"a nice eel who lost his mommy" – nels, on his swimming persona

Two years ago when we first moved here we threw our kids right into swimming lessons (after my mother repeatedly hounded us to join our Y; she even said she’d pay our monthly fee if necessary, although we did not take her up on this). At first our daughter was only a wee bit more proficient than our son, but that has changed over time. This seemed in large part due to a setback for Nels: the ritual for kid water-readiness in the early swimming program is to dunk the kids (involuntarily and repeatedly). I don’t have much of an opinion on dunking except to say it seemed to work well enough for 80% of children, who got over the surprise and accepted the new sensation. The other 20% or so, like my son, disliked it very much. Nels cried and protested intensely. I felt for him. We didn’t return him to lessons at his vociferous request. He has been water-clingy ever since, and only reluctantly tolerates his face being wet in the bath.

My mother has always been earnest in the endeavor to teach my children to swim. Nothing makes her happier where her grandchildren are concerned than to see them make headway in this. I wish she could have seen Sophie’s recent foray across the pool; however, my daughter will be an expert when my mom returns in two months time and I know that old lady will just about burst with excitement. I’ve watched my mom with my kids and, like many other things, she is a “pusher” – often coaching or bribing the children to do the thing she imagines she must “teach”. This is just Grandma’s way and the kids seem to be fine with that.

I love swimming with the kids because our schedule (or non-schedule, as homeschoolers) means we often have the pool almost entirely to ourselves. This creates a very peaceful, serene experience. In swimming with Nels today (Sophie is off on her own, diving, hand-standing, cannonballing) I listen to what he wants to do. I notice he already grips me less than he grips his father. I don’t know if it’s the more peaceful swim hour or something unique between my son and I.

Something magical begins to happen. Nels begins to enjoy the water, rather than enjoy it reservedly. He begins to tell me to go here, or there, or leave him along the side to hand-walk his way around the pool. He lets me put him on his back to float. He requests water-wings and delights in being able to “stand” in the water, his legs free floating. Within about a half hour his hands are touching mine only lightly (as opposed to his arms around my neck). I move him over on tummy, or back, holding him only lightly. I repeat to him I will not let him go unless he wants me to. Soon, he wants me to.

But his face – it’s hard to describe. His face simply opens up, his chin the bottom of a happy triangle, his mouth open and laughing, snub nose, his eyes wide and smiling. It’s an expression I often see when he tells a “joke” and makes me laugh unexpectedly. He is the master and author of the swimming experience. We’d had good times in the pool before today, but even I am surprised with how wonderful this feels.

About halfway through our (almost two-hour) swimming adventure I start to feel very emotional and out of time. I realize I am having a visceral body flashback to my son’s waterbirth. The way his body stretches out before me, the gentleness of the experience, his arms are just so, and of course although he had no voice those years ago, it was still him. “Mama,” he says, peering at my face. “You have a little red in your eyes.” “Nels, I’m crying,” I tell him. In the small benched water oasis in the center of the current river the two kids move close to me, their hands gently encircling me, and ask me why. “I’m remembering Nels, when he was born in the water.” This is a story the kids know very well, so they nod. It makes sense.

Nels and I move back out, he updating his waterwings to include two on his shins. “My foot is being carried!” he smiles. Thirty minutes of doing this and the lifeguard staff changes; the next lifeguard tells us the water floats aren’t allowed on kids’ legs. By the time we are done swimming he is no longer gripping me and his body is relaxed. He has put on the new goggles I bought him and used them to look underwater a few times. And bittersweet for me: he looks older somehow, unfolding like a bloom. We leave the pool early again while his sister enjoys more time in the pool; we shower together and he washes his own hair. I move slowly, enjoying the rhythm of our conversation, watching him carefully dress in his methodical way. I was a good enough mother to babies and toddlers but I always felt I was bending over and helping them along. Today feels more like a dance.

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