The Only Way to Do What You Cannot Do is to Do it Over and Over Until You Can Do What You Could Not Do.
On Saturday, at his urging, I drove my youngest son to our local YMCA and bought him a youth membership. For $14 a month, coupled with his bicycle, my son imagined freedom. With no training, having been forced out of swimming lessons years too early as his older brothers lost interest or achieved proficiency, my son has decided he wants to swim laps.
Who knows — it could be the softness of baby belly that still sits in his midsection, on the very cusp of puberty, just waiting to grow up further than out. It could be the entry to middle school and the struggles of sixth grade social systems. It could be his grandfather’s cancer diagnosis, recent. Or his uncle’s criminal trial, postponed yet again. It could be that his older brothers achieve in obvious and calculated ways — in measurable performance or academic prowess. But neither of them, the tall blonde Captain America with his swift soccer kick and pre-med leanings, or the sun-tanned and lithe endurance cyclist who is known for taking on the entirety of a group project just to do it well, have ever swam laps — not even a little bit, not one time, not at all.
On Sunday my son shows up to the YMCA on his own with a swimsuit, goggles and intention. He’s devastated to be told he cannot actually swim laps in the lap pool without first swimming four laps with his parent on the sideline or without first proving his prowess by performing a 12 lap test to show endurance.
I am sick on Monday.
On Tuesday I go with him to re-hear the rules about the rules. “We’re sorry that our weekend staff incorrectly informed you,” they say. And I say, “oh it’s okay we are here to learn and we will keep coming back until we get it right.” And under my breath I say, “I do not have time to sit in the hot and chemical pool area and watch my child attempt to do something my child has never done before with no rhyme or reason or rationale.”
On Wednesday my son shows up to the YMCA with me in tow, and a swimsuit, goggles, and intention. In order to use the lap pool he must swim four uninterrupted laps. My son has not swam, not even a little bit, not one time, not at all since last summer. I sit on the sidelines. He jumps in.
The sun streams through the vertical windows at the end of the olympic pool. The lifeguard takes her seat. My son swims one lap, at a clip pace, faster than I imagined anyone could swim, let alone him. My son swims a second lap, gasping between large strokes and kicking feet. My son swims a half a lap more and then stops. “Can I try again?” He asks, bleary eyed and tired. “Not until tomorrow,” they tell him, with a hint of encouraging enthusiasm. “But if you come back at seven tonight, you can use a lane to practice.
We pack up our goggles and towel and resolve and return home for dinner. On Wednesday night, at 7pm, while John Lennon sings, “Imagine,” from the outdated PA system, my son shows up to the YMCA with me in tow, and a swimsuit, googles, and intention.
It’s possible that this kid’s ridiculous resolve has won them over — but the entire lifeguard staff has switched in demeanor over this now five days. Where they once were skeptical, curt, almost unhelpful, they are now gathered at the edge of the pool offering stroke technique, breathing advice, encouragement. If I hadn’t seen the before, I wouldn’t believe the after, now. “It’s only six laps to be a lifeguard,” one tells him. “So 12, to swim alone at age 12, is amazing.” “You’ll get it,” says another, surprising me in her kindness. “Arm circle, arm circle, breathe.”
I don’t know if my son will pass the test tomorrow. Or the next day. Or next Sunday or Tuesday or the week after that. I know that as long as he wants to show up to the pool, ambitious and determined, with the glint of pride and the hope of follow through in his chlorine-puffy eyes and his twelve year old resolve — I’ll be sitting on the sideline, learning alongside him, that the only way to do what you cannot do is to do it over and over again until you can do what you could not do.
You gotta swim
Swim for your life
Swim for the music
That saves you
When you’re not so sure you’ll survive
You gotta swim
Swim when it hurts
The whole world is watching
You haven’t come this far
To fall off the earth
The currents will pull you
Away from your love
Just keep your head above
(“Swim” Jack’s Mannequin)