When I was 4 years old, my mom started taking me to swimming lessons. She would sit in a wooden chair, away from the edge of the pool, watching as I learned how to blow bubbles, kick, and hold my breath under water. It was an exercise in bravery. Not for me, for my mom.
My mom had an intense fear of water. She inherited the fear from her mother, who had presumably inherited the fear from my great grandmother. This fear extended to all bodies of water, from bath tubs to the ocean. On family trips to the beach, it was my dad who accompanied me into the water. He’d carry me out to the water on his back and we’d bob up and down with the rolling waves. Thinking back to those memories, I don’t recall my mom ever venturing into the water deeper than her calves.
Determined to avoid passing her fear on to her children, my mom enrolled me in swimming lessons as early as she could. Even though I was young, I knew she was afraid. She never joined me in the water, preferring the safety of kneeling over the edge of the pool.
It mostly worked.
I love to swim and I have never felt any apprehension about jumping into the deep end of a swimming pool (especially at night). The same is not true of the ocean. The ocean scares me, it always has. Before I lived in Santa Cruz, I would regularly drive over the hill from San Jose (yes, I’m originally a ‘valley’) and stand on the bluff overlooking Cowell’s beach. I’d watch the surfers (and on some occasions, pods of dolphins) and imagine how cool it would be to be out there on the waves. Then, I’d get goose bumps and get back into my car and drive home.
When I finally decided to paddle out into the waves at Cowell’s beach in 2000, my childhood swimming lessons and my mom were on my mind. I wanted to face that fear, knowing that my mom probably would have told me to do so. I imagined her sitting up on that bluff, watching carefully over my every move, frightened for me. With mixed emotions, she would have still managed an encouraging smile, just like she did the first time I dunked my head underwater and blew bubbles as a 4 year old.
October 6th marks 27 years since my mom died after a year-long battle with colon cancer. My mom fought cancer the same way she took on her other fears in life, quietly determined not to pass the fear she felt to those around her. In the weeks before my mom died, we took a family trip to Disneyland, visited relatives in southern California, harvested and canned late-summer fruits and vegetables, and celebrated my 6th birthday. My mom was too sick to fully participate in my birthday party, but we made the best of it and I remember laying next to her in bed after my party was all over. She was determined that we be a normal family as long as she was able.
I’ve marked October 6th in many different ways throughout my life; some healthy, some not. This year, I’m choosing to simply say thanks. Thanks mom for facing your biggest fear and in the process teaching me how to face my own fears in life. I’m still learning, but the grace you showed me when I was learning how to swim has stayed with me and provides the base on which I take on my own fears in life.