“Do anything,” pleads Eleanor Vincent with the surgeon, as she hovers over her daughter’s broken, bandaged body in the ICU. “This child is my life.”
Eleanor Vincent’s memoir, Swimming With Maya, weaves together the threads of mothering, mourning, and letting go. It is the story of a mother’s internal path and her struggle to understand why, in fact, our children are not our lives. As the poet Kahlil Gibran wrote, we parents are the bow, and the child is the arrow.
Tapping into the darkest of all mother-fears, the opening scenes of the book are a gripping and grueling account of Vincent’s 19-year-old daughter’s fall from a horse, the ensuing chaos of a coma, and Vincent’s decision to donate her daughter’s organs after her death. Vincent’s story catalogs her own process, the seesawing through grief, the way that losing her daughter forces her to examine all the other losses in her life.
Vincent often uses beautiful, poignant imagery when describing some of her life’s most painful moments, in the days following her daughter’s accident, when Maya is trapped in the limbo of a coma. “As the hours pass and she remains lifeless, I begin to focus on the parts of Maya that are whole. Like a mother cat that knows every inch of the blind, bald kitten she nudges to life with her raspy tongue, I know my daughter’s body.”
A few days later, when Maya shows no trace of brain function, Vincent is asked about organ donation. “I am about to give my daughter away in pieces,” she thinks. She guides readers through peculiar facts of the transplant process. For legal reasons, family members must sit through an inventory of all parts to be donated. We watch as a grieving mother literally signs away each piece of her daughter’s body: corneas, lungs, heart ventricles, inner ear bones. And then there’s the bizarre meeting with the Chilean businessman who is the recipient of Maya’s heart. “As my head rests against his jacket, I find myself weeping, and through that sound I hear the steady beat of Maya’s heart in his chest.” Such encounters are rare; because of the emotional of complexities in these cases, only about 10% of donor families ever meet transplant recipients. Nevertheless, for Vincent, contact with the families who have benefited from her daughters death is ultimately positive. In the decade since her daughter’s death, she has become a strong advocate for organ donation.
Swimming With Maya is much more than a heartbreaking account of losing a child. It is a memoir about motherhood, about the tangled web of parenting and childhood. Vincent opens her family album to show us snapshots of a former lover who held a gun to her head, a husband who was so stoned he couldn’t hold an erection, a stern Catholic mother who ignored the beatings Vincent’s father routinely administered, parents whose commitments and sexuality drifted with the tide. And perhaps bravest of all, Vincent reveals her own shortcomings.
At one point, a therapist questions Vincent’s behavior, when she is acting more like a best friend than a parent to her daughter. “Isn’t that a lot of pressure for a child her age?” asks the therapist. “Why should she have to meet your needs?”
“Because no one else will!” is Vincent’s unspoken reply.
Vincent recounts the ways she encouraged Maya’s dare-devil tendencies, pushing her to succeed and stretch the boundaries of what society imposed on her. As a teenager, Maya’s lack of limits eventually results in trouble; she gets pregnant, comes home hung over, shows up with a black eye. Eventually, Vincent wakes up to the fact that she needs to set limits. There is a short-lived span of time when Vincent takes the reigns as a parent, but Maya dies just as their relationship begins to solidify.
During her grieving process, Vincent blames herself for her daughter’s death, fearing she enabled Maya, didn’t teach her to be cautious enough. She also acknowledges that she pinned all her hopes on her daughter’s bright future, so she mourns not only her daughter, but her own adult life, shaped by the sacrifices and the choices she made.
Through therapy, and a support group for other grieving parents, the author eventually releases herself from blame. “I realize that Maya’s death belongs to her. It isn’t a punishment directed at me, even when the pain feels very punishing indeed.” Ultimately, Vincent comes to accept the painful truth that there is in fact no reason or purpose that can explain her child’s death. A button pinned to her bulletin board contains her new prayer: “Clinical studies show there are no answers.”
At the close of Swimming With Maya, Vincent keeps on keeping on, her second child, Meghan, now tucked into young adulthood, a freshman in college. There is no shiny epiphany, no gleeful shedding of her mourning robes in this book. “You never get over the death of your child,” she recounts, “you just get used to it.” This, she says, is “the new reality.”
For the first time in her adult life, after dropping her younger daughter at the UC Santa Cruz dorm, Vincent steps through the door to a home that is hers alone. Photographs of her absent daughters smile down at her from the walls, and Vincent must again regroup, and find her own center.
In the final chapter of the book, Vincent recalls a dream that she had shortly after Maya’s death. Her daughter swims in a body of water, and tries to speak to Vincent, but static drowns out her words. Vincent feels the distance between them, and although they move in different worlds she is caught in the ebb and flow of her child, a pull as strong as the tide. But by the time the story draws to a close, Vincent has learned to be a more effective parent to her surviving daughter, and disentangled herself from Maya’s fate.
“My destiny and my daughter’s are separate. She is her own person. We hadn’t finished letting go of each other in life — she was yanked away — so now there is no other sane choice than to finish the process on my own. Finally, I am willing to let Maya have her own life and her own death.”
Contemplating the death of a child is excruciating in any form, and reading Vincent’s memoir is painful on a number of levels. But if a mother can take in Vincent’s truth, she’ll likely find it to resonate strongly, since Swimming With Maya is a story of letting go, which is the undercurrent always present in mothering. All of us will have to ease ourselves away from our babies in one way or another.