Nonfiction: Issue #2

The Swim Lesson

by R.A. Lev

 

Oh that I had wings like a dove! for then would I fly away, and be at rest. —Psalm 55:6.

No man drowns if he perseveres in praying to God, and can swim. —Russian Proverb

 

Margo_Lemieux-Lemieux_Joie_de_bubbles_1It’s freezing. He’s freezing. My son’s lips are purple-blue. I wonder if this is still a good idea, if this was ever a good idea.

There are other places we could have gone. Pools where the water temperature is kept at a balmy 86 degrees, where the floor is lowered slowly so he wouldn’t notice the gradual lift as his lungs fill with air and he reflexively starts to bob, cycling his legs, paddling his arms. There are places where there are classes—he would be called a minnow or a sand shark or a barracuda—and he’d swing his legs over the side waiting for an instructor to pick him up with one arm and reach outward with the other to demonstrate how to move the water out of the way. One swim school even offered to send a teacher to our apartment building. The ultimate in personalization and comfort.

I don’t want my son to be comfortable. I want to save his life.

When he turned four, I decided it was time for Jack to learn to swim. We are not water people. We do not boat. At the beach, we wade. Up to our ankles. Baby pools are fine. Sitting on a lounge chair next to the baby pool, even better. Women in my family have spent generations battling the rain with various forms of plastic headwear so as to keep our frizzy hair in check.

“Our people were meant to live in the desert,” my mother says.

But we don’t. We live in a city on an island and before I know it this four-year-old will be eight, then 10, then 16 and there will be pool parties and pitch black swims at an after-party in god-knows-where and he may try to dive into a lake that is too shallow because he did not read the signs…

I am sitting on a bench watching Jack. He is so small, all cheeks and knees. Standing on a platform in this pool with his purple-blue lips, shaking slightly, he seems even tinier. Every part of me wants to run to him, to lean over the edge and pull him towards me, scoop him out, wrap him in a towel and tell him this was all a mistake, that he’ll never have to do something this hard again. But I can’t. No one ever taught me to swim. So no one ever had to decide whether or not to scoop me out. There are things so much harder than this, Jack. I want to save your life.

 ***

I am the kind of person the 17-year-old barista at Starbucks calls “sweetheart.” That is: I don’t have much in the way of gravitas. My husband once had to take a personality test at his job, where employees fell into four categories represented by birds: eagle, owl, peacock and dove. Peacocks walk in and own a room. Owls base their decisions on carefully attained logic. Eagles are natural leaders, bold and decisive. It is the combination of certain bird-traits, like the breeding of purebreds, that makes for the most accomplished people. Bill Clinton is a Peacock Eagle. Stephen Hawking: Eagle Owl. So was my husband, a doctor in a former life before he took this office job. In fact, everyone he worked with was some combination of Eagle, Owl or Peacock. He said management was pleased by this. We agreed that I was a Dove.

“No one wants to be a Dove,” he said.

Days later I found the personality test—called D.O.P.E. for each bird—online. Doves are known for their low assertiveness and high emotionality. “When there are conflicts,” the test says, “doves are more likely to avoid confrontation and change.” We are “harmony seekers.”

I wonder if this is hereditary. Will my son also be a dove? Could it be possible that dove-ness is a recessive gene that he could be spared? Maybe I could show him more of the world than I know. Maybe I can train him to be an Eagle-Owl-Peacock.

 ***

Jack and I take the elevator to the third floor to meet his instructor, Terri. I picked Terri because Terri had sons and the sons were swimmers. “Swim team captains, division one,” Terri said when I called to explain to her that my son was timid, that in fact he had come from a long line of timid worriers who did not do things like swim or ski or even roller skate particularly well. “One of my sons was reluctant, too,” Terri said. “But he thanked me later.”

“Jack, you are going to thank me,” I tell him while we sit on the one wobbly bench against the wall, waiting for Terri. The pool has three lanes: fast, slow and swim instruction. The fast lane on the far side is clearly for those who are swimming for exercise. You have to keep a certain pace to swim in that lane. The lane closest to us is for the kids and their instructors. The kids stand on what the instructors call “boats” but are actually swim-teaching platforms. They look like something you would use to paint a house, but they let the little ones keep their heads above the four-foot-deep water.

The middle lane is for everyone else who wants to do laps. The average age in the middle lane is 87. Today a woman at least that old—head down, black bathing suit straps barely hanging onto the shoulders above her hunched back—parks her walker next to us. She slowly descends the pool steps and ducks under the lane divider to get to the middle lane, passing a pair of five-year-old boy/girl twins on a “boat” who are trying to create tidal waves by splashing each other repeatedly in the face. I don’t know what happens between lanes one and two, but it is a lifetime.

“Mommy, I don’t want to go under.”

Oh, the rub. In order to learn to swim you have to go under water and to go under you have to—for a moment—give up control and submerge yourself in the unknown. Water rushes into your nose, stings your eyes, garbles your ears. To even begin swimming you have to do something annoying at best, something slightly terrifying for a timid worrier.

“Mommy, you have to tell her, Mommy, puh-leeeeez.”

Jack grips my hand with both of his—hard, which is to say, calculating the strength of a four-year-old, not that hard. But the yank makes me look at him, really look at him, and it is then that my heart explodes. To swim at the Y you have to wear a swim cap, and Jack chose a pale green Lycra one from the case in front of the check-in desk. He likes it because it is one-size-fits-all and therefore loose. He has to keep pushing it up over his eyebrows. Whether he is scared or frustrated by the wait or maybe both, his forehead is constantly creased. He looks like the world’s smallest surgeon.

When you have a child, some people will give you unnecessary advice, it’s true. But more often I’ve found that people shy away from doling out their personal mantras. When Jack was born, friends and family told me instead what a joy parenting was, how fast the time goes, warning me of the crippling wound that would come with an empty nest. There I was, holding a screaming, inconsolable, colicky infant and I was already supposed to anticipate missing him. Never fear, these well-wishers said, forget the parenting bibles, carpe diem. Embrace the chaos. Raising a child, they said, was instinctual. Motherhood is the oldest known job in the world, and I was born equipped to handle everything this child would throw at me. I would be able to figure it all out.

Maybe that’s true. I’m not sure yet. It’s really too early to tell. As I look down at Jack, I want to say what really brought us to the Y. I still can’t swim, Jack. Yes, I can doggy-paddle and bob and, if pushed, I can maybe make it partway across the pool with a sort of half-breast-stroke-half-freestyle swim I’ve invented. But when dropped in the ocean or the deep end of the pool I flounder, Jack. I can barely float. In fact, after copious internet research, I am now convinced that I am one of the few humans who can’t, physically, float. I breathe too shallow. It’s the lung capacity—or lack thereof. And the panic reflex. Because when you can’t really float, it’s very easy to panic.

Instead I say: “You’re going to be okay, Jack.”

  ***

Before my mother left my father, she started to record him. She used the small handheld cassette recorder I had taken to college to tape student council presidents and the head of the fraternity council for the school newspaper. I don’t know how she did it. Whether she kept the recorder tucked into the top drawer of her nightstand under her Reader’s Digests and old pay stubs or whether she walked around with it in her oversized beige purse that I used to tease her about because it was so heavy. (“Stop making fun of me,” she’d say. “I need everything that’s in here.”) I don’t know if she kept her hand on the record button when she heard my father in the hallway or coming up the stairs, his very presence enough to make her hold her breath, standing so still she could hear the shifting carpet outside her bedroom door when he was coming for her. And he was always coming for her. I don’t know when she would have turned off the recorder. If the tape continued to whirl as the screams subsided or if it captured her whimpering sobs as she lay there after his newest attack. I don’t know because I wasn’t there.

But I am there after the police come and take my father away in handcuffs. I am 19 years old and stuck between lanes one and two. There is no way to be a child splashing carelessly in the pool and a wise adult pushing the water authoritatively away, yet somehow I am in this purgatory. I am there with my mother at the police station getting an order of protection. I am in the lawyer’s office explaining to her when we started to fear my father. I am in the car after my mother visits the battered women’s shelter, staring down at the paperwork they gave her—the “cycle of abuse wheel.” (Phase 1: Tension. Phase 2: The “Incident.” Phase 3: Reconciliation. Phase 4: The Calm.)  I am with her in a booth at a Friendly’s after my father pleads no contest in family court, and my thrill at what I assumed to be a victory becomes a knot in my chest as my mother begins to cry, then weep, her tears falling into her Happy Ending sundae. After I went to college, she says, there was very little Calm. She says she borrowed my tape recorder because she wanted proof of the abuse when the bruises faded or when there were no bruises or when—as my father so often threatened—the bruises were all that was left of her.

No one wants to be a dove.

***

Terri is 42 or 57. It’s hard to say with her hair always tucked into her own tight latex swim cap. Her body is that of a lifelong swimmer: broad and boobless, saggy in some places, but not in an unpleasant way. She is a hot commodity at the Y because she is good with the sensitive kids, the ones who don’t want to be there. She warned me that the Y’s pool is unheated. I don’t know why it’s not heated. Maybe it’s too expensive? Maybe the pool is too old? But Terri emerges from the pool now wearing a short-sleeve body suit, the kind I imagine is popular with surfers.

“This must be Jack,” she says coming up to the bench. She bends down, putting her hands on her knees, and smiles. She must be used to this—the in and out of the pool—but it’s odd to be dry and watch someone standing there dripping.

“Mommy, tell her. Mommy, puh-leeeeez,” Jack says, burrowing his head into my armpit.

“Yes, yes, I will, Jack. I will.” And then: “Jack would like me to tell you that he doesn’t want to go under water.” I think I owe him at least this.

“Ok, Jack,” Terri says. And like that she takes his hand and guides him to the edge of the pool to look at a bucket of water toys. “Come, let’s pick out what you want to play with.” While he’s combing through the rings and squirters, Terri talks to me back by the bench.

“This is nothing I haven’t seen before,” she says. “Lots of kids don’t want to go under, but you know…” Here it is. The pause. When Terri and I become coconspirators. “Sometimes it’s just best to… you know…”

“Dunk him?”

“Well, yes,” she says. “Gently.”

I nod. I am a traitor.

***

Before I meet my husband, there are a lot of boys. Mark is a former Marine I know through Summer—my coworker at a Hallmark in a cluster of strip malls designed to look like a Tuscan village. Ironically, the Italian restaurant is the first to go out of business. Summer is my age, but her mom is dead and her father is in jail so we spend the whole of the summer I turn 19 in the apartment she shares with her sister. I like it because it is not my house. The first moments we’re all together are spent assessing how much cheap alcohol we have—gathering it all in Summer’s kitchen. The area by the sink is a makeshift bar with plastic jugs of booze, a quart of orange juice and more plastic cups.

I come there to drink, to get drunk, to let my kind-of boyfriend kind-of paw at me in Summer’s bedroom and then to wake up and for one, brief, wondrous moment forget exactly why I had to stay here in the first place.

And here we are, one Saturday night in July. Mark is fiddling around in his jeans pocket. One hand on the outside, pushing something up, the other hand digging in with two fingers. He rips something out of his pocket and slams it onto the table with one swoop of his arm. It takes me a second to focus on it among the scattered plastic cups and beer bottles. “Now are we going to have fun tonight or what?” he says, grinning.

I see it for a split second before Summer dives for it. An orange-brown bottle of pills. Mark’s OxyContin, prescribed for the bum knee that got him discharged from the service, that thanks to an incompetent marine doctor can be refilled 22 times instead of two.

“Mark, you shouldn’t have,” Summer says. She pours the pile of thin, blue pills into her hand. She and Mark each take one, then offer me the bounty.

I can feel it. Finally, the promise of a good night. The alcohol and the pill I just swallowed will be working their way into my bloodstream. Mark pours some vodka into two plastic cups, then pours orange juice over it, stirs it with a spoon left on the counter. He brings one to his mouth and sips. Then he begins the whole process again. A little more vodka, a little more orange juice, stir. It needs to be the right consistency—as much alcohol as we can take with enough sweetness to cover up the taste. After three or four adjustments, he offers me the cup, filled to the top.

“Woah, wow, this is strong,” I say, after letting the first dribble of liquid hit my lips.

“Good. Cheers.”

He raises his cup and taps mine, causing it to spill onto my arm. I lick it off, then take a sip. The alcohol burns my throat and makes me cough, but it is good to be finally drinking. Summer comes up next to me and hits my hip with hers, causing more of my drink to hit the floor.

“Summer! Watch it.”

“Give me some of that.”

She yanks the cup from my hand and gulps down half my drink, but Mark has already lined up three more cups and is pouring vodka into them. We drink fast and just when the cups are about to be drained Mark is there with the plastic bottle of vodka to fill them up again. Now we need less orange juice. We can’t taste the alcohol as much. Mark keeps pouring. How many cups was that? Two? Five? Seven? Summer is saying something. Maybe it’s about ketchup? But she is so funny. Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha. Summer should be a comedian. Her arm is around my neck and my head falls onto her breast. God, it’s so hot in this kitchen. Mark thinks we should dance. Yes, dancing! Everyone should be dancing as long as there’s music. I close my eyes and we’re in the living room—ouch! by the coffee table—I think I need to lean on Mark. He needs to be holding the bottom of my back. Mark, I should put my head down. Where did Summer go? Here she is. Here she is with the pills. Another one? It went down so fast the first time. Sure, as long as Mark doesn’t let me go. Please, Mark, don’t let me go.

And then the music stops. At least I can’t hear it. Something is not right. Suddenly I see water. I am swimming. Somewhere deep. I am seven years old and my father and I are in a pool in an Arizona resort. My father is holding me and I’m waving to my mother who is sitting on a chaise lounge, laughing. And I’m laughing, too. We’ve been swimming all day, my father guiding me while I kick my arms and legs. Now he tells me what a good swimmer I am and pushes me off a few feet into the deep end. But it’s too deep. I’m not ready. I want to tell him this, but I can’t. I’m flailing my arms. My head is going under, the chlorine in my mouth, up my nose. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe.

Dad, you have to save me.

Mark, you have to save me.

Summer, you have to save me.

***

Terri is next to Jack and lowering him onto the “boat.” Then she’s standing next to him in the pool and pouring a cup of water on her head. He laughs, taking the cup and pouring water onto his own pale green cap. She ducks down, blowing bubbles in the water. He follows her lead. She picks him up by his waist and swings him, lowering him down so he is in a position that resembles that of a swimmer. There is some flailing. Now there’s a lot of flailing. Terri might not be holding him the right way. Jack looks like a fish flopping around on a deck, and I want to get up and just make sure he’s okay. But I don’t. Moms are supposed to sit on the bench and watch.

This is most of parenthood.

If I could take all the pain Jack will ever feel and feel it for him, would I? Probably not. That pain will make him who he is, who he becomes. Just like mine defines me. But that doesn’t stop me from running to him whenever he cries, from already hating the first girl who will reject him, from describing death as “the time when we all turn into love.” I don’t want to feel the pain for him, but I can cushion the blow.

I’m sitting on the bench between two other mothers, who are staring at their cell phones. I wonder how long their kids have been taking lessons, if they’re already good swimmers. Do they go underwater yet? I took a philosophy course my freshman year of college and convinced myself there is no free will. If we are the product of our genetic makeup and the family we were born into, neither of which we choose, I argued, then how can there be any? I told my mother this. Six months later we’d be in family court. But I remember her standing at the kitchen sink that day. She didn’t even look up from the dishes. “What does it matter?” she said. “We play the hand we’re dealt.” I remember being angry at her. Really angry.

It’s almost the end of the 45-minute lesson and Jack is back on the boat, leaning against the railing. His lips are purple-blue and he’s shaking in his long-sleeved swim shirt. I don’t know if this was a good idea, but Jack seems to have survived. I wave to him from the bench and he lifts his hand in acknowledgement. I start to gather his towel and our bags from under the bench, then look up again. Terri has Jack on her hip and is bobbing up and down. She starts to count.

“One…two…Ready?”

No no no no. I’m not ready. He’s not ready. Terri. Not today. Terri. Not…Waitwaitwaitwaitwait… I half stand up, but it’s already done. Jack is in and out of the water, his pale green swim cap now a shade darker and dripping. He’s hanging onto Terri and coughing. But not in the way I imagined he would after being submerged against his will. He’s surprised, not choking on water. Terri sits him on the edge of the pool, and I’m there wrapping the towel around him. He stops coughing. Terri rattles off a list of instructions (“Did good today…” “Practice at home…” “More practice…” “Bubbles in bath…” “Get face wet…”) and I’m only sort of listening as I scoop Jack up. Terri is already turning away, motioning to her next mom/boy pair huddled on the bench as I clutch Jack, snug in the towel.

“Mommy, I went under,” Jack says, his mouth so close to my ear. He’s still shaking.

“I know! I saw you. You did great.”

“But I don’t like to go under.”

“It will get easier,” I say. I’m not sure if this is true.

I put him down and guide him back to the bench so I can get the bags I left there. I squat and Jack leans on my back. I pause, letting him put his entire weight against me.

***

When boyfriends ask about my father I tell them a number of things.

  1. My father is estranged. This makes him sound exotic, like it may not be his fault that we don’t speak, while not totally eliminating the possibility that he is on the run or a spy. Usually the guys I’m with don’t ask too many questions when I say this because slight vulnerability/mystery can be somewhat sexy and also a turn-on.
  2. Once, when I was three, my father and I made applesauce together. Our house was built in the 1970s, and the kitchen was 1970s yellow—floor, refrigerator, range hood, everything—giving it the illusion of warmth. My job was to help stir, and my father held his hand over mine to guide me in mixing the chopped apples and sugar together. I tell this story because it helps me imagine that I am the same as other daughters, that my father was the same as other men who made homes that were safe.
  3. My father was probably depressed. I say this to the boyfriends who lay awake with me at night when I have another bout of insomnia. After repositioning my pillow and pulling the blanket up, then off, then up again, I turn to the boyfriend and poke him until he wakes up. Depression in men can result in violent behavior, I say, so you see the lack of serotonin could have been the problem. We come from a long line of folks with mental illness, I say. I may be broken, too.
  4. At my high school graduation, I saw my father across the football field after the ceremony. He was standing very still, while the other parents and grandparents and siblings moved around him, looking for their particular graduate. He was crying. I walked up to him in my white cap and gown and gently took his hand. “I can only take you this far,” he said. Usually I tell boyfriends this when we’ve had a bottle or two of wine or a few margaritas because it makes more sense when I am drunk. It’s kind of funny, isn’t it? How loving someone is something, but it is not nearly enough.
  5. There is a restraining order against my father. My mother thought he might kill us.

New boyfriends almost always hear 1. Those who stick around get 1 through 3. Mark hears 4 because I am at Summer’s house when the police come for my father, and he has to drive me home even though he clearly shouldn’t be driving. After all the vodka and orange juice, this is all I can think to say in the car.

I tell my husband everything. When I become pregnant with Jack, he asks me what kind of father I want him to be. I don’t know what to say. I haven’t spoken to my father since the police took him away. He is a ghost that follows me: the nightmares I fight in unknown hotel beds, the way I fold into myself around strangers, how I flinch too hard after spilling a glass of water. I only know the father I don’t want him to be.

***

The week of Christmas we plan a family trip to Florida. Other folks would have made a beeline for Boca Raton or Miami. The adventurous may have chosen Orlando with its myriad theme parks and chain restaurants. We want one thing—cheap. The fact that the Naples resort has a “zero-entry pool” is simply icing on the very inexpensive cake.

“Jack, look! You can just walk right into the pool,” I tell him a few weeks before our trip while showing him photos on my phone.

“Does Mickey live there?” he says.

“Mickey goes skiing for Christmas.”

“Why aren’t we going skiing?”

“Because we’re going swimming!”

I did everything I could to get Jack excited about the trip. I bought him new swim trunks, UV shirts and one of those Puddle Jumper life vests with floaties around the arms connected by an additional strap around the chest. Even if, four months after our first swim lesson with Terri, Jack wasn’t quite a swimmer, I was sure he’d love to spend the days splashing around the pool or in the ocean nestled in the safety of a flotation device.

The resort’s activities include a beach that is accessible only by way of a nausea-inducing tram ride or a 15-minute walk under a canopy of trees. The walk is preferable until I realize that the treetops are covered with an interlocking mesh of spider webs and, yes, an uncountable number of spiders. These were Florida spiders—dark, fast and territorial.

“Don’t look up. Don’t look up!” my husband instructs as we pushed Jack in his stroller back from the beach one afternoon. I don’t have to look up. I flick spiders off my shoes, the stroller, my husband’s back. This is a spider convention and we are not invited.

The only other option is a “kids club,” which consists of two rooms of video games and a few buckets by the pool meant for tie-dyeing. Within 24 hours we have tie-dyed the two white shirts we packed for Jack and tried, unsuccessfully, to teach Jack how to play pinball. That leaves the pool.

“Jack, look, we can just walk in,” I say holding his hand at the water’s edge. Jack is wearing his new Jake and the Neverland Pirates swim ensemble, the life vest and his pale green Lycra swim cap. His yellow goggles, also procured at the counter in front of the Y’s check-in desk, sit on top of the cap. Since Jack still has no interest in going underwater, they are there solely for aesthetic purposes. I take a few steps into the water. Jack’s arm goes taut, his feet don’t move.

“Mommy, I don’t want to go in.”

“You don’t want to go in? But this is so fun! It’s just like swim class only you are here with me.”

Step in. Taut arm.

“Hey, why don’t we swim for awhile and then we can go get some ice cream. Ice cream! Won’t that be super fun?”

Step in. Taut arm.

“Jack, please. Please.”

Taut arm. Taut arm. Taut arm. Jack is unmoveable. The more I try to walk into the pool, the more he pulls back. I don’t know if he’s scared, just becoming more stubborn in answer to my persistence, or a combination of both. He is small enough that I know I can pull him in with me if I want, but the pool is crowded. I am not one to make a scene. He spends the afternoon pushing around his matchbox cars underneath my chaise longue while I read US Weekly. That night I call Terri.

“We don’t need him to be Michael Phelps. We just need him to go in,” I say. “He goes in with you. Is it me? What am I doing wrong?”

“It’s the new environment,” Terri says. “Give him time. Try having him blow bubbles in the bath. It will remind him how fun swimming is.”

Our hotel room doesn’t have a bath. There’s only a shower, which, not surprisingly, terrifies Jack. In order to bathe him, my husband has to take the handheld nozzle and pretend Jack is in a carwash. But we are the first ones at the pool early the next morning. I leave Jack’s life vest on a chaise longue and simply pick him up and start walking toward the pool. At four years old, Jack still loves to be carried so he doesn’t even notice we are in the water until I’ve walked in up to my chest and half of his body is submerged.

Then he starts to cry.

How can this be so hard? I have done everything I am supposed to do—the lessons with the kind professional, the new swimsuits, the Florida pool. I have held this little boy from the moment he was born, held him when he wouldn’t stop crying, hold him now even as he continues to cry. You don’t want to be a dove, Jack. No one wants to be a dove. I am so sorry. I am sorry that somewhere coded in your genes is a timid worrier or maybe, even worse, a broken soul. I’m sorry that I couldn’t give you more. I’m sorry that one day you may ask me about how I grew up and that I may have to tell you the answer. I’m sorry I couldn’t make you feel as safe as I always wanted to be. Now I am crying too.

This must be a sight. Two blubbering people in a zero-entry pool on vacation. But no one is around. Jack does not like when others cry, so, still clutching me with one hand, he turns my face to his with the other. “Mommy, Mommy, I’m okay. See? I’m okay. I’m okay.”

There are varying definitions of “okay,” but Jack is not crying, if only because he wants me to stop crying. So I stop crying. Fine. Fine. We’re all fine. Yes! This is an opportunity! I walk a few steps farther into the water until Jack and I are up to our necks. He’s still not crying. I spin around. Then around again. I bob up and down. I swing Jack onto my back and pretend we are sharks. “No, Mommy, we are whales.” He’s right. We wouldn’t be sharks. More bobbing. Jack has his arms wrapped around me in a power death grip. But he is laughing. Maybe now is the time for a big move. “Whales go under water to swim,” I say, quickly making my way to the deep end. Jack bellows, then chokes me as he pulls back on my neck. Okay. Okay. We won’t go under. We’ll never go under! We’ll be the first pair to manage to swim without ever getting our heads wet. Who cares? Bob bob bob bob.

My husband and I take turns holding Jack in the pool for the next three hours. Jack is concerned that his fingers shrivel up like prunes, but he is fascinated by how clean his nails become. I want him to declare that he loves the pool, that he can’t wait to swim by himself, but the next day—our last on the trip—he waits expectantly at the water’s edge.

“Pick me up, Mommy,” he says.

“We can just walk in together,” I say.

“No.”

Fine. I remember what Terri said, hoist him onto my hip and walk into the pool. We bob and spin, but mostly just stand there—Jack and I. His arms draped around my shoulders; mine holding him up loosely. It is a warm, overcast day and it is as if we are standing in our own personal bathtub. Every once in a while Jack does something funny — he toots, for instance, causing bubbles to swarm around us — and we giggle. When Jack was born, someone gave us a copy of the book Love You Forever, the one about the mother who holds her son in her arms and sings the same song to him as he grows into a rowdy two-year-old, a messy nine-year-old, then a typical teenager. When he becomes an adult and leaves home, she even drives across town, climbs a ladder and goes through her son’s window to hold him and sing. It’s very sad, of course, when the mother is too old to sing, and he must come and sing to her. But right now I am okay holding Jack in my arms. We are both okay.

When my husband gets into the pool, he suggests we stand a little ways apart from each other and pass Jack back and forth between us. Jack agrees to this, mostly because neither of us lets go before the other has hold of him. He even kicks his feet sometimes. But after a few passes, he’s already bored. I try to make it more of a game. I am the Coast Guard and he is a wayward ship. Then I am a fisherman and he is a little whale stuck in a net. “Look, Jack, I’m saving you,” I say every time I take hold of him after my husband’s push.

But soon he grabs onto me, wrapping his arms around my neck. Settling back onto my hip, he waits for me to hold him once again.

“No, Mommy, I am saving you,” he says. “I am saving you.”

 

*image: Joie de bubbles, Margo Lemieux
R.A. Lev

R.A. Lev is a writer and editor who has worked at numerous print and online publications, including Time, Forbes and Vanity Fair. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Village Voice, Time Out New York and elsewhere, and she has authored three nonfiction books for children. She lives in New York City with her husband and two sons. She still cannot swim.

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