Tuesday, May 29, 2007

How Not To Drown

I learned how to swim by the unrecommended method of throwing a kid into a pool and seeing what happens.

Here's what happened:

My first “swimming” lesson was when I was 3, and consisted not so much of swimming but of the “superman” maneuver. It was practiced at the municipal kiddie puddle (7 inches does not a pool make!), where us kids were encouraged to push off from the sides and “glide” with arms outstretched until momentum prevented us from going any further. My mother paid $45 to have a gum-chewing 17 year old “teach” me how to do this.

By the time I was 5, my mother had added 3 other girls to the family, and facing another hot summer, I guess she finally realized that the little plastic tubs we generously called pools were just not going to be enough for her pack of little mermaids.

For some reason, I remember pool shopping. I remember the showroom where the above-ground pools we were perusing were displayed – you could choose between faux wood-paneling and slightly darker faux wood paneling, and between a blue pool liner and a blue pool liner with an indistinguishable pattern on it. Most of the pool shopping was lost on me, being too short to see over the sides of any of these gems, but the thing that really stands out in my memory is the saleswoman, who wore sandals, and no nails on her big toes. The lack of toenails meant her toes had no depressions, they were just these fat, round, bulbous things, and I knew it was not polite to swear, yet I couldn't take my eyes off of her freaky deaky toes.

Back in the day, above-ground pools spread like a rash in my neighbourhood, and instead of barn raisings, we had pool raisings. Many friends and relatives had come to help, but the day our pool was installed was still the longest day of my young life. But just when it seemed like it would never be ready, it was, or ready enough, anyway. The walls were up and the water was in, and though the pool had no access point or ladder, my father figured it didn't matter much because he could stand at the side and lift me over the edge.

Not yet being a swimmer, someone blew up an inner tube for me, and tossed it in the pool. Then my father swung me over and tossed me at the tube. His aim was good, but remember that I was small, and I passed neatly through the donut hole and was quickly sinking towards the bottom.

The adults, gathered around for what promised to be the first jubilant splash, looked on, horrified, as little Jamie seemed to drown before their eyes. And, there being no ladder yet installed, and me being out of arm's length, there was no way to reach me. So they just stood there and watched.

I flailed my limbs but they just sliced through the non-resistance of the water. My little round body in its pink frilly bikini went down, down, down, and though too young to understand the mechanism of breathing, I felt the burning of water in my lungs, which seemed to scream up! up! Up! Somehow I managed to reverse my sinking body and I broke the surface of the water, spluttering and coughing like I was a 5 year old who smoked 6 packs a day. When I had sufficient breath, I yelled to the grownups “Did you see me? I swam! I swam!” and they muttered their praise while looking at each other guiltily out of the corners of their eyes. I should have been a little pink blob on the bottom of the pool but instead I was clinging to the siding imploring others to join me in my newfound splashy freedom. A smarter kid might have clutched to the inflated tube, but once I had defied death that first time, I wanted to go deeper, faster, longer.

Many years later, many swimming lessons later, I consider myself to be a strong swimmer, which is a good thing because this time I have been tossed into the metaphorical deep end, and once again, the flotation device is just out of reach.

Life throws you into these sink-or-swim situations and it's amazing how powerful our sense of preservation is. We paddle on, no matter how many waves crash over our heads, no matter how many stitches we have in our sides or how tired we get. But what happens when you are thrown into the dark and forbidding water not alone, but with a weaker swimmer?

These are the moments in life that are infinitely hard: the days when we've just been treading water; the days when we've been slipping under; the days when we can barely keep our heads above the water line. I don't want to drown while trying to save someone else, some days I don't even know that I can save myself, and yet I can't not try, I can't. So I'm trying not to drown, not to let either of us drown, but it's hard. It's hard enough to fight the current on your own, but with the extra burden, progress is slow, and sometimes the undertow is stronger than I, and I feel us both being pulled back out toward the uninviting expanse and I think how nice it would be to relax my muscles, take a few deep gulps of water and let swirling water suck me under. But other days I see the shore, or I think I see it, on the horizon, if I squint real hard and ignore the burning sun. I stroke through the water like crazy, hoping to feel the sand between my toes before long, and I tell myself to just keep swimming.

I am trying hard not to drown. Oh yes, life's a beach.

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