I’d swim through shit for my kids, just like Joe.
My eyes are cloudy again. I don’t cry as much as I used to, especially in public. I miss it sometimes, the naked rush of desperate grief that sent me so many times to my knees in the cereal aisle at the store, in between the stacks at the library, in the darkness of a movie theater, even in church. Grief and I have at long last come to terms; she is allowed to take control in quiet moments when we are alone in my closet, my car, or the shower, while I maintain my composure (for the most part) in public places.
I sit in the rec center hot tub and watch my youngest march off the high dive. He mimes a moment of confusion as his long walk down the short blue pier comes to a sudden end. He windmills his arms and legs in imitation of a cartoon character before making a splash. I smile and raise a thumbs up salute as he climbs out of the pool and looks my way for validation.
He walks on the verge of running on his was over to the ladder. The lifeguard ignores him in favor of monitoring the three chubby teenagers wrestling in the shallow end.
I sit in the hot water and try not to think about Jadin, Joe, and Jared.
A few jumps off the high dive later Solomon makes his way over to the tub.
“Dad, come play with me in the river,” he pleads.
I look across to the shallow play pool. It isn’t crowded, but that doesn’t mean that someone’s three-year-old hasn’t pooped in it. I don’t want to play; I want to sit and stew in the hot salt water, allowing the emotion to melt out of my pores rather than my eyes.
“Dad, come on, you promised,” my son reminds me.
I put on a smile and climb out of the tub. Hot water drips from my body, and I shudder in the sudden cold. Solomon jumps into the playpool and swims for the river. For him the water is clear, clean, and warm, but all I can picture is dark sludge, diapers, and band-aids.
Jadin, Joe, and Jared.
My feet are at the edge now. Solomon looks back, expecting me to be there, right behind him. He wants to play soldiers-in-the-water, a game where we take turns dragging each other against the current, like a soldier pulling his wounded comrade through gunfire.
“Dad..,” he says, his tone full of playful warning.
I suck it up and slip into the sludge head-first in a low-profile dive. I spin onto my back and kick my way underwater, towards my son.
An arm wraps around my chest as I break the surface. “I’ve gotcha, man, just stay with me!” Solomon gasps, the effort of pulling my large frame against the current already punishing his lungs.
I lay on my back, with my legs and arms stretched out to drag through the water. The ceiling high above passes by slowly.
“You’re gonna be okay,” my son assures me.
I close my eyes to picture Joe and his son Jadin, and their bittersweet reunion.
Joe Bell was hit and killed by a truck last week, while walking across the U.S. in memory of his son Jadin, who killed himself earlier this year after being bullied for being gay. (My little brother Jared died by his own hand in 2009.) I never met Joe, but I plan to someday, and until then I hope to follow his example of unconditional love.