The Swim Lesson

“If we are very fortunate, our parents teach us many lessons that will see us through life’s ups and downs.
As the second child of seven, with a Mom who feared the water and a Dad who was inextricably drawn to it, swimming was a dubious subject around our house. Very early on Dad won the debate, if only because Mom knew that if her children were to survive, they must learn to not only swim, but how to behave with reverence in and around any body of water.
Just as soon as we were deemed old enough, back in the mid 1960’s we were set to swimming lessons at Mackerel Cove Beach on the island where we summered every year.
My Mom was tasked with delivering all of us to these lessons; the five oldest rambunctious Irish kids who couldn’t wait to learn to swim and show off for Dad in the evening and on weekends. The water was icy cold and we were taught rhythmic breathing, that we were told to practice in the bathroom sinks at home, which we did obsessively. (I didn’t master this technique until decades later.) My main interest in these lessons, which became a focal point of an entire summer and many thereafter, was a mad crush on the exceedingly handsome swim instructor, Steve. We four girls were crazy over him. So crazy were our crushes that we giggled and blushed our way through each lesson without really learning much of anything about swimming. Our brother, Chris, couldn’t, for the life of him, figure out what the heck was going on.
When summer ended we returned to suburbia, school, other lessons, life and the continued business of growing up.
It wasn’t until the summer of my ninth or tenth year that I really learned to swim. In a lake, of all places; after all, we were “beach people”. We were visiting our Aunt, Uncle and our very favorite people in the entire world, our three girl cousins, aged very close to us on Lake Ashburnham in Massachusetts. They’d rented a house and we’d, all nine of us, seventy pound dog included, packed into our wood sided station wagon. Against my Mom’s aqua phobic objections, up Dad drove.
Very early one morning, during this weekend visit, before anyone else was up, I was awake and so also was Dad. We decided to go for a swim. There was a raft in the deep water on the small beach. So of course, without Mom’s hovering eye, Dad piggybacked me out to it. I could dog paddle okay, but was by no means good at it. I certainly had no confidence in my ability. Dad was a strong swimmer; had swum competitively. We lazily jumped off the raft and climbed back up the ladder to sunbathe, just the two of us, Dad quietly catching me each time I jumped in. Eventually it was time to return to shore. Into the water we plunged. To my utter surprise, Dad had no intention of piggybacking me this time. I gleefully reached for Dad’s hands. He didn’t reach for mine. In fact he moved just a hand’s width further away. He was very calm, smiling and signaling me with his hand to swim toward him as he continued to swim slowly away. I giggled, thinking it was a game, that he’d grab me and carry me safely to shore. He did no such thing. Quietly, reassuringly, confidently, never doubting my ability to do what he asked of me, he taught me that I could do it alone. I swam all the way to shore with him keeping that same, safe distance.

The Swim Lesson (cont)

There was no fanfare upon my successful completion. “Good job, Nance.” He said as he smiled at me while lighting his cigarette. No big deal. That’s what you do. You learn to swim. With the gentle, loving, protective, encouraging, guidance of my father’s hand, I learned that I could. I can still see him there in the water that morning. His face glinting in the sun. His cupped hand beckoning me, “come on now”. His smile, the squint of his eye, the water gently rippling, glistening, all around him.
And this was the lesson.
You can do this Nancy. You don’t need me to carry you all the time. You did it and you’ll continue to do it. I believe in you. Now you can believe in yourself. You don’t need an audience and you don’t always need everyone’s approval, not even the most important ones. As sensitive as you are, feeling the feelings of others, taking on their fears, you don’t need to own anyone’s but your own.
Your strength will carry you and you can do this thing called life.
And every once in a while, it’s important that you sneak away to do your own thing.
My Dad would never know how our morning at the lake impacted my life. We lost him at the age of fifty six to dreaded lung cancer. The cigarettes of course. But that is another lesson, another story.
I continue to learn from the swim lesson again and again throughout my life.
As for swimming? It’s my therapy and my passion. I swim laps. Lots of them. Fifty or sixty at a time. I swim buoys in the ocean. Lots of them. It’s like a spa treatment for me. I swim waves. I catch the crest, arms outstretched, feeling the freedom, the sensation of taking flight, and I fly like the wind.
I think of him while I swim. I think of that morning so, so long ago. And I miss him. And I know that somehow know he knows about the lesson.
And for my wings I thank my Dad.”

NB Wilde

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