My parents were constantly exposing me to risks. Really dangerous risks. Lethal risks. Many of them involved drowning.
They thought it was a good idea to take me to the site of a local K-mart that had gotten flooded. This was before the levees were put in place in Chattanooga, and the entire store and the parking lot was flooded. My mother held me in her arms and waded into the swirling waters. I was a toddler, maybe three. I can remember trying to claw my way out of her arms to get away from those turbulent waters, those unpredictable waters. I didn’t know where I thought I was going to go, but I knew I needed to get away.
They thought that it would be a good idea to tell six-year-old me that the train that we were going on in New York was going to go under a river. They somehow thought that was something I needed to know. I remember, almost forty years later now, being terrified of this idea. What if the walls broke? All that pressure of all that water. It would come in, on top of us, and kill us. We’d die slowly because we were in a subway train. But we would die, certainly. The water would seep in, if it didn’t crush us first. I can remember nothing more of this experience, because apparently the idea of it simply short circuited my brain and I went to sleep. I woke up at the end of the journey.
They thought it would be a good idea to tell me that the wall that I saw when we were in New Orleans meant that we were twelve feet below sea level. That wall was the only thing that was keeping the water from engulfing us. From engulfing me. That wall was all that stood between me and a watery death. That death would have been faster than in the train, but still terrifying. I was twelve, and not past the idea of irrational fears. The wall had held this long. Surely it would hold longer. Surely it wouldn’t cave in just at the moment I was there. Surely.
My parents kept exposing me to these risks, these dangers. They kept thinking that this was a fine way to parent. I thought that they were good parents, and in many ways they were. They tried their best. They did the best with what they had. They meant well. But they weren’t ideal. And the fear of water stuck with me for a long time.
I can remember one time when we were on one of our last family vacations. I was around six, and we were in Florida. I don’t know why we stopped going on vacation. There were twenty more years of sullenness and sulking that happened after that – and that was between them. I’d expect that from teenagers, but not from middle aged people. Perhaps we didn’t have enough money. Perhaps they didn’t like to spend that much time together anymore. Perhaps they were just going through the motions.
It doesn’t matter.
I remember going out into the sea and getting turned upside down. I remember the water was all around me. Perhaps a wave had engulfed me. Perhaps I’d wandered out too far and lost my footing. All I remember was that I was in the water and I didn’t know which way was up. Somehow I didn’t worry about it at the time. It seemed normal. The next thing I know, my Mom grabs me by my foot and pulls me out of the water.
They didn’t teach me how to stay safe in the water then. They didn’t teach me any survival skills in general. Perhaps they didn’t know them for themselves. Perhaps they didn’t think that was their responsibility.
I took swim classes later, when I was probably eight. We went to the Cumberland Y at the time. I faked learning how to swim. I didn’t know I was faking it. Turns out that I could move through the water, but I didn’t know how to breathe at the same time. I was really good at holding my breath.
My Mom had told me that as soon as I learned how to swim I could get my ears pierced. I swam one day, and she thought I was fine. I wasn’t. I was still in the shallow water, and I still was faking it. In that swimming test I was allowed to stop and touch my feet to the bottom of the pool twice. I did. I caught my breath and went on. My Mom was so proud of me, and I didn’t know why. I got my ears pierced that afternoon. I still didn’t know how to swim. Water still was winning that battle.
When I was offered the chance to take the deep water class I freaked out. I knew I couldn’t fake it there. I knew that there was no way I could make it. I knew that was a death sentence for sure. I said no to the class and never went back there. My Mom didn’t understand my terror, and didn’t question it.
Years later I took a swimming class when I went to my first college. That school had a policy that everybody had to know how to swim by the time they graduated. Some benefactor had a son who had graduated, but had died in a boating accident because he didn’t know how to swim. The benefactor was overwhelmed with grief that his son had graduated with honors but didn’t know this basic life skill. He donated a lot of money to the school with the stipulation that everybody had to know how to swim, at least in a basic way, by the time they graduated.
I took the class the first semester to get it over with. I took it, and I took basic swimming. I learned how to breathe. I learned how to turn myself over to rest. But most importantly I learned how to not freak out in the water. I didn’t learn this from my parents, and I’m sad. I’m sad for them that they taught me to fear water rather than to respect it. I’m sad for them that they never understood the damage they did to me.
I now take water aerobics for exercise, and I’m grateful for it. I actually do it in the deep end, with a flotation belt. I’m glad that I’ve gotten over my fear. But I don’t think I’ll ever get over wondering what other psychological damage my parents wrought.