We are Starfish, Henry and I. I pick him up early from daycare, and we worry through the traffic until we make it to his 4:15 class at the community pool. We are one of seven, maybe ten, parent-and-child pairs in the class. A teenage swim instructor has us circle up, parents holding toddlers. We sing "Motorboat" and "The Grand Old Duke of York" and "Ring around the Lily Pad," substituting swimming terms for the original nouns ("pocketful of posies" becomes "pocketful of frogies;" "ashes" become "splashes"). The kids instinctually do a sort of standing run in the water, legs kicking frantically and arms pushing the water down, as if to gain an imagined traction. Their little bodies are revved up on the new sensory experience, desperate to set out, not understanding that the pool isn't filled with invisible hands to support them. We parents hold them with one hand under their armpit, using our other arm to help us tread water in the deeper parts of the pool. We are treading for two. Our songs and supporting holds are an elaborate show, disguising the water's indifference to the kids' effort. I was holding Henry in this way, one hand palming the curve of his ribs where they wrap under the crook of his arm, as I made my way to the wall for a Humpty Dumpty (kids sit on the wall, parents sing "Humpty Dumpty," and kids jump into parents' arms). Most of the parents had already staked out spots on the wall, so I ventured into deeper water. I was on tiptoe — literally balanced on the tip of my big toe as I hopped my way toward the wall, my leg like a pogo stick. The arm holding Henry moved down through the water, involuntarily. I looked right and noticed that I had dunked him, pulled him right down, head under water. I jerked my arm up, and his head surfaced, wriggling and spastic, his suspended running legs supercharged and sprinting with fear. He let out a cry, then a high-pitched shriek signaling the turn from fear to anger. The other parents turned away from their kids to see. Henry's "Mom-eeee!" was outraged, accusatory, the kind I hear a lot lately.
"I'm so sorry, buddy, oh no. You're okay, you're okay . . ."
In these moments of injury and near misses and almost unlucky breaks, something in me shuts off, not down. It's not operated by a dimmer but a switch. My typically nervous, easy-to-panic nature flatlines. I am nonreactive, a passive cipher through which experience is happening, a situation unfolding where the only actor is inertia. I get self-conscious that other parents see this in me, that children stop to notice the adult whose instinct cannot be trusted. I am a milky-eyed inert mother who merely watches as her child acts out, behaves badly, drowns.
Is there anything more dismissive, more enraging, than being told you are okay when you're not?
I was four, Henry's age, when I learned how to swim. Before that, when I was a baby, Mom regularly took me to the pool in our apartment complex. She would get me comfortable in the water, swish me around with her hands cupping my armpits. There is a picture of us in the pool, Mom walking through the shallow end toward the steps, brow furrowed. She's carrying me under her arm like a football. I'm horizontal, head arched up and crying. The swimming lesson is over.
By the time I was four, I was playing in my godmother's pool. I was afraid to put my head under the water, so Mom urged me to practice by putting my face in little by little, starting with my mouth, then my nose, then my eyes. I was reluctant, terrified of the world under the surface, blurred and fuzzy with eerie, alien sounds. Mom suggested I jump in and that she would catch me. She stood a few feet from the wall, arms outstretched to receive me. I jumped, and she wasn't there. Water plumed up my nose, and in that first experience of flooded nostrils and burning sinuses, I was certain that something had gone horribly wrong and I was drowning. My hands paddled furiously in front of me to get my head out of the water. I coughed and sputtered. Mom held me and hoorayed, trying to drum up enthusiasm for the big achievement of getting my head underwater for the first time.
"Sometimes you can't think about things; you just have to jump in, feet first."
I was mad in that way that devolves into tears, which only makes you angrier because the tears betray the fury you want to communicate, and this frustration mixed with the inciting anger makes you cry more. I sulked, and my mom and godmother chastised me for not appreciating the lesson imparted. When they became lost in conversation, I sat quietly on the pool steps and practiced putting my face under the surface. Lips first, then nose, then eyes. I've been swimming underwater ever since.