Growing up, I loved the long days of summer; the evenings when my father would get home from work and join my sister and me in our swimming pool. Before I learned to swim, I’d climb onto my dad’s back, wrap my arms around his neck, and pretend I was riding a whale in the ocean.
“Swim fast,” I’d tell him. “But don’t dive down, Daddy. I don’t want to go under the water.”
The summer before I turned 5, my parents hired an instructor, Molly Stern, to come to our house to teach me to swim. In my mind, she lived up to her name. She was stern and insistent that I had to put my face in the water. In fact, she expected me to put my whole head under the water.
Miss Molly was unmoved by my long explanations of how I couldn’t hold my breath, and how water got into my nose, and, “My God, Woman! You are going to make me go under the water, and I am going to DIE!” (Okay, my pre-kindergarten self didn’t use language like, “My God, Woman…,” but you get the picture.)
Miss Molly persisted. I cried. My mother stood by the side of the pool and cried with me. Miss Molly asked my mother to please go inside the house.
Begrudgingly, I learned to swim. I learned to dive into the pool and tread water. I mastered the breaststroke, the butterfly, and the crawl. At our final lesson, Molly had me practice an emergency rescue, in case anyone ever needed life-saving measures from a 4-year-old.
I jumped into the pool with my regular clothes on, removed my immediately waterlogged tennis shoes and socks and excess clothing, and “rescued” Miss Molly by swimming to the pool steps with one arm in a choke-hold around my drowning instructor’s neck. We must have reached some level of friendship by then, because in the initial days of my swimming lessons, I would have readily left Miss Molly to her watery grave at the deep end of our pool.
I still have that swimming certificate from August 1975, the summer I was convinced I would drown and, instead, learned how to swim.
Life is like that sometimes. I pray for everything to go swimmingly in my life. No waves. No circumstances where I’ll be pulled under the water. It’s too uncomfortable. Too scary. It feels like certain death. But I have to learn to swim.
To me, grief feels like a huge wave of water that overtakes you and threatens to keep you roiling in its undertow. It takes time, but eventually, you begin to realize that life events might knock you off your feet for a while, and then you surface again. You might get pulled under, but you’ll find your footing. You learn to ride the waves.
These days, it’s my children and their cousins who swim with my father during family vacations. They clamber onto Grandpa’s back and order him to take them for a ride.
“I don’t want to go under the water, Grandpa!” Katie will say to him, reminiscent of my childhood requests. And Dad does his best to keep Katie afloat.
It seems to be my Dad’s goal—to keep us all afloat in whatever ways he can. He checks the tire pressure of my cars when he visits. He stocks the freezer full of ridiculous amounts of ice cream, or fills my email box with long notes of financial advice.
My brother-in-law passed away when his daughter Lauren was 4. When my niece Lauren started kindergarten, my father took it upon himself to call her every afternoon after school to ask for her teacher’s question of the day. I was in the car once, listening to them on speaker phone:
“What is the fastest cat in the world, Grandpa?” Lauren asked.
“A Cheetah,” my Dad told her.
“Wow! How did you know that, Grandpa?” Lauren asked incredulously.
I listened and smiled because sometimes we just need to feel like there is a Father who’s got the whole world in His hands. We want someone to be able to tell us about the world’s fastest cat, or assure us that we can swim, holding onto someone’s back for a while, before we learn to dive under the water.
[Happy Father’s Day, Dad. Thanks for making sure I learned how to swim. And for always being in the waves with me.]