A rush of chlorine and humid air permeates my nostrils as we enter the swimming area of our local YMCA. The chemical odor still unnerves me, even though I’ve been a visitor at this pool for several years, since my daughter began taking swim lessons here as a toddler. I’ve never been comfortable in the water myself. Now, I come here each Monday so my son will be.
We approach the pool entrance, and my boy reaches for a pair of goggles hanging in the lost-and-found bin, because I’ve forgotten his. Don’t worry, he says. They’re always here. He pads onto the wet tile floor, removes his Crocs, and greets the instructor. Without prompting, he jumps in, gripping the poolside and listening as his teacher offers instructions on the method of swim strokes. He nods, his goggle straps flapping, and occasionally submerges into the water while she speaks to him, blowing bubbles while his hands still loosely grip the rubber edge.
I watch my son push off the sidewall and glide into the ripples of water, which reflect the white rods of fluorescent lighting overhead. The discontinuous streaks of artificial light obscure the pool’s surface, at times limiting my view of his face during the lap. A few years ago, I would have watched anxiously from the viewing stands, pressing myself against the Plexiglas railing, waiting to see him emerge. I no longer scan the water obsessively, my chest tight, searching for his form. The fear is leaving us both. Now, I simply enjoy the sight of him gliding through the water.
My daughter plunged into a pool at 18 months, refusing to wait for her father’s ready signal to catch her. She loved the sensation of the cool water, the buoyancy, the splashing, the fun. As a preschooler, she demanded goggles at bath time, diving beneath the soapy water in search of plastic day-glo sea life. I marveled at her fearlessness and eagerness, her comfort within the water. She was like my husband at that age—a little fish, we often said, jumping off docks and swinging from ropes and teetering on diving boards.
My son was different. As a toddler, he shrieked at the sensation of water on the soles of his feet. He shook at the side of the tub, clinging to my neck as if each bath immersion would mean our final parting. It upset me to bathe him at the end of a challenging day, to see how stressed and terrified he was by the calming evening ritual that my daughter so enjoyed and yearned for. After months of trial and error, I found a temporary antidote to his fear—my off-key rendition of “Kung Fu Fighting,” accompanied by pseudo-karate chops, which disarmed him and made him giggle. My performance would distract him long enough to rinse the hissing shampoo suds from his red curls, and the small of his chubby back.
After the bath, I sat on the floor with him, my t-shirt soaked to the skin from his repeated efforts to climb out of the tub. My daughter danced in an animal-themed hooded towel, singing nonsensical songs about the contents of a five year-old’s head, while I rocked my son in his “Go Diego Go!” terry wrap, gently drying the dark hollows of his tiny ears, whispering reassurances as his eyes followed his sister’s loopy dance.
My son’s fear of the water wasn’t entirely unexpected. I grew up in New York’s outer boroughs, a city kid whose earliest memories of outdoor water play involved jacked-open fire hydrants, and rusted playground sprinklers in decaying neighborhood parks. I wore old sneakers to stave off cuts from shards of broken green glass that glinted against the pebbled concrete—the remnants of teenagers’ late-night summer drinking.
The beach was not a frequent destination for our family. My parents both worked full-time, so such visits were special, trafficky, and troublesome. When my mother was young, she’d been thrown into the waves by a drunk relative who had been too impaired to fathom how she’d swim safely back to shore. Since then, she’d always shied away from the beach. She was fair-skinned, like me, and she felt vulnerable in the unrelenting sun, abashed by the sight of herself in a revealing bathing suit.
My father had happier memories of the ocean. His teenaged sister taught him to swim when he was four, guiding him to safely dive through her legs into the warm waves at the Rockaways. As a teenager, he rode the bus alone on summer mornings, from Flatbush to Manhattan Beach, where he swam for hours, never tiring or fearing the strength of the ocean current.
During one of my childhood summers, my father took a few days off to stay home with me while my mother worked. He drove me to Jones Beach in our Audi Fox, with nothing but towels for comfort between our shorted bare thighs and the scorching leather seats.
He didn’t teach me to swim that day, or ever, if my memory is accurate. It must have disappointed him to have a child so discomforted by the lull of the ocean. But the undertow at Jones Beach was always too rough, too dangerous for my liking. Instead, I stood at the breakers, watching my father from the shore, a dark shadow moving swiftly away from me. The wave’s crests rose in the noon sun to reveal a bottle-green hue, the same shade as the broken playground glass. I felt the tug of tide at my ankles, and fought the desire to submerge, to simply let go. Instead, I watched the v-shaped ripples of sand form on either side of my heels, my legs firm and defiant against the surge of the ocean. I wouldn’t succumb.
Now, at the Y, I follow my son's progression from the viewing stand, watching him swim away; further across the pool, away from his own hurdles, and from my unintended influence. Months ago, he would only swim a few feet from the safety of his instructor’s outstretched arms. Now, he swims the full length of the pool. He floats on his back. He breathes. He kicks his legs and propels himself away from his comfort zone. He trusts that his body will do what he needs it to.
He returns to the poolside, and questions the instructor as she guides him through the arm movements of the backstroke. Like this? he asks, rotating his shoulder, extending his right arm behind his head. Like that, she answers. Just like that. He wriggles away, still uncoordinated, his arms and legs asynchronous, but exerting stronger effort. He no longer shrieks at not being able to safely skim the pool’s bottom with his toes. He no longer fears sinking, or drowning. He relaxes, and floats, and remains above the surface.
At the far end of the pool, an instructor is trying to catch the attention of another student. “Haru! Haru!” he calls, in a persistent cadence, trying to plunge the sound of his voice beneath the water. The young boy bobs up, awaiting instruction.
Hearing the instructor's repetitive call of the child's name is an odd comfort to me at each lesson. After several weeks, I Google the phrase “haru-haru” on my smartphone, and learn that it translates to “day by day” in Korean. This child does not know that his name, or the instructor’s voice reaching for him, has become my half-hour meditative chant. Haru. Haru.
My boy will learn to swim. He will leave the fear behind him. Day by day. I will shake off the old, worn garments of my past. Day by day. Together and alone, each of us on our own journey, progressing in small increments and measurable distances.
There are several lessons taking place at once in the breadth of the pool—children in striped lanes and on starters’ blocks, on the shallow steps and gripping the poolside at the deepest end. These children, diving and reaching, pulling and cupping, skimming the surface, rising for breath—all being taught, being shown.
Instructions at every level of ability, mingle together into a lilting poem—some kind of gorgeous spoken word performance echoing across the water to me—the sole, grateful member of the unwitting audience.
Show me how you float on your back.
Open your legs.
Chicken, airplane, soldier.
Head back to the wall and let's start again.
Keep your chin up.
Open up your knees.
Open your chest.
More. I need to see more.