Later, you will marvel at all the things you believed were important. The white milk instead of the chocolate, the crisp apples instead of the fries. The towels and the flip-flops by the pool.
For now, you will lay out those towels by the pool with precision, stretching the worn striped terry cloth across the stark metal frames of the deck chairs. Later, heated by the sun, the chairs will be scalding, their searing plastic straps potentially a small danger for your kids instead of a respite from the chaos of cannonballs and belly flops and splashing. You will place your leather flip-flops under the shade cast by the towels on the chairs, arranging each of them with care, accounting for the way the sun might move through the sky, an arc across the day.
You will congratulate yourself on these small acts, on your ability to spot these tiny seeds of future problems and create a plan to avoid their bloom. It has taken you five long years of motherhood to achieve this ability, to plan ahead, to be unsurprised that the children are hungry again, that they are tired, again. Five years to learn that the constant care they need can be anticipated and prepared for, instead of targeted, whack-a-mole style, whenever a new need arises, as it always, consistently does.
Your young son, only five but already a committed follower of rules, will call out. Mama. He will alert you that your toddler daughter’s sunglasses, pink cat-eyes with rhinestone edges that sparkle in the brilliance of the summer sun, have slipped beneath the water. You won’t realize what he means: that they are still on her face; that she is beneath the water.
You will say you’ll be there in a minute.
You will reach for your daughter’s floatie, the blue one emblazoned with a cheerful shark whose razored rows of teeth convey whimsy, the one she feels constricts her every movement, the one she hates to wear because she—this tiny girl for whom rules and limits and boundaries do not yet exist—prefers to feel free. The one you haven’t yet clipped onto her, because you’ll only take a moment to set your belongings down, and you’ve told them both they can only play upon the watery stairs—no further. Your son is the rule follower, you know where he’ll be.
You will finish the work you think is important.
And then you will turn.
When you see her submerged, you will already be moving before you fully comprehend it; you will run to the edge of the pool and thrust your arm down to the deep bottom stair where she stands beneath the surface, her small face tilted toward the sky; you will haul her out of the water and back up to the air, and you will watch her gulp great mouthfuls of it and never even cry once, even as you begin to; and your heart will break again when you realize, later, that she too had followed your rules, had kept her feet firmly on the stairs even as they’d become too deep, exactly where you had allowed her to be, your back turned, your trust placed only in your foolish words to keep her safe.
Later, it will be lunchtime. You will gather both your children into your arms and your lap, and sit upon the towels, and share crisp apples and greasy fries, and as many chocolate milks and sticky sugared popsicles as they would like, and you will be thankful it is later—and not after.