Joyce E. Byrd
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The skill of writing is to create a context in which other people can think.
- Edwin Schlossberg


A Swimming Lesson

By Joyce E. Byrd

WHO SAYS you can’t teach an old dog new tricks?  I am learning to swim…at the gentle age of 40.

You see, I have a fear of water.

When I was 4 years old, I was involved in a boating “incident” as my parents called it.  Six adults and I were in a small boat enjoying a cruise in the San Francisco Bay.  Suddenly, a violent storm blew in.  The adults soon lost control of the boat, and we began taking in water.  One of the adults was in a full-leg cast, so she became the designated calmer (for me) while everyone else frantically bailed and attempted to navigate the boat.  The Coast Guard cruised around the bay a couple of times sounding warnings, but did not see or hear us waving and shouting to them.  Then, they disappeared to the shore.

We began taking in water faster than it could be bailed.  The adults began to panic.  I remember my mother screaming at my father that our predicament was his fault – we never should have been out in the bay in such a small boat with so many people.  Everyone was anxious, expecting the worst.

Then a miracle occurred. Out of nowhere, a yacht appeared.  This wasn’t just a nice cabin cruiser or large sailboat; it was the fabulous indulgence of a clearly wealthy philanthropist. We later learned the yacht was completing a tour of the world.  Everyone in our little boat began hollering and waving toward the yacht and, fortunately, we were seen or heard or both.

Soon, we all were draped in warm towels sipping warm, comforting beverages – mine was hot chocolate, I can only guess what the adults were drinking.  Even with the vast size of the yacht, I remember that the choppy waves from the storm produced a rather turbulent ride.  With our little boat in tow, the yacht carried us safely back to shore.

After that "incident" I was terrified of the water.  Bath time became an incessant battle of wills.  I refused to allow the bath water to rise more than a couple of inches from the bottom of the tub. Showers were worse because my head would get wet and I might drown.  Shampooing my hair was a nightmare.

For most of my life, I managed to artfully elude situations around water.  We seldom visited lakes and I rarely attended pool parties.  Once I attained puberty, people delicately avoided asking why I didn’t put on my bathing suit or get into the water, unwittingly accommodating my evasion. Eventually, I allowed myself to wade in to water until it covered my ankles – that was far enough. Whenever anyone asked – or threatened to throw me in – I would announce that I could not swim, but I never volunteered the information.

Occasionally, friends would attempt to convince me that the water held nothing to fear by splashing it at me and forcing me in.  Not a pretty picture.

I never really felt that I was missing anything by not swimming or participating in water sports.  After all, I hated the water, so what fun could I possibly be missing?

When my husband and I started dating, I learned that he loved to scuba dive.  I later learned just how much he loves the water and all water sports.  At the time, I told him I could not swim, but I would be interested in scuba diving.  He has held me to it.  The things we do for love.

Recently, we moved to a new home overlooking a beautiful pond.  It occurred to me that I should be able to swim in case a child or pet should encounter trouble in the water.  Our 65-pound Clumber Spaniel puppy already has taken two impromptu plunges chasing after elusive turtles.  Used as retrievers by bird hunters, Clumbers have webbed feet, you know.

Friends of ours have a pool that is only about 5’ deep at its bottommost point.  They have offered us unlimited use of it so my husband can teach me to swim.

My husband, a former professor and one-time lifeguard, is an excellent swimming instructor.  Knowing my fear of the water, he started with me standing at the shallow end of the pool taking a deep breath, submerging my face, and slowly exhaling into the water through my nose.  Then, he taught me how to float on my back, assuring me that if ever I sensed trouble in the water, I could naturally float by relaxing and allowing my body to buoy to the water’s surface.  Of course, that’s easier said than done when you are terrified of the water.  Panic seems a much more natural reaction than relaxing.

In the first lesson I also learned the arm movement mechanics of the backstroke and the leg motions associated with the “frog kick”.  In my second lesson, I combined the arm and leg actions and successfully did the backstroke!  I also learned the flutter kick.  After a couple of laps with my husband nearby providing a lift whenever I dipped a bit too low in the water, he let me try it on my own. Of course, he wasn’t far away.  I managed to sink a bit lower than I would have liked (glub, glub), but I rebounded on my own.  The key was that I managed to concentrate on the buoyancy techniques I had learned instead of panicking.

What’s more, I actually found myself enjoying the water!  I was swimming!  I was floating!  I was getting a good workout without straining my joints.  And, I was having fun!  Who would have ever thought it possible?  Surely, not me.

I don’t think I’m ready to save anyone in the pond yet, but give me another couple of lessons and I’ll be looking for a reason to get in the water.  That is, unless our puppy gives me a reason sooner than I’d like.

Now, I think I’ll take a long, hot bath in neck-deep bubbles.  I just wish it hadn’t taken me 40 years to discover the relaxing properties of water.

Copyright © 1999, Joyce E. Byrd
Copyright © 2000-2007, Joyce E. Byrd.  All rights reserved.