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A Mother's Grief

Eleanor Vincent's Swimming With Maya

"Grief seizes me by the scruff of the neck and will not let me go. Piece by piece I reconstruct the puzzle of our life together, opening myself to the slow truth of what it meant to be Maya's mother." This excerpt from the prologue to Eleanor Vincent's excellent memoir, Swimming with Maya, accurately describes the journey she is inviting us to share.

At first there is nothing extraordinary about Vincent. She is an attractive, middle aged professional woman raising her two daughters Meghan, 11, and Maya, 19. One evening in April 1992 the three of them are at home in Walnut Creek celebrating the wonderful news that Maya has been awarded a full scholarship to U.C.L.A.'s Theater Arts Program. Less than twenty four hours later she is in the trauma care unit of John Muir Medical Center waiting to hear if her daughter will live.

Maya had gone with friends that afternoon to Morgan Territory Regional Park and on a dare had mounted a horse in the nature preserve twenty miles from Walnut Creek. Thrown from the horse, "her head hit the ground with full force at the precise spot on her skull that housed the mid-brain, the section that controls the body's ability to breathe."

After four excruciating days of tests, Maya is declared brain dead. Vincent hears the doctor tell her, "We did all we could." Then he asks, "Would you consider organ donation?"

The nurse starts to read "an inventory of the contents of my first-born's body." Unable to continue listening, Vincent says, "You have my permission to take anything that will save lives or reduce pain."

Vincent's prose is wonderfully alive, but it is her psychological insights, her brave willingness to understand the world in a new way that makes this memoir so profoundly moving. In one such passage, Vincent meets a middle-aged Chilean businessman named Fernando who, as Maya's organs are dispersed to needy patients, has become the repository for Vincent's daughter's heart. "I really do not know how to greet this man, so I simply extend my hand. He takes it and then pulls me into an embrace that lasts several long moments. 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."

With the emotional power of the story it would be easy to overlook Vincent's craft. As her experiences trigger memories and reflections, she deftly moves her narrative backward and forward repeatedly through time the way a director edits a movie. In some quite candid passages, Vincent describes her own traumatic upbringing, her series of less-than-successful relationships with men, and the challenge of being a single mother to Maya and Meghan.

Though mother and eldest daughter were both high strung, imaginative, and difficult, Vincent is at a loss when the teenage Maya begins drinking, ignoring curfews, screaming and cursing at her. Through therapy Vincent acknowledges her guilt about being a single parent, and how her lack of a stable romantic relationship has motivated her to try to be Maya's best friend rather than her parent. "Until her accident, I had enjoyed a sense of fulfillment as a parent that I had not dreamed would ever be possible - I was the proud mother of a budding young actress."

What might seem a depressing topic is so exquisitely rendered that Vincent's roller coaster of emotions becomes the reader's as well. I found myself at times weeping gently, holding my breath, laughing out loud, often torn between savoring Vincent's well-wrought words and speeding through her inspiring story.

In the epilogue Vincent recounts a vivid dream she had a few months after Maya's death. Maya is swimming underwater, demonstrating her ability to move "between the worlds of what we call life and death… I struggle to let Maya go, to be the observer of her new life in another element, as I did all those years ago when her father and I plunged her underwater to teach her to swim. Maya swims eternally back and forth in me. Although she was my child, now she seems to have become my elder, far wiser in the ways of life and death than I am. She moves between the anchors of her lost life on earth, in an element so fluid, so encompassing, so diaphanous, I cannot see it with earthly eye, But in my soul I know it is so. And as she moves, I move back and forth between life and afterlife in my dreams, swimming with Maya."

Vincent is a national spokesperson about the impact of her decision to donate Maya's organs, receiving a Community Service Award from the California Transplant Donor Network. Her <a href="http://www.swimmingwithmaya.com">website</a> has more information about the book and her upcoming appearances.

Jim Van Buskirk is a freelance writer and a librarian at the San Francisco Public Library.

Swimming With Maya: A Mother's Story
by Eleanor Vincent
Capital Books, Inc.; ISBN 1931868344
Hardcover: 303 pages (April 2004)