He waves at me from the edge of the pool, oblivious to the fact that he trails far behind the skills of his swim class compatriots, grinning from ear to ear. He’s wearing the new bathing suit he helped pick out yesterday at the store, having outgrown last year’s. The instructor asks each child to jump, one at a time, and swim to him. But my son can’t swim – that’s why he’s in class – and doesn’t appear to realize he will not be caught by the instructor. I glance up to the second level, looking at my husband as he and our baby peer through the glass at the swim classes below. I want to ask my husband what to do, if I should warn the instructor that our son hasn’t done this before, but I can’t get his attention, his eyes fixated on the line of swimmers awaiting their turn. One by one each child jumps and more or less swims to the instructor. Finally, it is our son’s turn, and he leaps without hesitation – he’s done this before, always into the arms of his parents or grandparents, always caught just in time. I watch his smile disappear first, then his blond hair, under the water. The warm air strangles me as I wait for him to come up.
I remember sitting in my in laws’ home just over a year ago while they were away; my mother with us having flown from Texas to DC to help out. My husband is almost two weeks post-op, missing seventeen lymph nodes from his right groin and still trying to determine which clinical trial he should enter. We are homeless, staying with my in laws indefinitely until the Air Force decides what to do with him – what to do with a young Air Force officer and a stage III cancer diagnosis.
And I remember the night, one of the many in which I couldn’t sleep, I descend the large stair case and finding my mother, also not sleeping, on the couch. I look at her, relief washing over me – someone is here just for me, someone whose job it is to fiercely love and protect me, and I break down. I sob in her arms, soaking her shirt, unable to verbalize the pain and fear that grips me.
I am drowning in my husband’s recent cancer diagnosis, the loss of our life as we knew it, the uncertainty of our future, of his health, of his life–it all swirls around in my head between sobs. Eventually, I choke out the words, “I’m so scared. I can’t do this!”
And she holds me, crying herself, and tells me, “Of course you can, and you will. And I wish I could take your pain away.”
I watch my son come up for air, choking and gasping with eyes wide. He finds his instructor and is soon slashing through the water with one hand, the other gripping tightly to the instructor. He looks over at me, and I smile at him, throwing him a quick thumbs-up. He smiles and pushes himself up and onto the edge, sitting next to the others.
I settle into my seat, surprised at his recovery. But glad for it.
A few moments later the kids are asked, one by one, to float on their stomachs and put their face in the water. When it is his turn, my son searches for my face, then bursts into tears. I know this reaction; I’ve lived it.
I go to him, this sweet child of mine visibly shaking from the fear of knowing what comes next. No longer will he jump unabashedly into the pool, expecting someone to catch him. From now on, there will forever be a question attached: will someone catch me?
“I can’t swim in the deep part!” he cries, his three and half year old body trembling with fear and cold from the water still dripping down his back and into big puddles on the floor.
I fight back tears as I scream in my head: I can’t swim in the deep part either! thinking about the last year and a half of so many sleepless nights, so many visits to the hospital, the oncologist, so many explanations of why we are back in DC and not in Argentina, where we should have been living for another two years. I can’t do this, either! I want to yell.
I hold him, soaking my clothes, soaking my hair, and tell him how much I love him. “You can do this,” I tell him, “you’re in this class because you’re going to learn how to swim. We know you can’t do the deep part yet – but you will! Each week you will get better and better, and then it won’t be so scary.”
I hug him again and ask him to just go sit with his class, to keep his feet in the water, see what happens. He does, and within minutes he is back in the pool, but always with his eyes on me.
“I’m not going anywhere,” I tell him when he breaks down again, “I will be right here if you get scared.”
And this reassures him just enough to sit, his feet in the water, and watch the others. But no more jumping.
And I know just how he feels; we’ve struggled to swim, we’ve come up gasping for breath, looking for something to cling to, someone to save us, too. It has taken awhile to get our confidence back, to feel safe and secure, to know who will catch us and who won’t. But if we can keep our feet in the water, there’s the promise that things will improve – that deep parts won’t seem so scary, that cancer will stay away, that our life will get a little more “normal” every day, and we will feel confident letting go of the edge.
On our drive home from the pool, I sit next to my husband with two sleepy boys in the back seat. “Stay awake, guys,” I call to them over my shoulder, and they smile, keep their tired eyes focused on the world beyond the glass. I send a text to a couple we’ve just met, and I remember, suddenly, that I did not share with them my husband’s cancer diagnosis. I did not include cancer as part of our conversation; it only took me a year and half to omit.
I feel myself slowly lowering into the deep end, and not feeling quite as scared.
Originally published March 2, 2014