Lessons in Swimming

Easter weekend, on a bright Saturday morning, I sat poolside studying Julia and her friend I’ll call T, taking their weekly swim lesson. With Passover and Easter falling over the same weekend, the poolroom was still and empty, except for Mr. T’s mom and me‑‑ and our kids.

Coach D with some of his other students. Julia is the furthest from camera, at the end.

Coach D with some of his other students. Julia is the furthest from camera, at the end.

Julia and Mr. T bobbed in the water beside their coach, a kind-hearted, cocoa-skinned mid 40s man, who melded the art of swimming with the mellow teaching style of Yoda. Coach D has a way with kids and the water. Still, after a year of lessons, on this morning, we discovered a different side of his coaching style

Mr. T. wasn’t into jumping into the pool, even at 4 feet. Coming in around 3 ½ feet, or so he probably didn’t think it was such a great idea. Additionally, bodies of water appear deep no matter where you stand, at least to me. And possibly him.

But Coach wasn’t having it.

“Do you mind if I give him a little assistance,” Coach D said to the boy’s mom.

“Sure, go ahead,” she said.

Then Coach called out, “I need some help out here.” His assistant, a lean tan, twenty-something Latino man sporting swimming trunks, peeked out from the office door, beyond the far end of the pool.

“Can you come here, please?” Coach asked.

The man moved forward, towards T and Julia with a slowed kind of walk that didn’t suit him. Far too tentative and measured to be his norm. He rolled to a slow stop and stood beside the boy.

“Toss him in,” Coach D said.

“You sure?” his assistant asked.

“Okay with you, Mom?” Coach asked again.

“Yes.”

Then Julia’s kid alarm bells activated, no doubt brought on by the boy’s large, round eyes that now leaked tears that streaked his face.

“C’mon you can do it, just like this,” Julia said and raised her thin brown arms up into a mock diving move. But still the boy clung to the edge of the tile anchored by his toes and his fears.

Now Mr. T’s mom and I began to cheer him on using the typical “ You can do it!” and a few “It’ll be fun, c’mon!” thrown in, to no avail.

Coach D stood in the waist-high water, alone, waiting. “Do you think I would ask you to do something that would hurt you? he asked the boy.

The boy shook his head from side to side. Then a sob escaped from his throat. And a lump formed in mine.

“Then come on, jump,” Coach said.

And still the boy did not move.

“Okay, Mike do it,” Coach D said.

And with that the boy flew through the air like a fallen bird, and crashed through the smooth, blue surface of the water.

 ***

I thought of all the times I’d been pushed into the brink by life. People have call me brave for adopting a child on my own, for being a single parent. But like Mr. T, I felt the fear, and clung to the edge of the known world, too. How would I be perceived as a single parent? How would I care for this child economically on my own? Then, the social worker called with the notification that Ethiopian might close to single adopters.

I spent two days in my apartment, clinging to the edge of the pool. On the third day I called the social worker and said, “I will come in and fill out the paperwork to get started.” It was wide in the air. Then I touched down. My body bobbed and quaked in the chilled water. And then I began to swim.

And like Mr. T, once I started swimming. I kept swimming, for three years, until Julia came home. In a way, as a single parent, I still swim quite a bit, however it’s mostly with the tide. And by now having water-soaked skin and damp hair is my new normal. But some days the water holds a North Atlantic frigidity that make me forget that I know how to swim, temporarily.

***

Mr. T  splashed towards Coach, slicing the water with smooth toddler stokes, completed his lap then pulled himself free of its grip. Cheers reverberated off the tile walls like symbol crashes at the symphony, delivered by four happy adults and a thrilled little girl. T’s little chest billowed out, proud and round. His eyes shorn bright. It was thrilling to see him, the whole of him, happy and pleased with himself, his feet planted on new ground; a new Eden of accomplishment. He reminded me to look around at where I stand, at my daughter, at our lives and take pleasure and pride in the same.

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