A Legacy Of Failure

by Beverly Willett
Originally Published: 

I took lessons as a child, but never learned how to swim. I got too scared, and somewhere along the way stopped trying. Perhaps it was the jellyfish sting in the Chesapeake Bay that first frightened me off. Or maybe it was watching my younger brother nearly drown in a motel pool and then my father, who couldn’t swim either, jump in to try to save him. Eventually my earthbound mother had to extend a pool pole and rescue them both.

Whatever the reason, though, by the time my own kids came along, I was flat out determined they’d do more than merely tread water. My husband couldn’t swim either, so I wanted my children to know enough to at least be able to save themselves.

All through preschool, I dragged my daughter Nicki to swimming lessons every week. By the end, she’d regressed so far she wouldn’t even stick her feet in the water.

“You don’t have to go anymore,” I finally told her.

“Thank you so much, Mommy,” she said, hugging me tightly around the neck.

I repeated the cycle a few years later with Nicki’s younger sister. This time I gave up more quickly though, as Ella too lost ground.

I loved the hugs I got in return, but the reasons for them broke my heart. I imagined my daughters growing up to one day feel as I did, left out and consigned to the sidelines.

A few years later, however, seemingly by magic, both my city kids found their sea legs, and simply taught themselves to swim.

The following year, I remember marveling as I watched Nicki barrel down the concrete edge of a pool, let out a war whoop, and leap into the deep end without a moment’s hesitation between sprint and splashdown. Ordinarily, I might have scolded her for running. But my own inadequacy hit me squarely in the chest, and tears streamed down my face, my feet firmly planted on the bottom of a hot tub. Luckily no one seemed to notice as I scrambled to find sunglasses, took up my perch poolside, and buried my face in a book.

That same year, we went to Hawaii in August. And one day our friend Elizabeth, an avid swimmer who lived on the North Shore of Oahu, arranged a kayaking adventure for herself and Nicki. It was a majestic launch amidst crashing surf, but more than a bit nerve-racking for me as Nicki disappeared beyond the horizon. When the kayak came ashore, then 5-year-old Ella demanded, “My turn.” Without waiting for my approval, she changed places with Nicki and also headed out to sea, while I sat on my beach towel feigning nonchalance.

After they came back, Elizabeth asked if I wanted a turn. Aghast, I thought of a million reasons to say no. I’ll drown. I’ll get water up my nose. My hair will get wet. But pictures of the future flashed in my head, images of myself, ever the observer, stranded on shore with a smile pasted on my face. In a fog, I grabbed Elizabeth’s muscular shoulders and looked her straight in the eye.

“Can you save me if you have to?” I asked the friend who had a regular morning swim alone in the Pacific Ocean before I’d had my first cup of coffee.

Elizabeth stared back and simply said, “Yes.”

And so I pulled the life vest over my head and got in the boat. Before I knew it, we were laughing and paddling in unison as the waves surrounded us, the power of the ocean palpable beneath my feet. I looked to the right and saw Nicki standing at the edge of a promontory waving. I waved back. When I got to shore, Nicki ran down the beach and flung her arms around me. She knew what it took for me to be out there.

Still I did not learn to swim. Not that summer or the next. And then my husband and I broke up, and two years later, my daughters and I joined the new Y in our neighborhood. There I had my first swimming lesson in three decades. My hair got wet. I got water up my nose. And I didn’t drown. But I didn’t learn to swim either. Divorce, work, raising kids, life in general got in the way, and I never finished my lessons.

Until now, I’d always thought when it came to swimming the example I’d set for my daughters was one of failure. And for a time they appeared to be following in my footsteps. And yet they both eventually learned to swim.

“How could that be?” I’ve asked myself. It’s possible I might still learn how to swim one day, although at this stage of midlife it’s equally plausible I won’t. It’s not a badge of honor not knowing how, but I’m suddenly no longer embarrassed or burdened by my lack of swimming prowess like I used to be—because many times over my life I’ve tried. And my daughters have seen that. And so I’ve come to believe that the most important legacy I can leave to my children is that, when confronted with something I can’t do, I actually try. And in that I have been a success.

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