Two of my sons have suffered from a fear of the water, both for good reasons. When Owen was 4, he fell in a neighbor’s pool during a birthday party. He lay face down in the deep end until an attentive grandmother jumped in to get him.
It would be nearly five more years before Owen would go more than knee-deep into any kind of water, but I never stopped confronting him with the opportunity.
Yes, “confronting” him. When your child is afraid of water, suggesting that he kayak, go fishing, or Heaven forbid, get in an inner tube at a water park, becomes an all-out confrontation.
Then, when Owen was almost 10, he decided he had had enough of being afraid. Or, more likely, he was tired of being left behind by his older brother. So he jumped in the lake and basically never wanted to get back out of it. Today, he is the first one in the water and the last one to get out. Which is good, because his younger brother, Lindell, keeps me busy with his own fear.
Lindell fell face down in a swimming hole when he was trying to reach a toy. He was still in diapers — and I ran like an ungraceful, overweight cheetah to save him — but the memory is fresh six years later. For both of us. You don’t quickly get over the sight of your child floating face down. (Nor do you easily forget running across a crowded beach in your mommy-style bathing suit, by the way.)
The difference between Owen’s fear and Lindell’s, however, is that Lindell doesn’t try to hide his. Owen would conveniently need to watch his baby brother when the opportunity to swim arose. Lindell flatly, and without apologies, tells everyone, “No, thanks, I’m afraid I’ll drown and die.”
He wasn’t even embarrassed the first time he came out of the house wearing a life jacket, arm swimmies, and an inner tube around his waist. You just can’t be too careful.
Lindell’s attempts at swimming never got much further than standing on the shore, lathered in sunblock, and covered in so many inflatables, he couldn’t walk, but might rise up like a balloon. We were lucky if Lindell would agree to get his feet wet. And if he should ever overhear or see a near-disaster involving water — someone tipping over in a kayak, a boat running out of gas, a skier slamming into the wake — any progress he had made fell to the wayside like his deflated personal safety devices.
Every summer we have tried to get him out to the swim dock or into a kayak. Every summer he tells us he’s just fine watching from the safety of the porch, thank you very much.
Until this weekend.
The whole family, plus Lindell’s best friend, were planning a trip on kayaks across the lake to a wooded island. Lindell had the option to go with us or stay behind and play cards with his grandmother. I would have bet you $1,000 what he would choose. Luckily I didn’t, because Lindell stood there with his life vest on and meticulously tightened and said, “I think I’ll go.”
At this point you need to know that, during the years, we have tried to coax Lindell with promises that “the orange kayaks don’t tip,” “the wind isn’t bad on the lake,” and “beaching the kayaks and getting out on the island is a piece of cake.” Now we were about to make or break those promises.
So here’s what you do when you take your son who’s afraid of water out on the kayak for the first time:
You sit with your legs hanging over either side of the kayak and smash your lower back into the seat so that your son and his maximum security life vest will have enough room and feel comfortable.
You paddle with the most careful movements so that even a drop of water doesn’t accidentally get into the boat.
A trip that usually takes you five minutes takes 30, and despite your bathing suit bottom being bunched up in the most uncomfortable way, you hold your position.
When the dog tries to jump into the kayak, you tell him he will never have another cheeseburger again if he does.
You point out the bald eagle overhead and the rock that looks like Pearl from Sponge Bob Squarepants and try to forget that your son is digging his nails into your forearm.
When you beach the kayak, you straddle the sides and hold that position, to keep the boat stable while your son gets out, until your calves feel like they will be stuck in a permanent flex.
And then, when you get back to shore, your son says that maybe next time he will go alone — because you seemed really nervous and whatnot.