We are crowded into the room, sitting on the floor, all of our legs toward the middle like some childhood gym class activity. I don’t know square inches, but perhaps the room was ten feet by ten feet. Maybe it had once been the janitor’s closet for the dorm, or maybe a meeting room. But it was downstairs, all the way down the hall, had no windows, no ventilation, and at this Lutheran private college, it was the student’s “smoking room.” I say students, but it was really “our smoking” room. Our group, our friends, we all met down in the smoking room after class that year, the year of my sophomore year. We were just, what, nineteen year olds, and the inhospitable Minnesota winters, the wind howling on the hill, drove us indoors to indulge in our now-unacceptable rebellious behavior, most of us in Doc Martins and rolled up jeans with holes ripped out from thigh to calf. We smoked and we talked and we were a tribe. I couldn’t tell you much about any of these people any more. I know there was me, and my two roommates from the previous year. A boy named Chad who smelled of patchouli, had hennaed hair and gay flamboyance. And a boy named Jeff who cut our hair and took our picture, all pouts and angst. There were other peripheral friends, those who made us into a group, and when we all left the smoking room, we wore the badge of our friendship through the volunteer torture of sitting in that space, sharing each others’ breath, smelling of smoke and confinement.
I have for years tried to identify my earliest memory. For years? What a ridiculous phrase. It’s more since some age I’ve been trying to identify my earliest memory, some age when I realized I might forget my childhood, that I might be getting older. I don’t know what I’m saying except that perhaps 10 year olds don’t sit and try to identify their earliest memories because they are still experiencing them. Maybe sitting around with new friends made at college and we are drinking and smoking and talking as we seemed to do every day and every night after class, we talked about our earliest memories as a way to inform each other of our lives, our parents, our houses. Maybe I described the print curtains hanging on the windows of my bedroom. The tree with the hammock of an arm that my brother climbed and made a fort in, but I was too small to climb the tree and join him so instead a stood on a stepladder to be close. Maybe I talked about the chickens we slaughtered, the lambs we bottle-fed, the many cats and kittens that lived in the hay loft, the strange men who drove up our gravel drive asking for permission to hunt on our land, such strangers because we as a family didn’t hunt, so these men, they seemed maybe a different breed of man.
These are all memories I have of my childhood. Some of them must be mine because the men I were never suggested to me by an old photo like maybe the curtains and chickens, the lambs and cats, and the tree fort. At what age do we begin to treat our memories as something we may forget? As though we are (because we are) becoming nearsighted with age and the past stretches further from us like the horizon sometimes looks like the end of the earth rather than just how far the eye can see.
Maybe when my mother died when I was twelve I engaged in the too-early exercise of determining my first memory of her. But that too, how can I know what memories I have that weren’t hers? She told me about the day she and my dad and my brother picked me up from the adoption agency. My brother gave me a stuffed lamb (I know this to be true as I still have parts of the lamb, parts because one of my dogs would later discover it and treat it as his chew toy) that day. My parents took me, and two black garbage bags of toys I had been given by my foster families, back to the farm. This is not a memory I have, but this is my mother’s memory that I hold for her long after she died and she can no longer tell me the story again. So perhaps it is mine after all.
Many years later, Cindi Peterson and her husband would buy up what remained of my father’s acreage when he died in considerable debt and my brother and I couldn’t afford to keep the farmland or the homestead that had been our family’s for three generations. The Peterson’s had tended the land for years and paid out a percentage to our family, and I now realize that must have been the little bit extra that kept us afloat, if afloat is what you call it. But when I was a little girl, Cindi Peterson tried with great tenderness and persistence to teach me to swim.
There are grainy 1970s photos of my brother and me at the Northwood swimming pool either before or after our swim lessons with Cindi. I was usually in the kiddie end, sitting on the shallow steps or holding onto the edge grinning up at my mother as she took pictures with our brownie camera. My brother was usually a bit deeper in, swimming away, but still looking at Mom, he and me still young enough to be playmates. Other pictures star Cindi. I say “star” because she had charisma, a certain 70s housewife cum pinup look that made you look.
I thought Cindi was a bombshell for all I knew about bombshells at that age. Perhaps I’d started watching Charlie’s Angels by that time so I thought Cindi had a kind of Minnesota farm version of the Farrah Fawcett brand. Except Cindi was large. Her arms and legs and torso were round but not at all flabby. Her bosom (because it seems completely accurate to describe her swell of breasts as a bosom) strained against the low curved neckline of her white swimsuit. And she was tan, the color of a gleaming chestnut-coated horse. The depth of her tan made the white of her swimsuit glow in the shimmering blue pool water, and her white blond hair, waved and feathered, sat atop her head like a dollop of whipped cream tops off a luscious dessert.
At least that’s how I remember Cindi. It sounds romantic, I know. But she was so very different from my mother. My mother who wore pantsuits and owned but didn’t wear a swimsuit. I had found it once in a hallway drawer where she kept table linens and embroidered handkerchiefs, the kinds of items you kept but never used. If I reach all the way back into my memory, or the memory that looking at old photographs imprint on us, I think she may have worn it once, at a lake, on a family vacation when us kids were very young? It was yellow and gold floral and made from a heavy, plastic-y fabric. I think it had a bit of a skirt. And even when I’d discovered it, in a drawer amid tablecloths and guest towels, it seemed to have no utility. I don’t remember her ever joining us to swim in the pool. My mother had had diabetes from a very young age, and was very careful about exposing her feet in sandals and never didn’t wear shoes, for fear of injury because she couldn’t feel her feet well. But I don’t think I remember her ever going fishing with us when we took those family vacations at Leech Lake either, siting in the boat as we threaded worms onto hooks and learned the difference between walleyes, northerns, and bullheads. While she never said she was afraid of the water, now I wonder why she herself didn’t teach us to swim.
That was left to Cindi, the neighbor lady who gave kids from the area lessons. I remember how she tried to coax me to trust the water. As with most things, my brother had no issues with swimming. He would soon pass the test that allowed him under the ropes and buoys and into the deep end. Soon some of the neighbor boys would come with us to the pool, and while my brother and his friends wrestled in the water like puppies, I laid my head back against Cindi’s bosom as her hands supported my hips to suspend my little body perpendicular to hers. But the minute she removed her hands, I went from being on top of the water one second to piking down in fear the next, wanting my feet touching the bottom of the pool. Or if the water was too deep, I flailed at her, grabbing at her taut, tan skin for purchase, holding her close. Floating was simply something I could not do. Cindi taught me a lot about the water the way any teacher starts with the ABCs — I learned how to blow bubbles, tread water, how to kick while holding onto the wall, and then how to use a kickboard and leave the wall behind. But she was never able to teach me how to use the water to suspend my body when she wasn’t there to assist.
I have never been afraid of the water, so those early lessons accomplished that at least. I’ve never not wanted to don my suit and jump in on a hot day. Or take a boat ride. I could jump off a dock at our cousin’s cabin, do a front flip at pool, and even perform a handstand of sorts, because those moves only required me to hold my breath a few seconds, mouth closed, nose pinched. But I could never just float. Or so what we called the American crawl well enough to pass the deep end test. And I certainly never got up the courage to dive in head first, or even jump off a diving board. Except that one time when I was a preteen and a camp counselor and the long line of kids standing on the ladder behind me forced me to jump and I still remember feeling like I would never rise to the surface.
Swimming is just the start of it, a thing I can almost do. I have never ice skated or ski-ed or even slid barefooted across a wet floor like my brother and his friends did when my mother washed the kitchen linoleum. Having to give up control or lacking faith in my body to react, to stabilize me when met with unpredictable physical influences of water or speed or slickness, has always been…an impossibility. There are other things I’ve always been afraid of. Heights is one. Bridges is another. Singing in front of a crowd, or anyone. Asking for want I need. Or what I want. Because I’m afraid the act of asking is the same as admitting weakness. And now that I’m older, middle-aged at best, I’ve grown afraid of my body in a different way. Once I was afraid my body would embarrass me, that it would get injured; now I’m afraid of how my body will communicate to me that I am dying, soon to be out of the time I need to stop being so afraid.
It was probably 1981 or 82 when I had my first major surgery to correct a length discrepancy in my left leg compared to my right. Physical therapy wasn’t as accepted as necessary for healing that it is now, but my mother must have talked with Cindi and come to an agreement. By then, Cindi had an above-ground pool on their farm, their driveway about a 1/2 mile down the gravel road from our driveway. So I spent a couple of visits to Cindi’s pool, not swimming but walking slowly through the water, using its resistance to strengthen my weakened leg. But our relationship had changed. I was awkward around Cindi now, much like I had become awkward in so many situations. Despite an open invitation to use the pool any time after those first instructional visits, I didn’t go back.
Thirty years later, when we were preparing to sell my father’s farm, I still thought fondly of Cindi when I thought of her at all. I knew the rumors. People said she’d gotten nasty. That she dictated the terms of their family life and her husband was no more than a pawn to her demands. People said she carried around a shotgun, and sometimes, ironically, shot it at trespassing hunters. I seem to remember Cindi coming to my mother’s funeral when I was 12. And then my father’s — no, that seems impossible, but surely she would have? — about a decade ago. She must be, what, 70 by now? But Cindi with her white-blond hair and white-white suit and beautifully browned body is how I think of her, and I think of her often now because we take my son to the pool whenever we can. He loves the water. So when I get a whiff of that signature scent of chlorine and suntan lotion that makes you feel 6 year old again, I think of Cindi. And I bet all those rumors about her are untrue. She may have done all of those things, but those rumors have the scent of “who does that woman think she is?” rather than a woman gone rouge.
For years, I just let my husband, Mark, take our to the pool. But when he was a year or two old, I enrolled Noah is a baby class at the frigid pool of the neighborhood high school. It’s what you did when you wanted to be a good mother who could check off another line on the long list of things good mothers do. Teach your child early not to be afraid of the water. Babies, we were told, instinctively knew to hold their breath underwater. And Noah certainly did. The pool was so exciting for him. He held his breath; he kicked his legs. He splashed his hands against the surface of the water with an energy that he didn’t use for much else. He didn’t reach up to play with the tiny stuffed fish we hung from the handle of his car seat. Instead of stacking wooden blocks on the tray of his high chair, he just pushed the blocks off onto the floor. We already knew he had “low tone” — that’s what the internet called it when I searched for why he wasn’t able to hold his head up and balance on his little elbows like every baby did for their first mall photo shoot. The photographer had to roll a small washcloth under his chest to lift him up enough to look like he was looking toward the camera. And we knew he wasn’t meeting milestones. But some kids didn’t, I was told. And often baby boys didn’t. So I tried to be the kind of mother every other mother I knew tried to be: a good mother who put her worry aside and took her baby to the pool.
Soon Noah’s love of water — pool, bath water, play table, sprinkler, fountain, hose — irritated me. Not because I begrudged him his joy, but because it was a sign. Autistic children, children with a diagnosis, loved water. They loved water, they loved lights, they love to put toys in rows, they love to make things roll and fall. I watched Noah like a hawk. How many more signs would there be that there was something wrong with him? Every cute thing he did that someone might comment on, “Doesn’t he just love the water?” for example, made me sad. As the months went by and the other babies we knew added skill after skill, all anyone could really say about Noah was, “Doesn’t he just love the water?” One afternoon after our swim class, I was carrying Noah across the cement locker room floor after rinsing ourselves off under the showers, and I slipped. I fell awkwardly because I rearranged my body to protect his. We were both fine, but I hated slipping. I hated feeling out of control. And I hated that Noah had been in danger. It would be the last time I took Noah to the pool by myself, and Mark, who loves the water anyway, became the default swim parent.
Until Mark got leukemia, that is. During Mark’s initial treatment, there wasn’t much call to take Noah to the pool. Mark got sick in July that year, underwent numerous rounds of chemotherapy, and had his transplant six months later. Friends or sitters would take Noah, who was ten, to the wading pool while I was at work, but there wasn’t time to do much beyond holding our lives together that winter. One of the more terrible side effects for Mark of having leukemia and getting a life-saving stem cell transplant is that he has to continue, even in remission, even if he becomes technically cured, to try to lighten the burden on his immune system. With that consideration, Mark stopped teaching. And with that consideration, Mark had to stop swimming.
But that didn’t mean that good mothers don’t do the right thing, even if they hate swimming, so I once again enrolled Noah in swim classes. These classes were adaptive swim classes, and I had had ten years to get used to life, however reluctantly, with a special needs child. The woman who taught this class was large. Unlike Cindi (though her name was also Cindy), her skin sagged low off the bone, and her suit, a muddled floral top with a muddled purple skirt, amplified her pale skin in the pale light of the middle school pool. Because Cindy had other students, and Noah was unable to be safe in the water without assistance, I got in the water with him. And that was fine. He wore a safety belt and was buoyed by the water, and I had my feet on the ground. I could lead him through the exercises, Cindy showed to us while she worked with the other kids. But the other kids, they were skilled enough to practice by moving up and down the length of the pool no matter how slowly. Cindy wanted us to do the same. And so did Noah. And I … was too prideful to limit us only to where my toes touched. In five feet of water, my five foot three inch self could just keep my chin above the surface. Beyond that, I would not only have to guide Noah through his exercises, but at the same time, I would have to keep myself afloat.
Much like when I was a child, I could manage to tread water for a short amount of time. And since, when staying in hotels or even going to the local pool with Mark and Noah, I had been very willing to get in the water, even doing a sort of dogpaddle/applebasket stroke that mimicked swimming, could take me from one side of a pool to the other, and most importantly, keep my head above the water. But problems arose as we moved into deeper water. The pool depth went to twelve feet, so getting to the five foot mark wasn’t even half way down to where Cindy laid out all of the practice gear like kickboards and tubes. Also, twelve feet was where Noah wanted to go too. Noah’s love of water had continued to grow as he did, and his very favorite thing to do is to jump off the side of a pool into deep water. He loves to feel the impact of the water, hold his breath until he comes to the surface. He practices holding his breath in the bathtub, able to push his face beneath the bubbles and hold it there for nearly 15 seconds. But what the hell was I going to do once I couldn’t touch the bottom of the pool? Keeping myself afloat was one thing, keeping Noah afloat so he didn’t have to hold his breath beyond 15 seconds.
We would stay near the side of the pool. I would be able to grab onto the edge with my left hand, while assisting Noah with my dominant right. If he started to swim too far away from me, I could grab onto his flotation belt and drag him back with me to the wall. It was inefficient, but we managed. It was exhausting, but at the end of every class I felt more deeply connected to Noah. I had helped him do something he loved, while we held on to each other doing it. Cindy was there to rescue us if I couldn’t manage, but I was managing. Eventually I began to take Noah to the recreational pools my myself. We rarely ranged beyond five feet, but that was deep enough for me help him get up out of the pool and jump back in. Over and over. Then we would ‘swim’ to the toddler depth and back, practicing what we learned from Cindy. A few times we pushed our limits, but the minute I felt unsafe, I would tense up, maybe swallow some water, and I simply became scared.
One of the ways I’ve learned to cope with my anxiety — an anxiety that I’ve described to my doctor, my therapist, my friends, as feeling like I’m in a closed room that is filling up with water, and there is only an inch or two between the surface of the water and the ceiling from which to draw a breath, and I’m so, so tired of trying –, whether that’s anxiety due to having a disabled child or simply being me with my brain in my body, is by being brave. Being scared comes naturally to me. I’ve been scared since I was a child. I was scared when I had surgery. I was scared of my body. I was scared when my mother got sick, I was scared of her body. I was scared when Noah started having seizures. I was scared of his body. (Let’s face it, I still am. At 14, his body is doing all sorts of crazy things I’m not convinced I signed up for; and at 48, my body is doing all sorts of crazy things that are at best a nuisance, and at worst, a reminder of my mortality. I have always been scared off all the things that could hurt us, internal or external. So now, within reason, I do things that scare me. I’m not talking about bungy jumping or even roller coaster riding. But I try to show up. I have tattooed “Be brave” on my forearm to keep me honest.
To confront my childhood fear of singing in public, I now give work speeches in front of groups. To work on my fear of failure and rejection, I submit my writing to magazines and agents. I have even cooperated with my fear of heights by taking a trapeze lesson. (I did it, and don’t ever need to do it again.) I recently declined a sunset flight in a two-seater airplane with my friend’s husband for a pilot, and the next day I regretted saying no. I can’t say for certain I would say yes should that opportunity be offered again, because I can’t imagine calling Mark and Noah and saying, just so you know, I’m taking a huge risk with my life and I apologize if I don’t come back. But I’m kind of proud of myself for even thinking I should have said yes.
And I can credit all sorts of things for why I am able now to take risks that, as a child, I shrank from. But I have Noah to thank for valuing bravery rather than prioritizing my fear. Every day that he had a seizure and we had to pick up the pieces of our lives and pretend we hadn’t just had a bomb set off in our home, I learned to be brave. Every doctor’s appointment when some test could tell us some very bad news about our son’s future, I had to be brave. Every time I had to hold him down for a procedure, I had to tuck my fear away. And when I think of this young man, now fourteen, with the cognitive and physical abilities of a toddler and confront the depth of my love for him but also my deep sadness over his unrealized potential — which is every.damn.day — I have to be brave. I owe my bravery to Noah, and I try to show up for him even when I want nothing more than to hide.
Which explains why, this past Fourth of July, I got it in my head that Noah and I should go tubing on his grandparent’s lake. Mark’s sister and her family kept their motorboat docked there and Noah’s cousin, just 6 months older than he, wanted to take a large inflatable “chair” out on the water. Despite Mark’s parents having lived on the lake for years now, we rarely went out on it, and we never swam in it. And that’s often a point of contention between Mark and I — Noah loves the water, so why can’t he swim in the lake? Of course, in my heart, I know why. Noah can hold his breath and such, but he also swallows a lot of water and doesn’t really recognize when something is dangerous, so he could step on a sharp rock, hit his head on the dock, eat lake weeds, what have you. But! In the name of bravery, and fairness, and not acquiescing — I said, Noah and I want to go tubing as well!
Tubing is a thing I have never done. Water skiing is a thing I have tried once as a kid, got dragged on my face after never truly standing up, and never tried again. Boats are fine for fishing out of, but I’ve never driven one so know little about the physics. I’m even a little awkward wiggling myself onto a circular floatie in order to just sit on one. But this big seated “tube” tied to the back of the boat? I’m sure we can do that. And, I think, everyone must have thought I knew what I was doing rather than just being brave, because no one gave us instructions and I assumed that being towed was just like floating on the water but at a faster clip.
After stuffing ourselves into safety jackets, Noah and I got settled onto the tube. I noted that there were no seatbelts likes on a carnival ride. Which, of course. Being belted into something that could capsize would be a very bad idea. I found the handholds, so that reassured me. But Noah doesn’t have the strength or occupational skills to hold onto a handle, so much like during his swimming lessons I held onto the edge of the pool with one hand, and Noah’s flotation belt with the other, I grabbed a handhold with my right hand to stabalize us, and Noah’s safety vest with the other. The first slow lengths as the boat pulled away from the dock seemed to indicate this ride would be a pleasure cruise. But as my brother-in-law picked up speed, the “chair” began to tip backward. I was unaware that this was par for the course. That we couldn’t just toodle along on the water at a slightly quick pace but instead we had to pick up speed in order to even out the raft and regain a horizontal position on the surface of the water. But unlike at the pool, Noah’s weight, now around 100 lbs was not buoyed by the water, but instead being pushed and pulled by centrifugal force. And that’s not even considering how I needed to manage my own weight which as about twice his.
What seems critical now — now that we’ve survived this trip around the lake that I will never volunteer us for again — is an understanding of the handsignals. While my brother in law drove the boat, my sister in law kept an eye on Noah and me. But she was also, in addition to our safety, interested in us having a good time. And for most people, having a good time when being towed by a boat is to go fast. The handsignal to go faster is a thumbs up. I assumed a thumbs up was an agreement that we were, at the speed we were at, in the current situation which really felt like a bad situation by the time we were too far to turn back, doing ok. So every time she gave us a thumbs up, I gave her one back. Which translated into, doing well, but let’s crank it up a notch. The faster we went the tighter I held on. (Again, science isn’t really my thing, so probably if I had relaxed, we’d never have been at a risk for being thrown off, but I couldn’t tell my brain in it’s panicked state that.) The faster we went, the more upright we could sit, but the more Noah slid into me until I thought we might get pushed off the side when the boat turned. And despite my stubbornness, and my inability to admit when I’m out of my depth, I eventually let go of the handhold long enough to drag a finger across my neck giving my most clear handsignal that I was done that I could.
Obviously we made it back to the dock. Noah and I played in the water a bit before we all went up to the house to bathe. My right forearm was so sore I could barely flex my wrist. My abs were so tired from trying to stablize us my ribs ached. As we walked to the house, Mark helping Noah navigate the steps, I admitted to all of my misconceptions and fears. He said, “Yep, that’s how I felt too.” Incredulous, I asked, “What? You’ve taken Noah tubing before?” “Last summer,” he said. “That’s why I didn’t want to do it again.” And of course I was put out. “Why didn’t you warn me?” I wanted to ask. But we were on dry land, safe, Noah had had an experience, and…I had been brave.
Tonight at my swim lesson, my trainer, Melissa, taught me how to do the breast stroke. For the past two weeks since I’d transferred to this new gym and requested a swim coach, we’ve worked on the basics of breathing while doing the freestyle (aka, that old American crawl.) The coordination of all of the elements it takes to swim freestyle laps correctly is still many of hours of practice away. I get it but I’m also easily distracted and when my mind wanders, so does my technique, and I either lose my bearings or end up with a mouthful of water. The reality of swimming is and always will be — unless you pay attention, you can choke or flounder or even drown.
My form while doing the breast stroke is ridiculously awkward, and I have to be careful not to laugh so as not to get water up my nose. The frog legs and the arm pull and then the “glide” … well, it’s easy to get off the beat like when Baby is first learning the merengue with Johnny in Dirty Dancing and she keeps stepping on his foot. But when I hit a groove for maybe five to ten yards, the exhalation of the breath underwater comes naturally to me and I’m hopeful that with practice I can not only complete an entire length of the pool while doing the breast stroke, but do it gracefully. Swimming feels like dance when you are doing it right. It’s effortful yet liberating.
But there is something else about swimming that distinguishes it from other physical activities. It’s the buoyancy of the water and the way you can speed up if only you relax. It’s the balance between tension and release. The years, they have begun to weigh on me. And I get tired sometimes of holding up my head and trying to draw breath. But I have learned, or at least I am learning, acceptance. I cannot change who Noah is, and to needlessly bang my head against the wall of our reality is futile. I cannot change anything about the past that led us here. And accepting him isn’t capitulation as I feared for so long. It just means you direct your energies in the right place instead of wasting your effort. Swimming is about maximizing your movements and not doing more than you have to. The more you push, the more rigid your body, the more rushed your motions. You simply have to work with the water, not against it.
When I explained to Melissa why, at 48, I wanted to take swimming lessons, despite being a “recreational” swimmer, I told her the story of tubing earlier in the year. That’s just one of the reasons, but I had certainly wondered as we banked through a turn and I thought Noah might go sliding into the water that I wasn’t sure how I might help him as we waited in the water for rescue. I also told her how my husband can no longer swim with my son, but my son still loves the water no matter how big he gets, and he needs me swim with him, not hang onto the edge. And I explained, maybe not in so many words, but in words that reference fitness and weight loss and non-impact exercise being good for aging joints, that I want to be in better control over my body. I wanted to learn to trust it. I wanted to stop being afraid.
To my surprise, the backstroke is the easiest of the swim strokes I’m learning, or re-learning. (The butterfly isn’t great on the shoulders at our age, Melissa tells me.) And it’s when I first launch back and float a few lengths of my body, before I begin to windmill my arms over my head and my feet flutterkick, that I began to think about Cindi and those days in the sun at the Northwood pool, my head leaning back against her shoulder, my back supported by her front, and her strong body smelling of cocoa butter gliding us as one along the water. In those seconds before she would let go of me and hope I could hold the position, I could believe I would one day learn to float. Over 40 years later, I no longer pike down into the water. I no longer fear I’ll fall. It helps, of course, that the lap pool only goes to 5 feet, so I’m never in danger of not being able to touch the ground. But I find I don’t want to feel the rough bottom of the pool beneath my feet. Actually, I find I don’t need to.