My daughter tucks her hand neatly inside mine and I beam a smile down into a mountain of curls. I ask, “Are you excited?” She lifts her face up towards mine, nodding vigorously, with a smile as bright as the sun. I am swelling with pride as I lead her up the stairs and into the YMCA. Today my baby is learning to swim.
I took a couple of swimming lessons when I was 7 years old. I only remember the last one. The instructor said we were ready to swim the width of the pool. I was horrified. Clearly, he did not realize I could not swim, but boy did I show him. I didn’t swim across. I had a scuffle with the water. Actually, it was a brawl!
When I arrived at the side of the pool, my mother stood waiting for me. The smoke coming from her ears told me I was right. It had not been pretty. She informed me that I had almost drowned. That I could have died. It took 23 years to muster the courage to take my next lesson.
A lot changes about swimming in two decades. At 7, water is fun and you are invincible. At 30, not only can you die, but chlorine wreaks havoc on a black woman’s relaxer and – YES! – that swimsuit does make your butt look big. So, not only do you die, but both your body AND your hair swells up!
Fast forward thirty years from my last lesson as a child to find me strapping my baby into a “floatie” and watching as she jumps to the instructor in the pool. I text her father, “Your daughter is a fish!” We exchange messages about what we already know to be true. This kid is awesome! To him, swimming is yet another on a long list of activities they get to share. To me, it is the end of generations in my family who cannot swim. Win, freaking win!
I am so wrapped up in gushing over her victory I almost miss the young woman who enters with her son. She is wearing an emerald green and royal purple Sari that flows beautifully with the breeze as she walks. Her son clings so tightly to her that he is almost invisible within the draping of the fabric. He goes reluctantly in the pool and she nervously takes the seat next to me.
We are the only mothers in the group of 8 or so waiting parents. The fathers are not surprised their kids are doing well. They expect them to do well. In fact, they study their children and speak instructions. “Do it the way I taught you,” one father says, moving his hands to simulate the “S” of the stroke. That advice is spoken over the piercing cries from the “Sari boy”.
As his mother sits next to me, I can visibly see her breathing is shallow and quick. She flips and flops in the plastic chair like a fish out of water. My head is going side to side like a pitcher shaking off a catcher’s signal. I want to say, “Don’t do it!”
When my daughter was learning to walk, I was venting to a friend about her father. With righteous indignation I said, “She was climbing on the chair and you know what he did? NOTHING! I asked, ‘WHAT IF SHE FALLS!?!?!’ and he said, ‘Just chill. She won’t.’ Can you believe that?”
My friend said, “And?” AND?!?!?! I was appalled. There is not a lot of gray between “caution” and “mortal terror” for me. My default is “high alert”. I was about to accuse my friend of taking her father’s side because “all men stick together,” but he began to elaborate.
“You see, Dee, there is order in it. That is what makes it so beautiful. You are supposed to say ‘Be Careful’. That is your job. He is supposed to say, ‘Be Fearless’. That is his job. And the result is a balanced child who is not reckless but who is also not limited by fear.”
The woman wrapped in the Sari cannot take it anymore and goes over and takes her son out of the pool. Inside I let out that big “Oooohhhhhh,” like a crowd when they witness it all go down wrong. Don’t get me wrong. I know why she went to get him. He hit that specific frequency that can wake a mom out of a sound sleep. I feel her pain. I really do.
But as they walk by me to leave, I think about the man this little boy will become. I imagine him as a 30 year old, nervously sliding into a pool trying to overcome his fear of drowning. And I find myself shaking off the pitch once again, looking him in the eye as he passes and letting him know, “It’s okay to try again. And – YES! – that swimsuit does make your butt look big!”