I spent the afternoon at the YMCA with my sons, watching them take swimming lessons. We’ve been at this since they were babies–every winter they take lessons, and I do see the results. But, God, sitting in that steamy hot chlorine sauna known as the indoor pool, I secretly pray that neither boy wants to join a swim team. As I watched them swim, I was once again made aware of how quickly they are growing, yet still wanting me close by. Hayden, my six-year-old, even insisted I sit on the benches at the deep end, so I could watch their dives up close. I find I am one of those parents who likes to sit farther away. This prevents me from hovering–wanting to reprimand their every misstep and also alleviate the perennial fear that they will get hurt. For instance, sitting near the deep end today, I was concerned with these pole-type things that hang down from the diving blocks. How are more kids not getting stitches from those, I wondered? Plus, the farther away I sit, the easier it is to check my cell phone.
Like many parents, I have the talk in my head when at an event like swim lessons. It goes something like this: “Now make sure you actually watch them when they are in the water. They really like to know you are paying attention. Do NOT check your phone or sit there texting like a teenager.” My other voice replies, “Jesus, give him a break, he’s sitting in this steam bath getting high on chlorine. He can look at his damn phone once in a while.” “Well, you know what I mean–don’t sit there the whole time and ignore your kids.” “He’s right,” a third voice chimes in.
I really want to be present in the moment. I want to capture all of these small snapshots in my memory, so I can happily sift through the slide show in my mind for decades to come. But swim lessons are boring as hell. I make an effort, though. Like an obedient dad, I do sit on the bench Hayden summoned me to. As instruction begins, I feel my phone buzz– a text from my wife about tacos for dinner. Hayden calls from the pool, “Dad, I was first to finish the lap.” I look up from my phone–caught, “Awesome, buddy.” “Pay attention, Michael” Voice One reprimands. “Okay,” I say–right after I check Facebook. “Dad, watch this.” Now it’s Owen, conveniently in the lane next to Hayden, beckoning me to watch him bob from the poles hanging from the diving block. “Cool,” I say, looking up from my cell. “Dad!” It’s Hayden again, confidently waving to me from the other end of the pool. I hear his voice 50 meters away, yet there I am buried in my damn phone still.
“ENOUGH!” I think all the voices in my head say this at the same time. I place my phone in my back pocket, and swear I won’t look at it again until we are in the car. “Enjoy this time. Watch them swim. They want you here. Be present.” And so I watch their various drills, up and back the pool length. I admire how cute their new haircuts look now slick against their skin. I watch their little heads submerge in the water and come up to the surface with new life and excitement. I marvel at how their feet kick like tiny motors. I am in the moment. Until…Until, I begin to recall my own days of swim lessons. As I watch my own six-year-old in the water, he reminds me so much of what I think I was like as a child, bad bangs and all, and my mind flashes back 37 years…
I am in Abington Senior High School. It is the weekend. I am here with my five-year-old neighbor, Greg. His brother, Jeff, is my age (6) and we are friends, but Jeff is a capable swimmer, and I am not. Even Greg seems more advanced than I. So, here I am, one of the oldest kids in the class, which will continue to be a pattern in my remedial athletic experiences as a kid (I think I was the only boy playing T-ball who had a learner’s permit).
Greg’s mother has driven us here. She drops us off outside the school, and we make our way into the labyrinth alone. It is our first lesson, so I am quite nervous. I think this is my first time in the public high school, and since I go to Catholic school, I am immediately fearful of what I will find inside: kids hanging out doing drugs, gang members sharpening their knives, pregnant girls searching for the fathers of their unborn children…I was quite neurotic as a child (note the past tense).
Not surprisingly, Greg and I get lost. This confusion does nothing to calm my nerves. Finally, we find our way through the maze-like hallways to the boys’ locker room. We change, and then try to find the pool. I am overcome with anxiety, which means I have to go to the bathroom….number two….pronto. I tell Greg, and he kindly tries to find one with me. With each passing second, my nervousness increases, until finally, I can take it no more. The urge overtakes me, and I go to the bathroom in my bathing suit. Number Two. Number Freakin’ Two.
I am too embarrassed to tell Greg, so like any good Christian, I lie. “I don’t have to go anymore.” (Technically not a lie, I realize as I write this.) He is none the wiser, so we make our way out to the pool. Any bathroom still eludes us, so getting rid of the evidence is not an option. Once on the pool deck, we find our instructor, who checks our names off the list. My panic comes back, as I am now confronted with what the hell I am to do with this load that is sitting in my bathing suit. I contemplate telling the instructor. Or Greg. Or anyone. But then, I look around at all of the people, and I imagine all of them laughing at me. I peer into the future, and see my nickname years down the road: Poopy Pants Trainer, Poop for short. No effing way am I saying a word.
We are told to line up at the side of the pool. We are to jump in and swim to the other side. Now, I am nervous about the fact that I stink at swimming. Thankfully, this replaces my anxiousness about what lies beneath my bathing suit. “Okay, everybody, on the count of three.” I realize I must jump in and swim with the pack. Swim close to everyone else. If the poop does fly out and surfaces to the top of the water, I want a crowd around me so I will be able to deny, deny, deny. If I am in a pool surrounded by a dozen other kids, there’s no way they can pin it on me! As the instructor commands “three” I jump in wildly. I swim to the other side with reckless abandon, making sure that other kids are within arm’s length.
We get to the other side, and so far, no sign of my package being delivered. The instructor tells us to swim back and forth so he can assess us as a group. On about the fifth lap, I finally have the courage to feel the back of my suit. Gone! GONE I tell you. There is nothing but netting. In hindsight, I may have opened up the lining so it could slip out, but I honestly don’t remember. All I know is that the evidence disappeared from my suit, and did not resurface the entire time I was there. I was so relieved. After the lesson, I say nothing to Greg. When I get home, I do not breathe a word of this to anyone. The story alone could give me a nickname for life. My brothers would have had a field day with this one. Yes, I would be keeping this to myself. I consider it the day I swam and swam, and I never looked back.
“Hey, Dad.” It’s Hayden again. Waving to me for the umpteenth time. His voice brings me back to the present moment, and this pool a few lifetimes away from the one I was just revisiting. I smile at the recollection of my swimming lesson. The smile turns into a chuckle. I laugh at it all. The craziness of my youth. The fact that now I am the adult in charge, and these two boys want very much for me to be there on that bench watching their every move. I love that they care so much that I am watching. I love that they feel a sense of calm and security knowing that I will be with them each step of the way, so they won’t get lost; that I am just outside the pool if they need me, for example, to take them back to the locker room so they can go number two.