Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
Swimming Lessons

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We see it as soon as we walk through the gate to our neighbors' pool: something floating on the water in the deep end. It looks like a crumple of dead leaves at first, and my husband and I wave our sons back so that we can nudge in front of them to get a better view.

It's a dead mouse.
The nose points hopefully into the air and its front paws are poised mid-paddle. It looks like it died in the middle of swimming lessons, headed toward the edge of the pool after practicing the crawl. I move away from the pool, trying not to contemplate the moment of its death, its panicked strokes and last mousy breath. Now it has become a tiny curl in the vast expanse of otherwise inviting water, a comma suspended in a deep blue sentence: Swim and kick and float and jump but please pause, here.

Our boys make the requisite "yucks" and "gross," and since our neighbors are not at home, my husband gets the pool-cleaning net to scoop it out of the water. He skims the net under it gently, then lifts it into the air and toward some far bushes. Our middle son tries not to gag as he turns away and hurries toward the shallow end. I see him contemplating holding onto his disgust and refusing to swim, but after he watches my husband flick the carcass into the bushes, he jumps in. I hesitate a little longer, then also slip into the cool envelope of water.

I do not understand the physics of floating. I know that it has something to do with an object's buoyancy exceeding its weight. Mostly I'm content to know that some things float and others don't, and to trust in the "floating-ness" of the things I care about: my children's bodies, my own, the kayak we borrow from friends. I'm grateful that gravity is sometimes a permissive parent, that at least occasionally it lets go long enough for us to pretend we've escaped its clutches.

I pull my arms through the sun-warmed water and then stand at attention, ready to catch the youngest as he jumps in. I reach for him, catching his body as it cuts into water. I let his head go under for a split-second and then lift him up, dripping and smiling. As he doggy-paddles back to the edge of the pool, with me holding a fistful of his swimshirt to keep him afloat, I think of the dead mouse, and of his silent addendum to our swimming pleasure: Even bodies that float can die. Buoyancy doesn't guarantee breath. Not everything that rises survives.

My middle son began his summer by eavesdropping on the conversation between bodies and water. In the indoor pool where we swim about once a week, he would hold on to the edge, shivering furiously. Sometimes he watched the adults swimming laps, their bodies like slick arrows in slow motion, endlessly fascinating in their buoyancy. At times he agreed to try floating on his back, as long as my hand was resting firmly along the curve of his spine. Lying there, his chin tipped up and his eyes concentrating hard on the ceiling, he looked like he was listening hard to the muffled protests of his limbs against the loud claims of gravity, not quite sure which would win.

It turned out to be a sudden victory. One week he couldn't swim, the next week he could. These days he paddles along with the frantic movements of someone at the edge of drowning, his face bobbing just above the surface of the water and sometimes slipping below. Each stroke of his arms and legs purchases him a nanosecond or so of buoyancy and thus must be repeated again, oh so quickly, quickly now, now, now, so that his body doesn't lose the argument. Water is quarrelsome, he is learning, and one must be constantly vigilant against its claims.

I swallow hard as he swims the short span from the side of the pool and into my husband's arms. He spins around immediately, making sure that my face registers the full effect of his natatory victory. He waves, elated with the success, and commences his frenzied, jerky paddle back to the edge of the pool. Now that he knows how it's done he can't get enough, and insists on staying in the pool until the lifeguard says that it's closing time.

Later, at home, he walks around beaming like a new father. He enacts instant replays for us and swims through air in the living room, does laps down the hallway and back. We give him high-fives, call the grandparents.

Two weeks before my middle son learns to swim, a student at my alma mater drowns when he is caught in a riptide off a Costa Rican beach. The same week an elderly man drowns in a tubing accident on the creek that runs less than a mile from our house. Then, days before our middle son begins his lurching crawl across the pool, a student at the college where my husband teaches drowns off the coast of Spain. Three drowning deaths in such close succession, in circles that overlap with my own, and I'm left feeling disoriented, dizzy, as if I'm listening to someone who keeps repeating himself, using slightly different words each time.

Two weeks later, the mouse dies its quiet, mournless death. It's like an echo you can barely hear, a comma that the sentence doesn't really need.

My children understand the death of the mouse, but we don't tell them about the human drownings. Right now, as they tally up their first victories against water, my sons do not need to know that every day in our country about ten people die from drowning. Right now they don't need to know about the incalculable weight of water, the way it can win whenever it damn well pleases.

Later in the summer, when we go to the beach for a day, we will casually tell our sons only not to go out too far, hoping they don't hear the high whirr of terror in our voices. We will watch them splash in the waves, clap for the middle guy when he shows off his doggy-paddling, and pretend that we're enjoying a relaxing day at the beach.

All the while, however, we will be watching their small bodies with fiercely focused gazes, our own bodies tensile and ready to spring. We'll stay close by, silently counting their heads, as blue waves lap around us like the hottest of flames.


Valerie Weaver-Zercher is author of Thrill of the Chaste: The Allure of Amish Romance Fiction. In addition to Literary Mama, her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Brain, Child, Mothering, Christian Science Monitor, Orion, and The Christian Century, among other venues. She and her husband and three sons live in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania. Her website is www.vweaver-zercher.com.


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