Moon. Womb. Sea.
A month into moving to Boracay Island where my husband Francis had been based for a year, I was tending to the baby one evening in our tiny rented house when he burst through the door.
“You must come down to the beach with me. Right now!”
The power was out on our side of the island with its twelve beaches and coves. The beach he’d been to, Din-Iwid Beach, the one closest to our place, was among the less-frequented ones.
“The moon’s up, and the water’s sparkling.” He was beaming in the dark, as I imagined the moon to be over the pitch-black sea. “No joke, you have to see it. It’s insanely beautiful.”
I didn’t budge.
“People are coming down for a swim,” he pressed. “Let’s go!”
I wish I could say that I got off the bed, picked up the baby, hopped on to the back of his motorcycle, and sped down to the beach. I wish I could say that I became embarrassingly aware of the bike’s grinding, guttural rasp ripping the velvety fabric of the night, and the headlight’s cutting through the path, at the end of which emerged the vast midnight beach, freed from light pollution, basking naked in moonlight.
I wish I could say it was a true memory. Not a scene painted on my mind by his words.
He was speaking slowly now, enunciating every word and making sure I was following. “The sand — looks like there are glitters all over it. And the sea — I’m not exaggerating, I swear — is like a sea of diamonds!”
Still, I didn’t follow. He was begging me to come, but Dione had just fallen asleep. “If I pick her up,” I reasoned, “she’d be fussy again, as she’d been all day.”
Francis was dejected, but pressed me no more. He knew how pointless it was to argue with an exhausted mother.
In the darkness, he crawled to the bed where Dione and I lay. It was no bed of diamonds. “We have a whole life ahead of us here on the beach,” I droned on, sleepily. He kissed us good night as we slid back to swimming in our dreams.
I grew up landlocked in the country’s capital city of Manila, and my parents didn’t bother to sign me up for basic survival swimming lessons. We rarely went to beaches, anyway. When we traveled as a family, we’d see cities abroad. Natural places didn’t appeal much to them.
It was when I started dating Francis that I discovered what I was missing. Traveling to natural places. A travel buddy. Naturally, I married him.
Shortly after we married, he relocated to Boracay Island for a job, a few months after we had our honeymoon there. I was left behind in Manila because we were already expecting our firstborn, and there were no hospitals, OB-GYNs, and pediatricians on the island. I didn’t want to risk taking boat rides and hour-long trips by van to the mainland in case of a medical emergency.
So I took my time. I gave birth in the city, raised our daughter till she completed her monthly check-ups and vaccinations, filed for a leave from teaching at a university, then flew to Boracay with a toddling Dione.
Francis, living singly, slept in the office, but when Dione and I flew in he scouted for us a small house near a beach. Din-Iwid Beach wasn’t as frequented as the world-famous White Beach, but it lay adjacent on the northern tip, separated by a huge rock.
Dione had not yet seen a body of water up close that’s bigger than her bathtub. She had seen a blanket of blue from the plane — the first of many in the next four years of her life, when we’d fly back and forth between Manila and Boracay, city and beach. When we first arrived at the small house and unloaded, Francis and I anticipated how Dione would react upon seeing the sea.
At the end of the road leading to the beach lay a narrower path, dusted with sand. Our toddler couldn’t talk yet. When we got off the bike and set her down on the path, it didn’t take long till Francis and I knew that Dione had seen the beach.
Because she stopped, made noises, and pointed a pudgy finger at the sea that most likely surprised her. Like how an endless bathtub would.
In the next four years, that was how the beaches of Boracay were experienced by me: an endless bathtub. I didn’t know how to swim, but didn’t have the chance to try floating to where my feet no longer touched the sand. My daughter remained attached to me as though by an umbilical cord, so we remained on the shore where I watched her grow. On occasions when Francis joined us for a dip, he’d watch Dione for me, but I feared venturing further because if I needed help, he wouldn’t be able to leave Dione behind to swim to where I went.
Perhaps that was why my dreams were soaked in seawater. In my waking life I couldn’t swim, but in my dreams, I swam to depths glowing like neon. In my dreams, the waves swaddled me.
Dione, Francis, and I explored the island’s surface for years, surveying its nooks and crannies. We snuck into shallow caves, bended around a rock to cross from White Beach to our home in Din-Iwid. We moved in and out of many rentals, lived in various parts of the island, returned again and again to the lesser known beaches. White Beach, the longest and the most stunning of the beaches, was the beauty contest runaway winner that could use a bit more charm, like the sticky sand in Tulubhan Beach that made walking difficult, or the mangroves in Lugutan Beach with their spiky roots and wrangling arms.
By day we combed the beaches and the roads. By night I swam in its womb.
I didn’t learn how to swim till the last night of our island life, four years since Dione first set foot on it.
It was our last night, before our one-way morning flight back to Manila.
It was just Francis and I in that one-way morning flight. We had flown Dione back to Manila a month prior. When we returned to Boracay, it was just Francis and I to tie loose ends together. To conclude contracts. Sell, give, pack away stuff. Say goodbye.
In that final month, it was just I, Francis, and the island, like how it was back on our honeymoon that opened my womb. Before I mothered on the beach that henceforth mothered me.
On that final night, with the last of our bags ready for flight, piled neatly in a corner in our last rental, Francis and I headed to the beach for a final dip. As it turned out, the moon was full, like how it was that diamond night in Din-Iwid.
Under the moon rise, something clicked and I lifted my feet to tread water. Dione was nowhere tethered to me, so it was just the sea and me. For the first time in my life, on my last night in the island, I floated. I drifted away. I trusted the sea to cradle me as I gazed up at the moon.
My face was above water, my feet were off the ground. It was no longer a dream.
Too bad I was leaving. But Boracay gave me a most memorable parting gift: the ability to swim.
A year into our reluctant return to city life, I took swimming lessons to help manage my migraines that began to bother me again. On the beach where I lived the best, most enchanting years of my life, I rarely had migraines. But I started having them again almost every week since returning to Manila.
I took up swimming when the doctor advised me to de-stress, to pick up a sport. It worked too well that I conceived again (after years of unsuccessfully trying) in just a few months of regular swimming. The migraines went away, too.
Another thing: learning how to swim activated and gave whole new dimensions to my memories of the island.
The bodily sensation of floating, of slicing through water, of being submerged, of surrendering to flow made me understand how memory is not just mental, but also embodied — deep in my bones and muscles, on my skin that had known the texture of water, sand, and sea breeze.
It’s like reliving those Boracay years again, previously only known and loved mentally by me — and I realize how oh so poorly! When I learned how to swim, I relived them no longer as mere mental memories, but as heightened, completed memories with bodily, sensorial form.
The body has memories of its own, apart from the mind’s.
Whenever and wherever I swim — and it doesn’t matter in which swimming pool, or which river or sea — I find myself swimming in the thick of my best memories.
Water is the timeless womb of memory that I return to every now and then, whenever I need an undoing, or a remaking. It’s integrative and enlivening, a blissful way to heal. Internally, I’m being knitted back together, as externally, my skin melts into the water and with it, I flow.
In the water, I am again cradled and swaddled by the sea that I loved, beneath the moon gazing back at me.