My father put me on his back, held onto my legs, and plunged underwater in the neighborhood swimming pool. There was the flash of the June sun becoming brighter and then disappearing into a dark haze. I was five years old, had never put my head under the water, and didn’t know how to let out air like a swimmer.
I struggled under the water. I tried to pull my legs and arms from his grip. Instinctively, my father held me tighter. He continued diving, again and again, not realizing I hadn’t held my breath. Under the surface was the muffle of my muted scream, the hush of the blue chlorinated world. I remember the sound of teenagers splashing and yelling as they tried to hold one another’s heads under the water.
Then we surfaced again, and on top of the noise was my own sharp inhale of air and the pumping of my heart in my ears. When my dad carried me out of the pool, he was confused by my violent coughing. So many of the children in our neighborhood had learned to swim from friends or by being thrown in the water, when an instinct that I couldn’t understand kicked in.
My father learned at the YMCA in the 1950s with his siblings. I never took swim lessons as a child. There was just enough money, barely, to send my two older siblings to a couple of lessons in the summer. I felt content in my comfortable, dry spot on a bench or at the edge of the pool as I watched my brother and sister jump into the water as if it were the most natural thing for a person to do.
I spent my childhood and early adulthood carefully managing to keep my head above water, my hair always dry as I stayed in the shallow end. I envied the freedom of the young people around me who could jump headlong into the deep end, their bodies welcoming the cold shock of water as it took them into a quieted space. The second I felt myself close to being swallowed by water—the depths of a pool or the dark blue sea gaping below me—a terrible panic rose through my body. To this day the sea is a personal symbol of ominousness, a large mouth trying to swallow the world.
At 24, on my honeymoon to the Yucatan, I went snorkeling with my husband in the Caribbean Sea, with a guide who took us in a small motor-powered boat. I felt the need to be daring, to leave behind childish fears that surely I could control by now. Once in the water, my body began to sink inside the puffy shape of my bright orange life vest. The waves, which had looked gentle before, were forceful and choppy. I watched my husband swim away from me. I began beating the water back with my arms and legs. Still, every time a wave reached me, I swallowed gulps of salt water. I had forgotten about my snorkeling gear. It was a nuisance on my head as I panicked.
The guide looked back and saw me. He swam to me, lithe and liquid like a dolphin, and carried me back to the boat.
Six years later, we had our first child, a daughter. There was something terrifying in how she depended on me, especially during the night, when I was afraid I would sleep so deeply she would surely go hungry. Who said I was capable of this? I had always been resourceful. I learned what I didn’t know how to do. I studied her care as if it were a graduate course. I consulted her doctor at every cough and sneeze. I ignored the advice of my mother, because, in the end, it was only in my control—and my husband’s—to make sure she thrived.
When she turned 1, I decided it was time for me to learn how to swim. She’d started walking, and the world was so much larger than her, like it might hurt her at any minute. When we took her to the pool in a baby-sized swimsuit trimmed with ruffles, she seemed to enjoy it, splashing and kicking her feet. But if we held her too close to going under water, her eyes grew big and terrified. She must learn to swim, I thought. And because she did, I had to as well. I couldn’t stand the fear in her eyes, that she couldn’t do something that could be learned.
In my first swim lesson at the Jewish Community Center near our house, my teacher was gentle and without judgment. The first exercise was to simply put my face in the water. I did this repeatedly for an hour. My heart seized in my chest, and then relaxed, along with the practice. I’m going to drown, I wanted to tell her. So many times I thought, I’ll just do it one more time.
“You are buoyant. Your body is full of air. It can’t drown if you don’t let it,” she told me. “But you have to relax.” She was holding me under my arms as I floated on my back. It was a struggle to allow my head to relax in the water. I was breathing quickly as I willed my legs not to thrash, my arms not to push against her. I thought of how I held my daughter in her own swim lessons, how I tried to show her what her body could do.
It was not with words that I learned how to swim over the course of several months. There was nothing magical my teacher whispered in my ear, nothing that incited in me a sense of power and control. I just kept going back to the water. Every time was still a struggle, but what I struggled against each time was different. First, it was the fear of water on my face, the discomfort of it. Then it was the panic of being underwater, that I would forget how to blow out air and instead suck in water. Later, it was that my arms would grow tired and weak and I would be stranded in the deep end.
Yet, I kept going back. I broke my wrist and practiced with a waterproof cast. I began going more frequently, several times a week. The fear wasn’t welcome, but it became familiar, part of the process of my body’s reaction to swimming. I used it. At night, I read the memoir of American long-distance swimmer Lynne Cox, whose book, Swimming to Antarctica, tells the story of how she faced subfreezing temperatures in a daring swim. She, too, was often filled with fear. And yet she broke records, even at an earlyage, and continued to swim in challenging conditions. She even welcomed the disorienting atmosphere of swimming at night, making it part of her practice.
On my last lesson that summer, I stood at the edge of the pool near the deep end. I looked down at my teacher, who was wearing what she always wore at our lessons: a black T-shirt, swim shorts, a black cap, and beat-up tennis shoes to protect her feet from being scratched up as she walked back and forth across the pool floor. She looked at me and said, “Bend low.”
I jumped. The sun was brighter that day, hotter, but I didn’t feel it. Instead, I felt my body in the air, its weight carrying me down. I sank into the water, my teacher a black blur as I looked at her through my goggles. I felt like I had won something, a gift I gave to myself.
Afterward, I swam the whole length of the Olympic-sized pool. I struggled and spat out water; my arms and legs were not graceful like the videos I’d watched of professional swimmers. But then I did it again. And again. It was as if I was reaching for something instead of escaping. Initially, I had started learning to swim for my daughter, to protect her. In the end, I did something better, for her and myself. I borrowed fear and let it guide my body, let myself struggle without giving up.