It is the first day of summer vacation, and a small wading pool – only 2 feet deep in the center and perfect for babies to explore water for the first time, and toddlers learn to limits of their bodies in water – is open for business. I have steeled myself to the reality that we will live at this pool this summer, as Noah loves nothing more than being in the water. And oh is he a shiny little fish; skin bronzed no matter how much sunscreen we use, brown hair turning to a bright white-blond, big round eyes glowing with glee. It is impossible to say no to him as he digs his swim trucks—blue with multi-colored sharks—out of the laundry or his drawer and brings them to us, indicating wordlessly that he wants to swim. Or rubs his brown little hands together as though he is warming them over a fire in his made-up sign language for “I want to swim.”
Last year, I couldn’t bear to take him to the pool and that job fell to Mark who, lucky for me, was also on vacation from teaching school. My phobia of taking Noah to the pool began earlier, when at 2 years old, Noah could not walk like the other toddlers, so we were forced to spend hours bent over him, holding his hands, supporting his hips, a job as physically taxing as it was emotionally exhausting as other kids dashed around us, at high speed and high volume, and while other parents relaxed away from the water against the chain link fence, chatting to each other, or welcoming their soaked and dripping children into their towel-clad arms when the kids needed a break from the water.
The next year, he could walk, but he stumbled awkwardly through the water, splashing with flappy hands and jerky arms, screeching loudly and incoherently, while other children his age played ball or shouted, “Watch me, Mommy!” Oftentimes I found myself carrying on a narrative with Noah, or at Noah, whenever we were in a public place to explain off his odd behaviors. “You sure are having fun, aren’t you, honey?” I’d ask him, rhetorically of course since he couldn’t answer. Or perhaps I’d aim my narrative to the closet adult who certainly hadn’t queried me: “He really loves the water. He’s a Pisces, after all.” Just to get tolerant or confused close-mouthed smiles directed back at me that I often read as pitying.
This year, I’d resolve to put that all aside, to finally fucking get over myself, so on this first day of summer vacation, on this first day that the pool is open, we are one of the first to arrive. We pass through the gated entrance on our way across the blank cement expanse surrounding our small neighborhood wading pool, my son in his stroller, a bag of swim toys strung over my shoulder. I am full of optimism and resolve. Noah is squirming excitedly with a grin that fills my heart with such pure joy that it is like pulling the curtains open to a sunny day. As we greet the lifeguard, or rather the teenager who is probably paid $6 an hour to tell the older kids to stop running, a man says to Noah and indirectly to me, “You’re a big boy; you should be walking.”
Suddenly time stops, a shot of adrenaline shoots from my gut down to my knees, my blood running through my body like electricity, like rain through a gutter, like fiery lava from a volcano. I stopped and looked at the man. Reduced. Reduced to the surge of feeling filling my body at the mere occurrence of being seen, of being judged by this man. Yes. My son is in a stroller and he is 4 year old. Not many children would allow such a thing. No. Not many parents would allow such a thing. My friend says her 1 year old, who is not yet standing on his own, is lazy. Lazy boy, she says with affection. A few times, when my son was younger, when he was still not walking at age 3, she would ask, “Is it possible that he is just lazy?” And I didn’t take it personally. Well, not very.
Where is that armor I should have developed, like a turtle’s shell, or a callous, over my heart? When the kids in school called me “limphead” (ingenious teasing as that was) and used the staggered bleacher seats to mimic my uneven walk. When the boys in that loud black car zoomed past the tennis court where I was teaching myself how to play at 30 years old, yelled “Hey Fatty” and laughed. When my 3 year old son, tantruming in the enclosed entryway of the solemn nature conservatory–because he is not able to tell me what he wants and I am often so unable to understand what he wants–while a grandmother firmly instructs her grandchild not to act like “that child” during their visit.
All those times I’d wanted to crawl into a hole, but I hadn’t truly toughened up. More often I wanted to retire my little family to a cabin–maybe a cave–in the northwoods of MN where in my imagination we would be self-sufficient, where we could escape, live off the social grid, where my son could grow up and learn to whatever his ability, whatever his interest, whatever it was that he needed to learn to just be, to just be himself, and not be the things that the television and the magazines and the internet and the other parents and the relatives and the friends thought that he should learn, and he should do, and he should be. Maybe in my mental pictures of such a utopian place, he would learn how to garden, how to cook the food we harvested, train his dog and build that dog a house with simple hammer and nails and wood, nothing fancy, nothing intricate. Somewhere we could live unseen. Not be subject to comments, to judgment. This has been a fantasy of mine since Noah’s difference stopped being “delays” and became “disabilities.”
But on this day, after the surge of feeling and reflection and the familiar flicker of regret passed, something was different. On this day, I was angry. I was angry at this man for daring to pass judgment. For thinking that he knew anything about me, anything about my son. Simply because of what he saw. No, he didn’t know anything. But I did. I knew that Noah loves trucks and trains, gum, our dog, the playground, the swimming pool, school, his daddy and me. I knew that Noah had just learned to hold his breath underwater and he would be eager to show me and everyone how he can “swim”. I knew that he would see the other kids in the pool, look at me and make his sign—one index finger laying over the other—for “friends” in a hopeful question that I would lift him out of his stroller and let him go play. I knew that that man didn’t know a damn thing about us. That whatever he thought he knew was baseless. And I wondered how it had taken 38 years for me to realize that whatever had been said to me, or thought, or wondered about me, hadn’t mattered, because it was groundless, a fiction.
I push the stroller around the arc of the wading pool, park the stroller next to a bench and set our bag on the cement. I reach out to help Noah out of his stroller, bending my knees to lift him since he is now 35 lbs and I don’t want to risk hurting my back. The second his feet hit the ground, he is off and running in that goofy fast walk that thrills me no matter how awkward because we waited for so long for him to walk at all. He hurtles himself into the water as I kick off my shoes and wade in behind him.