"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 YMCA; she even said she’d pay our monthly fee if necessary, although we did not take her up on this).

At first our oldest was only a wee bit more proficient than our youngest, 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 at our Y is to dunk the kids (involuntarily and repeatedly). I don’t have much of an opinion on dunking except to say it seems like a douchey move. 80% of children are pliable or conditioned enough they don’t object to the lack of consent. The other 20% or so, like my youngest, dislike it very much. On Nels’ dunk he cried and protested intensely. I felt for him. Upon his vociferous objections, we didn’t return him to lessons. 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’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 Grandma’s way and the kids seem to be fine with that. I’m less fine with it, but by and large I let my children sort this out; they are fully capable of standing up to her.

I love swimming with the kids because our schedule (or non-schedule, as unschoolers) means we often have the pool almost entirely to ourselves. This creates a very peaceful, serene experience. In swimming with Nels today (Phoenix is off on their own, diving, hand-standing, cannonballing) I listen to what he wants; I listen to his body language. I notice he already grips me less than he grips his father. I don’t know if this is due to the more peaceful swim hour of the afternoons (as opposed to evening time, when Ralph can be there) – or if this is something unique between my son and I.

Today, some magical begins to happen. Nels starts 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 arms gripped 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. Today, he is the master and author of the swimming experience. We’d had good times in the pool before – away from pushy grandmother and crude swim instructors – 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 his waterbirth. The way his sleek form stretches out before me, the gentleness of the experience, his arms are just so, and of course although he had no voice all 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 tell them: “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 to the main part of the wading pool; he updates 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 Nels is no longer gripping me and his body is fully 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 while his sibling enjoys more time in the depths; 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 parent 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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