My mother never learned to swim. She lived a whole lifetime without knowing the feeling of buoyancy and the confidence of wading past where one can touch the bottom.
There was a long, long time in my life where I didn’t think I would ever learn to swim. As a young child my parents put me in swimming lessons. I remember running away and hiding in the closet and refusing to put on my bathing suit. I simply could not get the hang of swimming and I hated swimming lessons with a deep and dark passion.
I did not progress in swimming lessons as I got older. I stayed in the same class year after year. The other kids in my class became younger and younger. In order to move up a level you had to swim all the way across the pool; I could not swim across the pool. One year, I finally made it—half-drowning and mostly sputtering—to the other side. I clutched the wall with all my might and thought how next year, I’d be in the older class. I saw them, kids younger than me, swimming back and forth and back and forth and laughing and splashing each other.
The next year, though, I failed the swim test. I hadn’t been swimming, not even once, in an entire year—not since the day of my last lesson. Once again, I couldn’t swim across the pool.
By now, all of the kids my age had moved on. As adept swimmers, they no longer needed lessons. I was so unhappy going to swimming lessons. I was embarrassed to be so old and so unable to swim. I finally convinced my parents that it was a lost cause. They agreed not to make me take swimming lessons anymore; I had outgrown them, but I still didn’t know how to swim.
But my sister did.
We lived near a reservoir. She was just old enough and just adventurous enough to want to go to the lake, but not alone. She fetched me a life jacket and took me with her. I spent the summer in a life jacket, paddling about and going out further and further into the water—past where I could touch, past where the bottom was murky. I floated and paddled and one day I took the life jacket off.
Miraculously, the life jacket had taught me something—buoyancy, confidence, or timing, maybe all of them. Swimming clicked. Somehow, I understood the movement, the motion, the timing of arm strokes and breathing. I knew how to swim and I’ve never stopped swimming.
Swimming is now one of my great loves. I’m a strong swimmer. It is something I’m good at. There are times as I swim, when I feel like I don’t even need air. Like I am born to do it. Half-fish.
Swimming is one of my great escapes. In the water, I feel truly free.
Not long ago I watched from across the pool as my son went underwater. Unable to kick or stroke enough to propel his head above water, I swam to him as fast as I could. I pulled his head above the surface just seconds before the lifeguard reached him. It was a scary, helpless feeling.
It rattled me.
I wonder if my mother feared the water.
I do not fear the water, but I have fears.
I cannot begin to tell you what a terrible swimmer I once was. I cannot explain how learning to swim seemed like the most impossible thing to me. I thought my chances of sprouting wings and flying were better than me ever being able to manipulate my body through the water in any way that was forward, purposeful motion.
Now, though, I do not understand what it is like not to know how to swim. In the water I feel wonderful, weightless, and free. Learning to swim taught me more than just the front crawl or the backstroke. It taught me that things can be learned. It taught me that weaknesses can become strengths. It taught me that fears can be overcome. It taught me that things that seem impossible can become second nature, a part of who we are. It taught me that there is a world of wonder underneath the waves.
Dive in. Open your eyes. Start swimming.
And all my love to my dear sister, who took me with her.