Adah drifts upright in a rectangular tub, a carefully fitted float ring around her neck. My daughter and an instructor lean over, talking to her and gently guiding her if she gets stuck in a corner. On the video I watch over and over, Adah is wide-eyed, but otherwise calm. My five-week-old granddaughter is swimming, sort of.
“Take a deep breath. Hold onto the pole and slide down to the bottom of the pool. Stay there as long as you can,” our swim instructor said. He might have added that this exercise was meant to make the beginning swimmer feel more comfortable, because the metal pole made it easier to quickly get back to the surface; I don’t remember.
We were in the massive, echoing indoor swimming pool at the local high school. I was eight, one of a group of kids my age or younger. We huddled and dripped chlorinated water by the deep end of the pool: twelve feet. Without the thick glasses I’d gotten less than a year earlier, I was legally blind, and the bottom of the pool was fathomless. I remember nothing about clinging to that pole, other than not making it to the bottom. I think I held it together until we got home, when I sobbed hysterically. Finally, my mom shook me to get me to stop. She told me I didn’t have to go back to swimming lessons, and I didn’t.
My daughter, at the same age, was made of stronger stuff, and she had normal vision. After hearing the instructions I’d been given thirty years earlier, she looked at the long pole and the deep water, and said, “Oh. No, thanks.”
Her instructor, a kind but brisk college student, said, “Emily, if you don’t do it I’ll have to call your parents.”
My daughter replied, and the instructor said, “What did you say?”
Emily repeated herself. “That’s our phone number. If you call my mom, she’ll tell you she doesn’t make me do stupid things. She’s at home because it’s not her turn to drive car pool.”
I never got a phone call. When she got home, Emily told me the story. She said each of the other children shimmied down the pole, sat on the bottom, and came back up, while she watched. Then they moved on to something else, and she participated.
“Don’t worry, Mom, I was polite,” she said. I pointed out that implying the pole exercise was stupid might not have been the best choice, but I also told her I was glad she hadn’t given up. The rest of the classes went smoothly and, by the time they ended, Emily was a fair swimmer.
Nine years after my aborted lessons, I found myself back in that same high school swimming pool. I was a senior, trying to meet the Physical Education requirements for graduation. When I wasn’t in the pool, I wore contact lenses, but without them life was as blurry and mysterious as it had been when I was eight.
A row of us stood against the wall in the shallow end of the pool, waiting. Finally, the teacher looked down at her clipboard and called my name. I took a deep breath, dove under the water, and splashed across the width of the pool. When I couldn’t hold my breath any longer, I thrust one arm as far in front of me as I could, desperate to grasp the edge of the pool. I did.
“What was that?” my teacher said as I climbed out. “You didn’t take a breath.”
I had paid close attention to her instructions. “You didn’t say we had to breathe. You just said we had to swim the width of the pool.”
She shook her head but checked off my name. I grabbed a towel and huddled in a corner, hoping she wouldn’t change her mind before I followed the rest of the class to the safety of the locker room and my contact lenses.
A couple of years after my daughter’s classes ended, Emily put her royal blue swim cap in a donation bag. I retrieved it. I hooked it onto a pushpin on the bulletin board in our kitchen. Occasionally, I took it down and examined it. When I pulled on the fabric, it snapped back to its original shape; I marveled at its resilience.
When she is three months old, I am visiting Adah. My daughter drives to a strip mall, where we enter a storefront with three of the tubs I remember from the video. Each child has a tub of their own.
Adah floats. She kicks her legs, and moves toward bath toys placed out of her reach. I trail my right hand in the warm water, unable to stop staring at her. Her progress since the video I watched two months ago is measurable but seems effortless. She smiles often.
Perhaps Adah still remembers being in utero, when that strong, flexible cord secured her as she floated, pulsing with messages from everyone who came before her.
About the Author: Melissa Ballard has written essays for a variety of publications, including Brevity's Nonfiction Blog, Compose Journal and Under the Sun.