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I still remember how bright the sun in the Southern California sky was as I tried to claw my way up to the surface of the swimming pool.
I was 6, taking my first swimming lesson at the local public pool. Somehow, there had been a mix-up and instead of being with the beginners, I ended up in a line of kids about to jump off the diving board in the deep end. “I don’t know how to swim,” I told the instructor, who I imagine, must have just thought I had a case of nerves. “Just jump off the board,” he told me.
Obedient, I did — and immediately sunk under the water. I dog paddled my way desperately to the surface and, as my face crested the water, remember seeing my instructor standing on the edge of the pool talking to another child.
I went under again — and once more got back up to the surface. As I was about to sink for a third time, I felt the hands of another instructor, who had been nearby in the water with her class, grab me securely under the arms and carry me over to the edge.
For years after that I was afraid of deep water. I would go to pools and lakes or even the ocean — but only as long as I could touch bottom.
When I was a teenager, my mom found a class for adult women who were afraid of water and I enrolled. There, in the shallow end of the pool, often still holding on to the edge, we learned to put our faces in the water, then to do a stroke, then how to turn our heads to the side to breathe.
Finally I had the skills — I could actually swim — but my fear of deep water didn’t budge. Over the years, I tried again and again. My best friend, who went to Stanford on a full-ride scholarship for synchronized swimming, is a miracle in the water. Next to her I felt safe. But only if I was next to her. Same thing with a friend’s eighty-something grandmother who had swum in the ocean her whole life. “You help me on land and I’ll help you in the water,” she promised me once, coaxing me into the water.
Then when I was 36 years old, I became a mother, and the world unfolded around me. I felt stronger and braver than I ever had before — until I didn’t. In a two-year period, my husband, Mike, and I experienced a trio of staggering losses: my father died after a long illness, then a dear friend died, and then our first son, Phoenix, died unexpectedly and suddenly of a rare disease.
Sometimes I think those of us who have been gutted by deep loss understand too much. We know lightening can strike and destroy everything we hold most dear. And we don’t know if the world will ever feel like home again.
I was still deeply grieving when I was pregnant with our second son, Gabriel, and I worried that somehow I’d pass that darkness on to him.
From the day he was born, he’s been the most joyful, exuberant person I’ve ever known. His first word was “Wow!” and if you ask him how his day was, most of the time his answer is a variation of “awesome,” “amazing,” or “epic!”
Now 9 years old, he has a zest for life and an endless curiosity about the world around him. This year alone he has developed a passion for coin collecting, the history of U.S. presidents, bush babies, metal detecting, basketball, panning for gold, go-kart racing, karate and calamari. And he likes my husband and me alongside him for all his adventures.
“Children need their parents to dream for them,” my wise therapist told me shortly after he was born, when I confessed how afraid I was of planning too far ahead, for fear something would happen.
Gabriel has taught me to look for the joy in life, grab on hard when it comes, and savor it. Sometimes just living fully can be an act of defiance. There is so much happiness, if you can find it.
A few years ago, Mike and I enrolled Gabriel in swimming lessons. Unlike so many other things he’s taken on, Gabriel was tentative about the water. But we pressed him to stay with it because we wanted him to know how to swim for safety reasons, if nothing else.
After each class was a “free swim” where kids could stay in the pool and practice. But in order for him to do that, I had to get in the pool too. So I did. We played in the water together, floated, kicked and then, slowly, we worked up to swimming the width of the pool — but I always kept my feet on the ground.
As his skill and confidence grew, so did his desire to try swimming in the deep end. At first I told him “no” because I was too afraid. But I knew I couldn’t let my deepest fears hold him back. And I wasn’t going to let him do it alone.
I thought back to another memory of that traumatic day years ago in that California pool — a memory of my mom. Somehow, in the seconds between when I began to sink in the water and when the instructor got me to safety, my mom managed to leap from her seat on the bleachers, jump the fence and run to the side of the pool. She couldn’t swim well either. But she was ready to jump in for me.
The bravest of the brave, I always tell Gabriel, is when you are afraid to do something but you do it anyhow. It’s what my mother was willing to do for me. And what I needed to do for him.
So, hanging onto the edge, we slipped under the rope marking where the pool depth dropped to 8 feet. I put him in the lane closest to the wall and I took the outer one next to him. And we pushed off from the side — and swam across together.
It’s been three years since the day Gabriel and I first swam in the deep end. We’ve swum together in many, many pools since then. Sometimes, I have realized, when you can’t find courage for yourself, you can find it for someone else. When that happens, the fear sinks and the spirit rises.
Linda Annette Dahlstrom Anderson is a writer and editor at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. She lives in Seattle with her husband, Mike and her son, Gabriel. Follow her on Twitter: @Linda_Dahlstrom.