The Life Jacket


Born from a watery world, you met your family: Father of Vodka, Mother of Depression, Tender Sister. Born into a family of chemical cocktail mismatches. No sloppy diaphragm. No bargaining chip from your dad: “Have another baby and I’ll stay.” You said it for years, “My parents planned to get pregnant with me,” as though that proved you were loved.

Asthma stole your air when you were a baby, a toddler, too young for conscious memory. Your cells remember. You still gasp like you’re suffocating in the wind, or when your hairdresser dries your bangs, the hair dryer hot and blasting your face. Like drowning. The first time you had your astrological chart read and the honey of an astrologer told you children with asthma feel their voice has been stolen, you cried, hard.

When you were six you almost drowned in the river at your family ranch. You were stuck in an orange life jacket since you weren’t a real swimmer yet. It smelled of river and shadows and something deep and sour. It crowded your ears. So one blue sky summer day at the swimming hole with your cousins in the water, your aunt with her Jackie O sunglasses reading Valley of the Dolls on the shore, her cigarette ash curving, you peeled off the soggy Too Big For You life jacket. Your older sister yelled, “What are you doing?” but you curled your toes into little bird claws, put your hands together like praying, and flopped your round belly down into the icy river water.


When you sank straight down, when your lungs burned, when you screamed under water, when you pushed off, hard, when you broke the surface, felt sun and air and screamed, when you sank back down and swallowed more dark river water, pure and sludgy in the same breath, you passed out.

You woke up coughing then throwing up, water dripping off your aunt’s curly dark hair as she blocked the sun, her pinched face close to yours, voice swamped in scared, “What were you thinking?”


Teenage drowning, drinking Colt 45 on the weekends and whenever you could get someone to buy it for you at a 7/11 parking lot. “Please?” you and your brown-eyed girlfriends took turns asking young men in army jackets, wide-eyed, cash stretched out in an offering. You followed your father’s gene path. Father of Vodka. Father’s Daughter of Colt 45. You mimicked your mom too. Not the drinker, she was the cover-it-upper. Queen of Look The Other Way, Smile, Swallow Your Truth. A different kind of drowning.


Ophelia. Your sister had a reproduction of the painting by British artist Sir John Everett Millais in her living room. Ophelia, from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, floats and sings before she drowns in a river, arms open in surrender, flowers clutched in one hand. Young. Mermaid-like. Innocent. Her death was one of the most poetic in literature. You studied that picture and remembered how six-year-old-you floated for moments before the current couldn’t hold you, how what held you up quickly held you down. Ophelia fascinated you. Life and death. Beauty and tragedy. Floating and drowning. How opposite twins make the other more. How later you learned grief and love are partners too. How love held you through grief’s fire.


Twenty-eight and pregnant with your first child, you hugged your husband goodbye. He pressed against your lunar belly with “I love you,” and “I’ll slip in next to sleeping you,” and “You won’t even know I was gone.” You smelled the outdoors on him already as the winter sky bruised up. He folded himself into his Honda Prelude, his long skis threaded between the bucket seats.

This was the last time you saw him alive.

On his way to go night skiing, it started snowing. Wispy flakes cranked up to the Wipers Don’t Help kind. Your husband didn’t turn around. He probably didn’t slow down. A blind curve. Black ice. His two-door Honda skidded across the yellow line. He could have slid and spun, carving circles into the new snow, snow donuts like what he used to do on his motorcycle, unharmed, exhilarated. For years you thought about him coming home that night, telling you through his grin how he lost control and it was like the Scrambler at the fair and wow, crazy fun. But that’s not his story.

Spinning out sideways. Wrong side of the yellow line. Ford station wagon headlights sliced the snow-white black night. He yanked the wheel. Hard. His left hand brushed his thigh. Then. Crashed into the Ford, passenger side first. Metal and glass crumbled like burned wood. His head pummeled between the steering wheel and headrest. He was dead before the driver in the car behind him opened his door. If you’d been with him, you’d be dead too.

When the chaplain woke you in the middle of the night, when you knew your husband was dead as you spied out the fish-eyed peephole at the white rectangle on the stranger’s collar, when you wouldn’t let him in, when you couldn’t breathe, like drowning, ears on fire, when his words were muffled in your underwater world, when you finally let him in he asked, “Who can you call?” And you said no one.


“I can’t leave you here, alone,” he said.

Icy skin. Lungs packed with concrete.

“Who can you call?” he asked again, his palms pressed into the kitchen counter.


Back then your relationships with your parents were prickly. You’d crafted a barbed wire fence, spiky and fierce and see-through, between you and your parents as you forged your own identity. You wanted, no, demanded space from your rocky childhood, the unlucky parts: your parents’ epic divorce, your dad’s drinking, your mom’s depression, your family motto, Crush Your Feelings And Smile Damnit.

But in the dark of the night, you needed them in a way you didn’t want to need them.

“Do you have family close by?” the chaplain asked.

Your tongue wandered to a back molar. Your mom, who you’d barely spoken to in the past year and when you did, it was books and movies and How Is Your Pregnancy?

“Do you?” he asked again.

Your dad, who you faked: Young Woman With Her Shit Together even though you didn’t believe it.

Snow fell like confetti out the kitchen window.

You wished you’d put on socks.

“You have to call someone,” he said.

Your sisters. Risk igniting old hurts? The Who Heard First question, a brittle veneer for, Am I included? Am I loved?

You ticked off friends on one hand.

“A neighbor?” he asked when you wedged yourself in the corner of the kitchen counter.

You silently willed him to leave. Get out.

“Do you know your neighbor’s number?”

“Fine,” you said, surprising yourself in your teenaged tone.

You picked up that lead phone and called your mom and stepdad. Your dad and stepmom. “Call your sisters,” your dad said.


Fifteen minutes later your mom and stepdad showed up in trench coats and hats and flannel pajamas. Sisters and brother-in-law next. Dad and stepmom first thing in the morning.

They wrapped that messy orange jacket around you, snapped the clips, snugged the belt. We’re here, they said. We’ve got you. Then the hole in your world was impossibly big. You didn’t even know how big yet. What you knew was your family pulled together in the magnetized way some families do, in that I’ve Got Your Back, I’m Not Leaving way.

When you thought you couldn’t breath, when you wanted to be dead too, your mom cooked lentil soup, held you while you bawled and listened to you say What If and If Only in an endless loop as though you’d lost your senses because you had. Your older sister slept nights on your couch while you learned to live alone. You two watched re-runs—Bonanza, Bewitched—and ate peanut M&Ms. Your younger sister stepped in as your birth coach since your dead husband couldn’t hold your hair as you puked, couldn’t repeat Breath as he squeezed your thigh with Push.

Now you’ve had years plump with love and healing—another sweet husband, another beautiful child, the big life you dreamed of at twenty-eight come true. How lucky to have a family life jacket even though sometimes it’s lumpy and smelly. Sometimes it fits just right.


Rumpus original art by Melissa Gutierrez.

Anne Gudger is a memoirist, essayist, and short short story writer. She is also a wife, mom, mom-in-law to be, coffee drinker, always learning, big-hearted asker of questions. More from this author →