I walk up and down the aisles of a local discount store, filling my cart to the brim. My kids are chattering happily about swimming suits, beach towels, matching flip-flops, and sand pails. I have an unsettling feeling in the pit of my stomach.
“Mommy, what does the beach look like?” my 4-year-old son asks. We live less than a three hour drive away from the ocean, and even closer still is the bay, and yet he’s never been to either. “I know how to swim,” exclaims my daughter excitedly. “I’ve been practicing in the bath!” I smile uneasily. I know it’s time I really teach them to swim, to teach them all about water safety. I can’t keep avoiding it.
When I was a little girl I went to the beach with my grandmother and older cousin. After a morning full of swimming, my grandmother went in to prepare lunch while we continued to play. This was my first time at the beach, and though I didn’t know how to swim, I had spent the last four days working up the courage to walk past the ankle-deep waters where I had been hovering, and float around in waters that came up to my waist. With my little raft I floated effortlessly around in the water. I was mesmerized by how the sun shone on the surface of the water, lighting it up like a sea of diamonds.
It was only when I looked back did I realize that the beach in front of me no longer looked familiar. Silently, the ocean had carried me far out towards the large waves and down many yards. I couldn’t hear the kids playing, or the parents calling them to stay close. I could hear nothing but my heart beating loudly in my head. The sudden realization that I was alone overcame me and before I knew it, I was caught up in a large wave. No matter how fast I paddled my hands and kicked my feet, I could not move. And all I could think of was my mom and dad. How angry they would be that I went out too far. How much I would miss them and my little brother.
But the huge wave had mercy on my little body. Instead of taking me under it quickly pushed me back to shore where I stood up on two shaky legs, catching my breath and searching for someone, anyone, to notice my miraculous recovery, but nobody had seen any of it. I didn’t go near the ocean for the rest of the trip.
As I grew, my fear of the water faded. Learning how to swim gave me more confidence and I joined my friends at pool parties and on beach trips. My frightening experience was left in the past, just a fuzzy memory from my girlhood. Until I had children of my own.
Summer fun always consists of beach parties, water slides, pools, and water themes parks. And every summer when my kids ask to go to the pool or the beach I find a reason why we can’t. I don’t like swimming, the sun is too hot, the chlorine burns my eyes, I don’t even own a bathing suit. All truths, yes, but the biggest truth is that I cannot bear the thought of letting my precious children loose in that vast ocean, as unpredictable as it is beautiful. Though the ocean had been kind to me when I needed a helping hand back to shore, I still cannot trust it. It’s swept too many kids away from the loving arms of their parents. It’s stolen husbands away from wives, and even mothers away from children; I’ve seen it all in the news. I cannot trust that heartless monster with my babies.
There is no fear larger in my mind, than that which I have of water. Though I have managed to loosen my grip on my 12-year-old and allow him the freedom to visit the pool with friends, I am still very much at odds with the sea. In fact I’m not really on good terms with streams, lakes, or kiddie pools much either these days. Really, I’d prefer all of my kids to shower as to avoid the bath all together. I’m still iffy about puddles.
I know I need to work through this, and that the longer I avoid it the bigger the fear will become. So why does it seem that every time I work up the nerve, I hear about yet another child drowning and I feel every bit of my resolve crumble around me? If I had my way, I’d keep my kids on dry land forever. But, I know I can’t live in fear for the rest of my life. I need to teach kids how to be responsible in the water. I need to teach them to confront their fears.
“The beach is so beautiful, you guys,” I say as I pack my van full of all our summertime loot. “We’re going to have such a great time this summer!”