I was on special terms with it. Then, one winter evening, my dog and I were threatened by a large male wolf. I was so used to being a voyeur of wildlife, it was quite shocking to find myself a participant. Eventually, I recovered. In a feature for BBC Wildlife Magazine, I wrote that “To live out here, I have to live with wildlife, not against it; I have to experience the beauty and the violence; I have to be part of the cycle.”
That was before I had a child.
Now, motherhood had thrown me a new challenge. Now, I worried about protecting my child when we were on the beach, or in the forest. Now, my shadow self urged me to join the ranks of those who shoot innocent wild animals “to keep the children safe.”
“Don’t let anything get your child,” my shadow self whispered in my inner ear. I resisted her, clinging to my über-rational, pre-Toby intelligence.

Once a person has escaped danger often enough, risk becomes more real. I remember my father—renown for his feats of daring—telling an audience that he never felt fear until his first child was born. Then he went on a mountaineering expedition, a first ascent, and was overwhelmed by his first real experience of fear. Two firsts. As I child, I loved this story, but it didn’t prepare me for my own experience as a parent.
When I first came here I treated the ocean as my playground. I took risks and had many near-escapes. Now that I am a parent, I stay home when it is windy; I don’t drive the boat at night; I try not to travel in the fog. These are risks I avoid for Toby’s sake. But just by living on the water I am taking one of the biggest risks of all.

Coastal British Columbia is always susceptible to tsunamis, and is, by some estimates, overdue for a serious earthquake and tsunami combined. Until last summer I never paid serious attention to this threat.
Then, late one evening, after Marcel and I had finished supper, washed the dishes and were enjoying the summer twilight, my cell phone beeped a message alert. As usual, the noise was intrusive—an obnoxious antidote to the calm of the plate-glass, light-filled water. I sighed and checked my messages. And there was Dave’s quiet voice telling us that there had been an earthquake in California and a tsunami warning had been issued.
I took a deep breath. I could only think of one thing: Toby, lying asleep in her bed upstairs, eyes closed, arms flung wide. I pictured a giant wave sloshing through the floathouse, taking her away from me, from life. It’s an icy feeling—the paralysis of fear—and it’s the same feeling I get every time I glance down at the dark water between the docks.
Marcel turned on the VHF radio and we listened to the Coast Guard channel. Just then, the warning was cancelled due to lack of evidence. The earthquake had not spawned a tsunami.
This time.

I know a woman who believes that bad things only happen if you believe they will. Just thinking about these things will attract them to you, she says. She believes she will never have an accident with her bicycle and so her children never wear helmets when they are in the bike trailer. She birthed her second child at home—no midwife, no doula, no doctor, no problems. She exudes confidence and capability. Her technique seems to have worked for her, so far.
Perhaps, as a mother, I need to have more confidence in my fate. “Always trust in your luck,” my mother reminds me from time to time. And I do, in a sense. I trust that the general route of my life will be lucky. It’s important to be optimistic. But I don’t expect luck to see me through poor choices on a daily level. If I don’t put a life jacket on a baby, I shouldn’t rely on luck to stop her from drowning.

Toby fell into the water for the first time at fourteen months. She launched herself out of the rowboat and Marcel had to haul her back in by the handle on her lifejacket. Luckily, I was in town and was spared the whole episode. Marcel said the experience had been good for her and she would now respect the water. He proved his point by taking her rowing the next day. “She was so well-behaved,” he said. “She really understands.”
Because I was not responsible, this incident didn’t trouble me. Nor did it trouble Marcel. He doesn’t believe in worrying about things that have happened, or wasting energy on things that might happen. His personality has an undercurrent of serenity that is reassuring and infectious. Toby thrives as a result of it. And although I cannot deny my maternal anxiousness—in fact I have even decided to embrace it as a normal condition of motherhood—with Marcel as my example, I am inspired to project my old calm self. For all our sakes.

Sharon Carbone raised five children on a thirty-metre boat, the original North Vancouver ferry, anchored in the Tofino harbour. After Toby’s saltwater baptism, I asked Sharon how she coped with raising kids on a boat.
“Oh God, they were always falling in,” she told me. “And then they’d drift away with the tide and I’d have to row out to get them. The worst was when my eldest boy fell head-first into a kelp bed and his head got stuck underwater.”
She sounded so nonchalant.
“They always wore life jackets; that’s all,” she said.

There are men and women close to me, whose children have died. I linger over these stories, turning the pages in my mind, wondering how those parents survived such a loss. My sister lost a three-month old baby to SIDS; my stepson lost his four-year old son in a boat accident; his aunt lost her eleven-year old daughter to a stray pellet from a BB gun; my good friend lost his nine-year old son to a cougar. In a community this small, there have been many other calamities of course, all of them horrifying—a sudden ending of beautiful young lives.
But life is not beautiful if you live in a prison. It is all too easy for me to weave bars around my child, imprisoning her spirit with a filigreed criss-crossing of what-ifs.
So how shall I cope with the dark water and the lurking wild animals? I recognize that my undoing will eventually come at me completely out of the blue—unpredicted—but that does not mean that I can ignore the risks at hand. Nor does it mean that I should try to guard against everything.
Mundane safety measures are a start. We have permanent baby gates on the outer doors. There are safety nets stretched over the spaces between the docks. Toby wears a life jacket outside. But we are still surrounded by water and there are still times when we carry her outside spontaneously, to wave hello or goodbye, to watch an otter, or a bear, or a precious flock of shorebirds that will be gone in a second if we don’t see them now. Sometimes, when I wave good-bye as I drive off to my Tofino office, I watch Toby waving back at me from Marcel’s arms. I see the water below her. My shadow self rises and I shudder internally, then force myself to “let go.” We keep waving until I am around the point, out of sight.
Cell phones and radios are good safety measures, too. I use them to gauge the weather and to cancel appointments if I think it is not safe to travel. If I am alone, I take comfort in the fact that Marcel is just seven digits away.
One windy spring day, when Toby was seven months old, I took her to one of the little grassy islets in the motorboat for a picnic. She was at the age of sitting up, not crawling yet. We sat in the lee of some huckleberry bushes and enjoyed the sun, the mossy grass and an early, exuberant hummingbird. Suddenly, an extra-strong gust of wind whirled around the island and pushed at my boat. I had anchored the boat to the island by jamming a fifteen-pound lead fishing weight amongst the intertidal rocks. I stood up, just in time to see the lead ball roll down the rocks into the water—splash!—and the boat was drifting away, anchor and all. I was torn between retrieving the boat and returning to Toby, who was now just out of my line of sight. As I ran back up the hill towards her, she smiled and waved. I waved back at her. Then I saw that she wasn’t waving hello to me; she was waving goodbye to the boat! I laughed and pulled her onto my lap. Together, we waved and waved.
I used the cell phone to ask Marcel to come and get us. But before he arrived, a strange thing happened. Perhaps it was luck. At a distance of about 500 meters, the boat was caught by counter-gusts. It began drifting back to us. At 200 meters, Toby began waving again, a hello this time. At 20 meters, she was ecstatic, waving and burbling with glee. I put our life jackets on and put her in the backpack. At five meters I waded out barelegged to the boat and climbed in. As we began motoring back to the house, Marcel’s boat came flying around the point, charging to the rescue.

Before I was a parent I would have laughed at my situation and probably swum for the boat. Now, as a mother, I felt like a failure. I had been careless in my anchoring because it was difficult to do with Toby in the backpack. And we were marooned, and what was going to happen to my boat? It was a windy day; we shouldn’t have come. What was I thinking?
When I first saw that chubby hand waving, my sense of humour was still buried by guilt. But when I realized what she was doing, the guilt fell away and I was able to match her delight. And really, that is what a mother should fear the most—quashing a child’s delight. For it is children who remind us how to find joy in simple things and if we cannot encourage joy in our children, then perhaps we should call ourselves keepers, not mothers.
I want my daughter to share my love for the water and the wild, but I don’t wish to be her keeper. For this reason, I have to teach her well; I have to guard her without seeming to guard her; I have to watch the dark water in private; I have to be honest about my fears without burdening her with the guilt of them.

There is another way in which I can become Toby’s keeper: I can imprison her in my wilderness lifestyle. A social child, she babbles endlessly about her little friends. For Toby to be able to move fluidly in society, to have a full range of options in life, and to look forward to each day, I need to offer her land and water, wild and tame, family and friends; otherwise, she will resent her upbringing and reject the very things I want her to love.
Before I moved to this bay, another family lived in a floathouse here. April was eleven when she had to move closer to Tofino, to attend school.
“I was so shy,” she told me. “It was awful. Don’t let Toby get that shy.”

When the sun shines on the west coast, the open sky promises that anything is possible. Like labour pains, the months of darkness and rain are forgotten, replaced by the joy and ease of summer. Equally, when the rain returns, it dictates our lives. Toby’s second winter was a challenge for me. She was very active—walk-walk! run-run!—but storm after storm kept us at home, when previously I would have gone out anyway, rain be damned! Short daylight hours sent me scurrying up the inlet at 4:30, like a mouse bolting for its hole. A month’s travel in January provided a welcome break from the onset of cabin fever.
At my sister’s house in London, we went daily to Greenwich Park to see the squirrels and the deer. At Marcel’s family home in New Brunswick, we went toboganning under clear blue skies. We were active. Good electric lights at night allowed me to do so much after Toby’s bedtime. I could empty the laundry basket directly into the machine, instead of packing it into the boat and later carrying it across town (along with groceries and everything else). Hot running water meant that I could bathe at home, before bed, one of my all-time favourite luxuries. I felt as if I was being lured over to The Other Side. Motherhood became so easy!
My mother has always wished that I would live less remotely. She saw me weaken and took up her cause, “for Toby’s sake,” of course.

While I tend to resist change, I could see that the time was right and that it was necessary. Also, that it was essential to decide matters while winter was a reality. With difficulty, Marcel and I discussed the shortcomings of our beloved home. He reluctantly agreed that we should spend the darkest months of next winter in town. And while life may prove to be easier, things that are easy are not necessarily more satisfying. Also, with kindergarten in the not-so-distant future, this move felt like the first step of many that may have sent us catapulting towards normality.
The floathouse is handmade, with wood that I helped to salvage and mill into boards, funky kitchen cupboards and driftwood accents everywhere. My townhouse is a regular house on the street, with vinyl siding and linoleum and carpets and drywall and a little patch of grass out front. It is not what Marcel and I dream of. We grumble about the clatter of the electric fridge, the noise of cars and the glare of street lights. We pine for the sound of rain on the shake roof and feel lost without the tide slipping past our window.
But much as we love the water, there is a new drip in our bloodstream now, a new love that eclipses everything else. If we continue to make choices that suit only the two of us, then we will lose our daughter as surely as if she were to slip into the dark water. And that is worth worrying about.

N.B. After writing this essay, we towed the floathouse to a new anchorage at Strawberry Island in the Tofino harbour, where we still live.

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