I can't swim.
Well, I know howto swim, I know all the strokes, but my endurance is non-existent. It horrifies me. I grew up around boats, I'm a pretty good sailor, I've spent much of my life at the beach, I took swimming lessons for almost 10 years. I love being around the water, I'm just not so crazy about being in the water.
I have never, to my knowledge, come close to drowning. I have never needed to be rescued. But I do know that feeling of desperation that I might not make it to safety, that gasping for air, that feeling of the oxygen leaving my limbs, my arms turning to rubber, powerless. All the strength I have on land gets washed away.
My mother, in one of the few instances when she's stood back and looked objectively at what was happening with me, suggested that, as a child, I was so panicked about not being able to breathe that I could never focus enough on the strokes to develop a breathing rhythm. As an adult, I can feel the cold water pushing the air out of my lungs, in much the same way that I cannot catch my breath in the cold winds of winter. I wonder if this is what asthmatics feel? Are they afraid when they can't breathe? Does fear make the problem worse?
Fear is a big theme in my family. It wasn't until I was well into my 30s that I realized how much my childhood and adolescence was ruled by my mother's fears. I missed out on a lot because of this. I had no social life through most of high school, because my mother feared I was too impressionable and would get sucked into drugs. She never understood, and would never believe, that even without after-school activities, I had plenty of opportunity for that sort of thing, and zero interest.
Fear was largely behind her determination that I should not be a parent. I think her objections were more about the weaknesses she perceived in me, rather than any feeling against adoption. She told me that Piper and I would be happier without children and that she had no desire to be a grandmother, but when I walked in on her eagerly discussing baby names with my not-yet-pregnant sister, how do you think I felt?
When we finally made it to Russia and back the first time, and I described the trip to her, she asked me if at any point I had asked myself what I was thought I was doing there? I acknowledged some self-doubt, but frustrated with her lack of belief in me, I looked her in the eye and said "If I lived governed by my fears, I would never do anything in life." She acknowledged the point.
Having children brings out all your shit. There's really no getting around it. I have experienced more fear, anger, and anxiety in the past few years than I have in half a lifetime. I see, much to my horror, how much my feelings and reactions mirror my mother's, and how careful I have to be that my boys' childhoods not turn out as stunted as mine. This is harder than I ever imagined.
Glossing over entirely the metaphoric implications of a fear of drowning, let me take you to the swimming hole we visited this weekend. The one with the natural water(fall) slide and the ten foot cliff jump; the one that's 20 feet deep and has a strong current. The one that much, much, older boys leapt into with wild abandon. The one my boys saw and naturally wanted a piece of.
For a moment, it looked like I was going to get away with refusing them. Pumpkin cannot swim and he has no sense of danger. His fearlessness has long been remarked upon by other parents, but it is not exactly healthy. Of course, he loves water. I tried steering him toward the more shallow pools, and that worked for a bit, but then he saw that Tigger could go if his father went first and waited. The more he saw others jumping in, the more upset he got.
It's a complicated balancing act that most parents do between safety and over-protection. I know first hand how too much sheltering can lead to a poorly-managed independence. Pumpkin is already kept from certain activities because of his behavior challenges, I don't want to restrict him more than necessary, but there he was, longing to leap into the depths of my worst nightmare.
The families around us got drawn into this drama. One father suggested a swimming hole half a mile up the road that was smaller and safer. Another mother told me that, she too, cried the first time her boys jumped off the cliff. My distress eventually caught Tigger's attention causing him to hesitate at the edge. Now he was afraid. Pumpkin was in no way deterred, Piper felt that he could go because there were now a lot of people looking out for him and it became evident that I was eventually going to lose this battle.
Thankfully, a solution was found. The neighbors we traveled with pulled a bright orange life preserver out of their car and offered it to us. Pumpkin donned it immediately and stopped crying. I can't say the same, but I was able to stand off to the side with my camera, and not miss the shot.