The first time I remember hearing the voice of God I was under water.
I don’t mean the spooky kind of thundering voice from the sky or anything like that, not the kind with too much reverb that yells at Charlton Heston in old films. It was much, much different.
When I was young my family lived in a small suburb of Ft. Worth, Texas. After school I loved to ride my bike down the hill to a lake about a mile away from our house. I’d be gone for hours, exploring through overgrown paths that circled the shore and crawling over crumbling old deadfall, imagining I was a brave Indian impressively discovering new lands while winning the hearts of several adoring squaws.
Having gone back to visit the lake in my adult years, it was really more of a small pond that has since been developed with nice homes on its banks. But, under those new foundations and manicured lawns lay buried my childhood adventures.
I was eight years old, and my brother Jon and I were playing outside together in our backyard. He was one year old at the time and dressed in a lone, loosely wrapped cloth diaper. I was in my usual hiked-up ‘70s tennis shorts, the kind of shorts so short when you look back at old pictures you wonder how they were ever legal. In our family, cloth diapers were acceptable attire for a toddler and were often worn alone. Other clothing items were optional because of the Texan summer sun. Call it trashy if you want to; I call it brilliant—less laundry to do and no hassling with troublesome outer layers before changing them out. Just drop, swap, and go. A frugal Southern genius.
Cloth diapers have a downside though. Having fulfilled their intended duty, they often stretch out, slip beneath the butt and begin swaying between the knees like a disgusting swing set, wafting an unholy fragrance.
Suddenly, while trying to seek adventure in the yard of our ‘70s rambler, I decided to step it up a bit and introduce Jon to the secrets of the lake. I hoisted his saggy butt up on the handlebars of my mongoose dirt bike, leaned him back against my chest, and peddled off down the hill.
My bike tossed in the dust by a tree, we made our way crawling through the brush together, thorny teeth scraping white lines down our tanned backs. I showed him the Indian trails that skirted the shoreline and secret hiding places in hollowed-out logs. We climbed over slimy rocks in the stream that fed the lake and pretended to hide from cowboys on the opposite shore. He was too young for the squaws, I had decided.
One of my regular hiding places was behind a large tree close to the swimming bank. I ducked behind it, quickly dodging bullets from cowboys. I was hiding there when I heard the splash. The bigger kids often swam at this spot on the lake because of the way the lake bottom dropped off quickly from the shore. But no one was here today. I looked around from behind the tree and didn’t see anyone. I walked out from the shadows towards the moving surface of the water. The water was dark and murky, but underneath the green algae sheen, I could see a descending blur of baby limbs and swishing white cloth.
I began to run. The nearest house was probably a quarter mile away. I couldn’t swim well. I needed an adult.
Then suddenly something stopped me. Like a hand on my chest. I held still for a moment then turned around, sprinted back to the shore, and still fully clothed, jumped in after the thrashing blur.
The world went quiet as I sunk down in the dark water. I opened my eyes, looked below me, and down at the bottom could see his diaper moving in the current I had just created. I kicked and pulled at the muddy water, and when I reached the diaper, saw it still contained my brother. I pulled him to me, and we came nose to nose. His eyes were opened wide in panic, and his face was moving so fast it almost looked like it was vibrating. I pulled him in, and he squeezed around my neck, little fingers ripping at my hair. I began kicking with all my strength, but despite my efforts, we began sinking to the bottom. Turns out cloth diapers have another downside. They are extremely heavy when wet. Surging fear shot its acid through my veins. And then the weirdest thing happened.
I became peaceful.
The voice came like that of a soothing mother. Not rushed. Not panicked. Gentle. I heard—I felt—her say, “It’s OK. Don’t be afraid. Rest until you sink to the bottom. Then, push off.”
My muscles relaxed at the sound of the voice. I hugged Jon close to me and we sank down. Soon we were sitting in the sludge at the bottom. I pushed off hard and kicked until our heads broke the surface. We gasped, and then we were under. Again we sank. The world went quiet and peace sunk us down. When I felt the bottom, I obeyed the voice once more and pushed and kicked until we again broke the surface with the shore still several feet away.
We repeated this underwater dance several more times, each bringing us closer to shore till I was at last able to grab a fist full of weeds from the bank. Pulling and wrestling up their tiny green safety lines, we finally flopped onto the shore coughing and gurgling up green water, crying between bubbly spews.
The smallest things sometimes change everything. How different life could have been without the quiet, underwater whisper.
I often think of all the ifs. If I had kept running. If my parents would have had to identify the bloated, muddy bodies of their sons. If my brother had died and I had lived to deal with the shame.
The voice became my friend that day in the dark water.
Leaving a wet trail up the asphalt, I peddled us up the long hill and into the arms of our weeping mother. But, while I was pedaling with the shivering boy leaning back against me, I decided something.
I would always follow that voice.