The Boy was seven years old and it was long past time for him to learn how to swim. We lived on base and the pool was less than a two miles away, so at the end of the school year we signed him up for Red Cross sponsored swimming lessons. The lessons ran in two or three week blocks, and the kids were tested on their developing swimming skills at the end of each block.
He did well; he took to the water without fear and was promoted to the next skill level at the end of each block. He was also fortunate in that he was able to keep the same instructor through the summer, plus his class was the final one each morning before the pool opened. The pool opened at 11 a.m. and his class ended at 10:30, so the life guards allowed the kids to stay and jump off the diving board or swim as long as their instructors were sticking around.
While he was an “advanced beginner” the instructor hung around after and encouraged the kids to jump off the high dive. He stayed in the deep end with them, promising he would not let them drown; just jump and try to swim to me. If you can’t make it, I’ll get you.
The Boy was fearless on the high dive. He looked forward to it every day. Forget the classes; he just wanted to get through those—which now were complete with the swimming of laps—so that he could jump off the high dive. Not all the kids were as thrilled as he was; there were several kids 6-7 years older who simply could not deal with the height. No, no one made fun of them. It was always “Maybe tomorrow,” as they climbed back down, and those kids would stand at the side of the pool and cheer on those who were willing to give it a try.
The fewer kids willing to jump, the more chances the Boy had. He’d scramble up the ladder, walk to the end of the board, jump in with as much flair as a seven year old can muster, swim to the side without help, and wait his turn to do it all over again.
Enter my stupidity.
After a class where he’d done several laps, then jumped off the high dive a couple dozen times, it was time to go. We were on the far side of the pool, and as we walked along the side, I told him to swim one more lap—but not in the shallow end where he could (and would) put his feet down. Just swim, and I’ll meet you on the other side.
He said he was too tired. Assuming he would have continued to jump off that diving board and swim for another hour if we hadn’t needed to leave, I didn’t believe him. After all, swimming laps isn’t nearly as fun as the high dive.
I told him to swim it. So he dove in and started to swim.
A little more than halfway across he turned, his eyes wide, and said, “I don’t think I can make it.”
He started to slip under the water.
As I went for my shoes—big heavy high-top suckers that would have weighed me down—he popped back up, but then went under again.
The lifeguard on the other side of the pool noticed, jumped in and grabbed him, and brought him to the shallow end. His instructor took the time to enforce a lesson he had been taught early on; if you get tired, flip over onto your back and float.
He was never in any danger; if the lifeguard hadn’t gotten him I would have. He never would have touched bottom. But I still have nightmares about that. He said he was tired and I made him swim anyway. He said he was tired and I wouldn’t let him swim that lap in the shallow end of the pool. He was never a liar; he said he was tired, I should have accepted that he was tired.
He’s 22 now and every once in a while that little face slipping under the water haunts my dreams. I can see it as clearly as the day it happened. I can hear his tired little voice. I still see his eyes.
Every parent makes mistakes. Every parent does really stupid things. We try our best, but we leave scars on our kids, and we can only hope they’re not too deep or too many. We regret them for the rest of our lives. We live with The Why pounding in our heads.
Why didn’t I take his word that he was tired? Why was it so important to me that he not be able to put his feet down? Why did I try to take my own damned shoes off before diving in? Why, why, why, why…
I don’t think the Boy is especially fond of swimming. He used to be; even after that he wanted to swim. But over the years I noticed he was never very excited about the prospect of going to a pool.
One of the many scars I inflicted on him.
Yeah, we all scar our kids.
And in the process, we scar ourselves.