The Kentucky sun shines down on me as I sit on the edge of the pool. I push my sunglasses up the bridge of my nose.
“Auntie Lindsay, watch!” Annelyse grins, her blue eyes matching the sky.
I’ve known her parents—Alie and Andy—for over 15 years. It strikes me now how much Annelyse looks like a mix of the two.
“I’m watching!” I reassure Annelyse. She kicks and paddles with fervor, her feet glug-glugging underwater. Her small arms scoop up the sunshine and water.
“Good job!” I encourage. She smiles, then swims back to the other side of the pool towards her sisters and brother.
My friends LaRaesha and Alie are stretched out in lawn chairs across from me. Their families are in the pool. Eight bodies total, all creating a cacophony of splashes and screeches, like birds bathing.
We’re killing time waiting for the fireworks to begin. The smell of chlorine and grass fill the air.
Now THIS is summer, I think.
It’s our tradition to reunite for America’s birthday. This year was our largest. LaRaesha brought her family, I brought me, and we met Alie’s family in Lexington. Our group has grown up and out, adding little toes and loud voices and moments to make memories.
Now we wait for the sun to melt into an evening of Fourth of July fireworks and s’mores. We have the neighborhood pool to ourselves. I glance towards the shallow end.
The littles are all goggled eyes and gulping mouths, bobbing up and down like hungry trout. Kamden – LaRaesha and Damen’s youngest— walks around the perimeter, his face painted like Spiderman. The red is smeared, but the black and white spider web pattern remains.
“Auntie Lindsay!” The sweet but determined voice finds my ear again. I look down.
Annelyse has broken away from her sibling squad again.
“What’s up, Annelyse?” I lean down closer to her face. Her hair sticks to her cheeks and hangs in a wet curtain right below her chin. It used to be longer, until she got a hold of a pair of scissors and chopped it off.
“Do you want to watch me swim ALL THE WAY TO THE BOTTOM to get my bracelet?” she asks.
She grabs the edge of the pool with one hand and holds up her other wrist to show me. The rainbow beaded-bracelet gleams in the sunlight, water droplets falling off the plastic.
“I would love to,” I nod. Annelyse smiles, satisfied with my answer.
She pulls the bracelet off her wrist and drops it in the water without hesitation. We are silent, giving the bracelet the respect it deserves as it sinks to the bottom. I can’t see where it settles under a ceiling of water.
“Ready?” Annelyse’s excitement is tangible.
“I’m ready.” I force my face to get serious to match her determination.
“Here I go!” she says. She stares at the water’s surface. After a beat, down she goes. And up the memories bubble in my brain.
I remember. I remember what it’s like to ask to be seen. To acknowledge that burning desire for someone you love to witness you do something spectacular, like go down a slide, or land a cartwheel, or find a bracelet at the bottom of the pool.
Watch me. Watch this. It only counts if you see. Or it counts more, anyway.
When I first arrived at Alie and Andy’s house at the start of the weekend, Annelyse gave me a hug that was wrapped in so much sweetness I felt like I was hugging a sugar cube. She wore a pink cape.
Three days later, Annelyse still had that pink cape tied around her neck.
“I really don’t know where she came from,” said Damen, LaRaesha’s husband, one afternoon after lunch.
“What?” I asked him.
“Where she came from,” he repeated. A smile of amusement and confusion slid across his face as Annelyse walked by, the pink cape billowing behind her. “She is definitely on her own level.”
I smiled back because I know what he means.
In the Buckley family pack of five, Annelyse is number four. She shares her siblings’ blonde hair and blue eyes, but that’s about it. The family members are their own unique selves, of course. Yet Annelyse bears a brand of creativity and whimsy that we have come to describe as very…Annelyse.
“She’s our hippie child,” Alie often laughs.
As the afternoon sky shook hands with the evening hour the night before, I followed Annelyse around the trunks of trees in the backyard. Fireflies turned on and off like twinkle lights, playing a guessing game of hide and seek.
“Look!” Annelyse whispered as her fingers finally clasped around the insect. “A firefly! It’s so beautiful.”
She gently placed it in a plastic Tupperware container she brought outside. Over and over, we chased and cusped and clasped and ooh-ed and ahh-ed. Every firefly Annelyse caught felt like it was the first one. I watched her face glow like the insect’s wings.
And I remembered again.
To get here – to this night of fireflies and magic and hope and happy— there were some dark days.
Annelyse’s initial months in the world were some of the most challenging I witnessed her mom – my dear, dear friend—go through. For Alie, life post-partum wasn’t a journey. It was war.
After Annelyse was born, everyday tasks became terrifying for Alie. She was here, but she wasn’t. She transformed into a walking wound that made every interaction, every decision, every action feel intimidating and debilitating.
Alie was paralyzed with fear and sadness and every other emotion, all knotted up and tangled inside. She was a million locked doors with no keys. We all wanted to get in there and loosen the knots, unlock the doors, free her from the pain. But we couldn’t.
The hardest battles often involve only one warrior.
With the help of therapy and family and friends and God and medicine and her own strength and bravery, Alie got better. Annelyse got older, transforming from a calm baby into a creative, kind, easygoing spark of a girl that glows like the fireflies she loves to hold in her palms.
“God knew I needed her,” Alie often says.
As I sit on the edge of the pool now, Annelyse swims to the bottom, still searching for her rainbow bracelet. She comes up empty-handed.
But she doesn’t furrow a brow or shed a tear. Instead, she bobs up and down, gives a little kick, smiles at me and says, “Try again!”
At first, I’m confused. What is she telling me to try?
Down she goes.
She comes up empty-handed. “Try again!” she repeats. She fills her lungs, then submerges beneath the water. Down. Up.
“Try again!” Smile. Repeat.
She’s telling HERSELF to try again, I realize. She’s rooting for herself.
As she should. As we all should.
I wonder if she’ll keep looking for her bracelet. If she’ll give up. If she’ll be disappointed.
On her fourth attempt to find her bracelet, Annelyse breaks the water’s surface and takes a breath. She treads water, looks at me and says, “I didn’t get it.”
“Aw, it’s OK, Annelyse,” I say, trying to gauge if she’s upset or fine with the fruitless attempt. “I’m proud of you for trying.”
She holds up her fist and unfurls her fingers. The beaded bracelet is in her hand.
“Just kidding!” She grins. “Tricked ya!”
I look at the bracelet, now back on the wrist. “Annelyse!” I cheer. “You got it!”
“I knew I would,” she says. She kicks her little legs and swam away towards her siblings.
Again, I remember.
Like her daughter searching for her bracelet, Alie had to dive down deep and search blindly. When she felt like a shell of who she was, she was still inside. She kept looking. Minute by minute. Second by second.
We often have to wait. See. Try. Be our own cheerleaders, even after the failed attempts and bad days and long nights. ESPECIALLY then.
May we never give up on ourselves.
When we aren’t sure, when we fail, when we’re sad, when we don’t know when things will get better…we can sink to the bottom. We can dive down into our own depths where the light is dim.
But while we’re there, we can feel for what is lost.
If we can’t find what we are looking for, we can come up for air. Go back down again. Kick the bottom as hard as we can. Come up again. Inhale. Exhale. Inhale.
Even in our own solo searches, we can remember those who are sitting on the edge of our attempts: waiting, watching, encouraging, believing. They stay and see because of who we are, not what we do. Their love is shown in the seeing.
Watch me. Watch this.
We dive down. Come back up.
And we try again.