Swimming Lessons

(This is the first piece I shared on My 500 Words.)

Swimming Lessons

This story ends where I am today. Today, with the help of my Finis swimming snorkel, I swim more then a hundred laps. I enter the pool and dominate the water from start to finish, growing stronger and stronger each day.

Three weeks ago, I hated to swim. Oh, I could muck about in a pool as well as the next person, had a solid dive and a definitive cannonball, but the actual act of lap swimming was a process of increasing anxiety from start to finish. The very act of putting my face in the water and pointing to the opposite end of the pool was the equivalent in fear points to being ask to swim the English Channel dehydrated and after a bad hangover. I could knock out one graceless lap, checking my terror, but that was all.

I had tried repeatedly to get a handle on this old fear through snorkeling (bad idea, never add the poor visibility of Pacific Coast waters to an underlying fear of monsters and an active certainty that you will drown–this makes swimming the equivalent of navigating a Hieronymus Bosch painting). I’d tried lessons (ya, take the above and add the Locker Room, an experience many Catholic girls have never had. Where are you supposed to look anyway?), And, finally, I’d tried therapy: “Tell, me about your mother.” No way. Let’s talk about cloud formations, varieties of jungle fowl or how I marvel at God’s sense of humor, and his eye for beauty. Whatever we do, let’s not talk about my mother.

As a young child, my parents resolved to move away from California in fear that drugs were so ubiquitous as to be unavoidable. To my mom, Ireland was a land so covered in water that even intelligent people couldn’t safely cross the road without swimming lessons. As a result, my sisters and I were plunked in the pool with a bunch of other kids where I quickly distinguished myself as the worst swimmer, with an obstinate personality and a ready scowl for my teacher. I have since learned these are not endearing qualities, nor successful ways to say, “I’m in over my head, I’m terrified. Please help me.”

My water terror began innocently enough when I misplaced the eyeholes in my paper bag owl costume and trotted my two-year-old self into the backyard to show mom. I saw only my splendor and not the pond into which I fell and almost drowned. There was a lot of yelling from mom as she put down her book, pulled me out and tried to limit my tyrannosaurus roars of terror.

And so, as the class progressed, I came up short. My sisters were now strong swimmers, paddling like tadpoles, darling and effective, while I could eke out a poor lap with my head out of the water. Finally, the teacher suggested (gritting her teeth) that my mom should find a way to help me. Sadly, my mom, a woman of procrustean methods, set about to teach me it was safe to swim by repeatedly forcing my head under the bath water. I would like to say this was done with humor, kindness and persuasion, but it was not. Hell bent on her goal with a win-at-all-costs attitude, I came close to drowning, close enough that she stopped mid rant, said it was my fault, threw me a towel and said “Get out of the tub.”

At the next lesson, I put my head in the water like every other kid. I even lowered the scrutiny by saying “I like it” and that it was easy, and everyone washed their hands of the whole affair now that I was “cured”.

I never trusted her again.

Three weeks before Christmas 2013, an MRI revealed I have no cartilage under my left kneecap and none on the inside of my left knee, a result of playing soccer. I was told to stop running and using a treadmill, to limit elevations and stairs. The doctor recommended swimming for aerobic exercise and an eventual knee replacement.

I looked at him astonished and asked what else he had to offer. He stopped and thought about it and said, “Given your knee, swimming is the best exercise.”

There ensued my three-week temper tantrum. It raged through Christmas and consumed New Year’s, but by January 1st, I had grown up. I HAD to find a way to make swimming work for me.

I started to think from solution and not vanity. What about snorkels? If I had a constant air supply, might it be different? Turns out the company, Finis, based in Livermore, CA, thought the same thing and developed a snorkel for competitive swimmers. Would it work for me? I got one and tried it: epic fail. Apparently, control of my nostrils is not a strong suit (I also lack a prehensile tail) and so, I tried a nose clip. This brought torrents of wicked laughter from my teenager, who asked if my getup came from “Dorks Authority.” Turned out my nose is really slippery, or nose clips work badly, in any case, mine now resides in the junipers somewhere near the pool where it sailed on the wings of my disgust.

As my son riffed mercilessly on me, I grew emboldened. Okay. So, I was a dork. Well, I’ve been called worse things. There was no choice, then, but to be the biggest dork, the most efficient dork, the most conspicuous dork who ever graced a pool. I bought a low profile diving mask and flippers, and a giant bag for all my equipment. I was crowning myself dork queen!

The first time my ensemble made it into the pool, amidst the looks of curious others, I launched myself into the warm blue water against a background of the black night sky. The stars twinkled as I reached my right arm forward and made my first stroke. The other arm followed, not in panic but curious. I had plenty of air, I was moving. I could even inhale the aromas of a chicken BBQ as I slowly made my way up and down the pool. Curiously, I tried twenty laps. It was comfortable. The next day, I was up to thirty. Fifty was a breeze and one hundred could be completed in an hour.

And the world under the water, initially the impetus for horror stories, gave way to something beautiful. The brilliant blues and whites as the light played the water, the bubbles I created when I pushed through, the sensation of peace and quiet, of a world where no one says anything unkind, filled me with joy. I felt it all with wonder and a steady air supply.

Liberated there, under the water, I swim with a grin. I think about beauty and about life and about God. I think of my family and my friends. I think of the bold writers of My 500-words, courageous and undaunted, writing the world. I thank God for my inclination towards forgiveness and redemption. And I thank him for my obstinacy that has served me well and ill.

And each day, I get stronger, faster, more attuned. I gorge myself on water and marvel in its play. My trainer is impressed with me, with my newfound strength: I hurled a medicine ball and sent her tumbling backwards, impressed and smiling. And at night, I walk out into the chill air and tread the boardwalk as I pass the yachts, swaggering slightly, dork kit in hand, for I, I am the one who conquered fear and I am the one who governs these waters.

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