Passing the swim test—taking the plunge into the deep end

SB and I are sitting on the bleachers at the Plaza Pool along with other parents. There are grandparents and siblings too. Maybe some aunts and uncles. All of us there to support the kids. At least, I think that’s what we’re doing. Many have their phones out. Swiping, scrolling, interested in the nothingness of a tiny screen rather than the big, wide world in front of them. Some never look up, not even once, to see the real, live activity that’s right in from of them. It’s baffling. There’s so much to see. One shy kid is being coaxed into participation by his mother. Another one, probably four years old, is not happy at all. She sits on the edge of the pool, arms crossed, crying. Kids at the shallow end giggle and splash as they learn the basics. Others at the deep end chat and play around as they wait their turn to practice diving. Every other one hits the water with a loud belly smack, but all of them come up smiling. And back-and-forth swimming the length of the pool is my nine-year-old daughter–skinny as a rail but determined–trying to pass her final swim test.

“How many is that?” I ask SB.

She is talking with a parent next to her about promoting the arts in our schools.

“Ten.”

“Ten laps?”

“Yes, honey. Ten.”

I’m not sure how she knows this. I’ve been watching the entire time and have lost count.

“How many laps does she need? She’s been at it for a long time. Her arms and legs must be on fire.”

SB gives me a little wave. Not now, she’s saying. I’m annoying her. She is watching the pool, but she’s also engaged in a conversation, reading a book, planning healthy family meals for the week, and likely doing other things that I can’t even see. She’s magical like that. A master multi-tasker. As for me, I’m simpler–a caveman, if you will. I’m hungry and thinking about pizza, hot dogs, and burgers. My stomach rumbles. I tell it not to get too excited. It’s fish, steamed asparagus, and rice pilaf night. The bleachers are hard and uncomfortable. The air is hot and chlorinated and loosening up green stuff that’s been building up in my chest for a week. I’m on the verge of a nasty coughing fit, so I nudge SB with my elbow and whisper, “Cough drop?” She pulls a hard candy out of her coat pocket that’s been in there since Halloween. It’s an eyeball. I pop it into my mouth just in time. The urge to cough subsides, and now I can focus on Oogie.

That’s what I used to call her, anyway. My little girl that followed me everywhere, held my hand, and gave me big, squeezy hugs every chance she’d get. We were buddies. High fives. Fist bumps. Tickle fights, pillow fights, and snuggle time on the couch watching Frozen or Monsters Inc. The same girl that up until recently, was so nervous about getting into the lake, ocean, or hotel pool that she’d strap on water wings, a life vest, and cling to her Floaty Flamingo. And if the Flamingo had been forgotten, it was me. She’d wrap her bony little arms around my neck and hold on as if there were a shark in the water. Time and time again I’d try to convince her that sometimes it’s best to just jump in, but she refused to let go.

The change was sudden and unexpected. One evening at dinner she simply changed her tune.

“I want to learn to swim,” she said.

SB and I looked at each other as if we’d just won the lottery.

“What did you say?” I asked.

“I want to learn to swim. It’s time.”

“That’s great news, Oogie! Mom and I will get you signed up.”

“And Dad?” she said.

“Yes?”

“Don’t call me Oogie anymore.”

It’s beautiful and confusing, inspirational and heart-wrenching–this parenting thing. With each step a child makes they move farther away but work themselves deeper and deeper into you. Before you know what’s happened, at the most unexpected moments, they decide it’s time to peel off the life vest and take the plunge. It’s incredible and overwhelming, and it lights you up inside more than anything you can imagine.

Oogie reaches the end of another lap. She looks over at me and smiles.

“Again,” the instructor says.

My daughter turns and pushes herself into another lap.

“I don’t understand it,” I say to SB. “She’s been swimming non-stop. How many laps does she need?”

SB reaches over. Puts her hand on mine.

“Relax, honey. Just watch.”

She glides through the water, stroke after stroke, lap after lap. I expect her to look tired or nervous, to be gasping for breath, but she is strong and focused. Breathing calmly. Far away from all that surrounds her, deep into the mission at hand. This is not the little girl that got knocked over at the beach by the waves of Lake Huron. This is not the little girl that clung for dear life to an inflatable Flamingo. This is not the little girl that was afraid to let me go.

The candy in my mouth has dissolved. The urge to cough is gone, but a tight lump rises in my throat and my eyes water. I wipe my face with my sleeve. SB leans into me.

“She’ll be fine,” she says, and she hands me a tissue.