In her sharply observed and ultimately redemptive memoir, Catherine McCall paints a vivid and sometimes heartbreaking portrait of growing up in a complicated Southern family, whose perfect façade hides crippling imperfections.
There are two parents, three children, and five ghosts in the McCall family. With their preppie clothes and country-club smiles, the McCalls look like all the other East End Louisville families. No one knows there are problems, that an internal gash the size of the Ohio river is flooding the family. All Cathy and her siblings can do is promise to stick together no matter what—and swim.
But even though they are fast, the McCall kids can’t outdistance their father’s destructive habits and their mother’s worry. As her family reaches a breaking point and an unexpected love blooms, thirteen-year-old Cathy finds she must keep secrets of her own. Though the love in this family is strong, Cathy must discover if it’s tenacious enough to withstand the truth.
Candid, captivating, and infused with compassion, Lifeguarding affirms the flexible strength of love itself; how family bonds must often bend to the point of breaking . . . and beyond.
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A graduate of Emory University and its medical school, Catherine McCall received an MFA in creative nonfiction from the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. She has done regular commentary for regional public radio, and her writing has been published in the New York Times, Louisville Courier-Journal, Wilmington Star-News, and the North Carolina Literary Review. In addition to writing, she is a psychiatrist in private practice. McCall lives in Wilmington, North Carolina. Visit her at CatherineMcCall.com.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Lifeguard candidates are taught that their first concern is the safety of others. —American Red Cross Lifeguarding, p. 3
Coach stopped us in the middle of swim practice and told us to go sit on the bleachers. At first I thought he was planning to chew us out, which would've been out of character--a set of eight hundreds fly-free was more his style of communicating.
Swim practice was never stopped for any reason, other than lightning, and even then it had to be close enough for Coach to feel the current on the pier. Our team swam outdoors when the water was sixty-three degrees, in the first few weeks of May before the official summer opening of Lakeside, when rumor said they filled the quarry with river water from the Ohio. We swam when it was raining, when it was strangely blustery for August, and on red-alert pollution days, too, when the air was so thick, you could practically carry it in your hands. Today, plaques of ruffled clouds had turned the sky a light ash color but no thunder bowled by, no rain fell, there was no real sign of a summer storm at all.
The twelve lifeguards stood in their chairs and blew their whistles in unison to clear the quarry of all recreational swimmers. Everyone was looking toward the back part of the lake, except me. Without my glasses I couldn't see ten feet in front of my face. Water dripping from my head and bathing suit, I shuffled to the bleachers, wrapped the towel around my body to hide it, then slipped on my wire-rim glasses. At thirteen, I didn't like being round and curvy, hated that my breasts were getting so big, that I was chunky and the object of teasing from the boys. My older sister, Anne, was the pretty one in the family--slim, auburn haired, broad shouldered.
We all gaped across Granddaddy's pier, past the big raft, which was a large rectangle of metal painted aquamarine blue and anchored to the rocky bottom with thick cables. Kids would swim to it, use it as base in a game of catchers, jump off the sides in splash contests. Swimming underneath it was strictly forbidden, and at first we thought someone must've gotten trapped there.
"What's happening?" I whispered to my sister, already sort of knowing but not wanting to believe it.
"I don't know," she said, without taking her eyes off the deep water. "Something bad."
I pulled my towel tighter against the strange chill. I was glad to be sitting next to her. We have to stick together--we're all we've got. She wore her usual solemn expression, brown eyes flat, mouth turned down on the ends. Her freckles appeared darker, more like a tan in the shaded light.
The lifeguards and people who worked in the main office were standing on the small pier at the very back of the lake, near the area called the rocks. With no swimmers, the quarry seemed bigger than usual, its dark waters uncomfortably still and incomprehensibly placid. Two lifeguards kept diving under the water then resurfacing, but there was no evidence of the thrashing and fighting and yelling taught in lifesaving classes. When an ambulance drove up we nodded in speechless agreement that the silent siren wasn't a good sign, even though the red light was flashing.
No words fit when in the presence of death. A different current runs through the air, a fibrous, invisible stream that stops the mealy chatter of the living, exposes the silliness of who likes who and who doesn't--it pulls the life around it to a pause.
The crackling loudspeaker startled us.
"The lake is now closed. Please leave the premises immediately," said the woman's voice.
On the bleachers, we looked at each other briefly, faces stripped for a moment of their usual teenage facades. We weren't sure what we were supposed to do. The general rules didn't apply to our swim team; we often had practice when the lake was closed to regular members.
In the deep water, the lifeguards kept doing their textbook surface dives then coming up empty-handed. Coach was standing near the swim team lanes by the phone, talking to a couple of the older girls on the team.
"He said we can stay until our carpools get here, but on the bleachers, no walking over to get a closer look," said one of the girls to the rest of us. We had a clear enough view anyway, like the balcony seats of some Greek tragedy. No one joked, though. Unfolding tragedy is a magnet--we couldn't stop staring.
Then, without warning, the guards pulled a body out of the water, a blinding white, thin limp body; the boy's head was flaccid and bent. Our group gasped in unison, as if a movie was being filmed and we were the extras. Other than that one quick, escaping gasp, there was no sound at all.
They laid him on the pier and the paramedics knelt over him. I knew he was dead--only death could be that still. Some of the older girls started crying. Minutes passed with the men hunched over the body, the orange-cushioned stretcher on the gurney beside them unstrapped and ready. Everyone--the pool manager, the guards, the office people--waited while the resuscitation attempt continued. We were standing by then, too, secretly hoping for the moment when the boy would cough a bit and sit up, when he would reveal his Hollywood Houdini trick and we would be aghast, then relieved, a rage not finding us until later.
As always, great oak and maple trees leaned over the quarry cliffs like curious neighbors, their leaves swollen and heavy, their reflection painting a still life of false middle-class tranquility on the evening water. Had this been a silent movie, then we had definitely reached the point where someone had forgotten their cue, and the action inexplicably stalled. We waited and waited, through interminable minutes, and in that slow-motion moment the reality of the situation started seeping down into my gut--this boy, this rumored guest of a member, had come swimming with his friend on an ordinary summer day, and now he was dead. You never know what might happen, or when.
A few teammates came back from talking to Coach, bringing words that flew around the bleachers like a steely gust of wind.
"Trapped under a pipe."
"He was down there over five minutes."
"This is so creepy," Anne said to me.
All I could do was nod.
While we'd been finishing our set of two hundreds, all these champion swimmers not a hundred meters from the boy, he was down there writhing and yanking and trying his best to get free. He was dying, right there, in the same water that we were pushing through, singing our individual workout songs, counting the laps before practice would be over, before we could get home and eat supper, watch television and go to bed, just to wake up and play the same game again.
My sister and I waited until the silent ambulance drove along the sidewalk, until we heard it come to life on the street. Then we walked with our friends to the front-entrance gates to sit on the stone wall and wait for our rides.
Cars drove past, completely oblivious to the death that had just occurred in their own neighborhood. I wondered if any of them knew the boy or his family.
Nothing made much sense anymore anyway. Anne and I, and our brother too (whose practice was fortunately at a different time), were doing what we were supposed to be doing, we were swimming like hell, being good kids, trying not to cause trouble for anyone, especially for our warring parents. We didn't realize, on that eerie summer afternoon as we left Lakeside, how treacherous the water in our family was getting. We didn't yet recognize the undertow that was dragging our family down, how trapped the five of us were, that we were as pinned as that boy had been under that wretched pipe. Nothing we kids did--nothing anybody did--made a difference, for my parents, for that drowning boy. Nothing.
"Mom," Anne said calmly, when we got home and found Mom in the kitchen. "Something awful happened."
Dish towel draped on her shoulder, her worried green eyes zeroed in on us.
"What? What's the matter?" she said, impatiently.
"A boy drowned at Lakeside," Anne finally said.
"Don't know. Someone's guest."
"Ahh," Mom said. The sound she made was a sort of horrified yelp, her usual reaction to a crisis. Her narrow face would crinkle into a purse of pain and out would come a guttural, aching cry, as if someone had thrust a knife into her stomach. She squinted at us as Anne relayed the brief details, then we all just stood there in the stuffy kitchen, the ghosts gathering around us as they often did when we spoke of death.
"I've got first shower," Anne said, shooting her dark eyes my way, pulling us back to the reality of routine. It never took me as long to wash my hair, since mine was short and thick, cooperative even when ignored. Anne's, on the other hand, was long and prone to tangling, plus, she was older--she always took the first shower.
We didn't tell Dad when he came home later that evening. Drowning wasn't a topic we talked about with him.
Later that night, when I was alone in my room and couldn't fall asleep, I thought about that limp boy, about how devastated his parents must've been, how he'd awoken that morning like normal, having no idea he was going to die that day.
From my bed upstairs, I listened to Mom putting away the pots in the kitchen, could hear the mumble of television voices as they drifted out the den window and floated up to mine. The noise didn't bother me; it mi...
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