“The rational for this was like the story, trying to create the illustration in a medium that I have used but is not what I would generally do. In this case: water color. Also, I felt that the fluidness of the water color fit nicely as a swimming analogy.” – Introduction and illustration by Greg Bemis
My grandpa swam every morning until he couldn’t anymore because of cancer. I remember going with him to the community pool in Santa Rosa when he was eighty-four and watching him swim slow, simple laps. I knew he had good form, but he didn’t show it in his old age. He would swim so slowly that you couldn’t tell if he was moving, with his broad white back to the sun he would splash and float. Splash and float.
He used to have a pool in his backyard, along with a Koi pond. The water was cold, and I can only remember being in it one time, sitting on my dad’s shoulders as my brothers played around us.. I remember it from the third person perspective, so who knows if I remember anything at all.
My dad swims too. Not every day, although I wish he would. He can get in the pool and swim for hours. It’s one of the ways he is a superhero to me. If you asked me about my dad, everything I’d tell you would be colored with the certainty and strength of his swimming.
I don’t remember swimming with my grandpa, but I do remember swimming with my dad. We’d goi to Riverplace Athletic Club in Portland, Oregon. He would swim. My brother Jared and I would play wallball with the big blown up exercise balls in the racquet ball courts before getting in the pool. It was only a matter of time before my brother and I would get in my dad’s swim lane to play with him and hold onto him while he swam laps.
Jared’s favorite thing to do was stand in front of my dad, holding his head as he freestyled so he wouldn’t move anywhere. Jared thought that was hilarious, and he was right. It was physical comedy at its best, and I was simultaneously proud of my big brother for being able hold my dad and for my dad who was able to keep on swimming.
This past summer I hurt my foot. Actually, I probably hurt it a long time ago and never did anything about it. No more basketball, no more running. I saw it as an opportunity to start swimming, so I signed up for swimming lessons. The last time I took swim lessons I was 11 years old and my dad had to bribe me with a computer game. I’ve never became a good swimmer, but then again I’ve never drowned either.
My dad said he would pay, so I got a gym membership at the 92 Street Y and a six pack of swim lessons. I scheduled the lessons on my calendar at work, I told enough people to be accountable but not so many that it lost its meaning. The morning of my first lesson, I put my swimsuit and flip flops in my backpack and left for work. I was ready. After work, I took the six train up to the Y and met my teacher.
My teacher’s name was Dexter.
Dexter was a barrel chested man with a big smile and a caribbean accent. When I say barrel chested, I mean he looks like he could be in a Popeye cartoon. He has a big strong belly that curves outward and is obviously all muscle. He has a natural swimmers chest and he leads with it when he walks. You’d think he’d sink like a rock, but when I saw him I immediately pictured him swimming between islands with the greatest of ease, to emerge from the beachhead to take a seat next to your girlfriend at the bar.
After my free 15 minute stroke analysis, Dexter told me that I already knew how to swim. He told me that this was my time and that I should let myself swim how I want to, that my thinking was getting in the way of it. That my body already knew how to swim.
Those words brought an immediate ease and hope to my being, and I knew why.
I panic in water. I worry that I won’t be able to get air when I need it, that I won’t have enough when I do.
The only time in my life I ever thought I was going to die was when I was 6 years old and my family went white water tubing. My life wasn’t in danger, but when you’re six years old and holding onto an upside down Y shaped branch with your mother screaming at you to let go while the river roars around you it is the feeling that matters.
I can still picture that branch. I still have dreams about that branch. That branch was my lifeline. My friends mom swooped in and picked me up after a short time.
That experience isn’t why I panic in water, but it speaks to why I panic in water. It was a raw childhood experience and, as a childhood experience, it was without the context of a more robustly formed life. Now, when I get in the pool, I feel the same spark of untamed panic, but it brings about a feeling of primal comfort.
The first thing I do when I get in the pool is I put my goggles on and sit down on the bottom of the shallow end. I feel the water hold me. I shake my hands and legs and arms. I stretch my legs out and look past the tips of my feet towards the deep end… and I disappear. I remind myself that this is my time and that I don’t owe anyone anything, including myself.
I like goggles because they let me see. I like looking down as I’m swimming and smile to myself because I feel free, because I am free. I like reaching the end of a length and looking past my fingertips as I glide towards the wall on my final stroke. I like swimming because the water is more powerful than me, and it always will be. Even after I’m gone, the water will be stronger and more silent, yet I am in it. I am moving through the water and surviving it. brilliant!
Even when others are in the pool, the water has a deep peace. We are all held by the water, consumed by it. When I’m in the water, I’m surrounded by the only truth that matters: I’m surrounded by the beauty of my own insignificance.