The Swimming Lesson

It took my father to get me to try the Memorial Park Community Center pool. 

I had seen it, once, when it had first opened and I’d taken my parents--visiting me from Ohio--to tour the center. I knew my father would be glad there was a place he could swim, and I hoped it would entice them to visit longer and more often. I miss my parents. The miles between us stretch too far and seem flimsy, as if they could break with all that distance. 

Soon after our tour, my father swam in the pool and raved about it. So a couple of months ago, when he was in town, I decided to accompany him.

I should say here that my father and I are a lot alike. I have my mother’s coloring (dark hair and olive skin), but I have the shape of his legs, his round nose; his restlessness, allergies, and poor circulation; his stubbornness and hisand his love of writing, and of ketchup. I also got my love of water from him. He was the parent who took me and my sister to water parks when we were kids and who splashed with us in hotel pools. 

He and I were the only ones in the family to rush into the Atlantic Ocean when we went to Bald Head Island one late fall weekend a few years ago. The day was windy, and the water was chilly, but we raced into it and let waves crash against us, then made ourselves swim for a minute--flapping our arms and kicking as fast as we could--before we rushed back out onto land.

The day we ventured to the Memorial Center, we shared a pool lane--not swimming in circles (I am not nearly as fast as he is), but splitting the lane in half. My father switched between freestyle and breast stroke, and, as always, he was smooth in the water, sleek and fluid. I swam what my husband calls, “the Shuly stroke” which is the breast stroke, but with a little bit of doggy paddle thrown into the mix.

After 45 minutes, he stood up and lifted his goggles to the top of his head. “Do you want a lesson?” he asked as I swam toward him.

I knew it was a freestyle lesson, without his saying it. I’d confided to him a few weeks before that I’d never learned the stroke: as a kid, I had mastered the breast, butterfly, and back stroke, but if I had ever known freestyle, it was lost from memory.

I looked at the clock and hesitated, then realized: my father was offering to teach me something. I knew better than to pass that up. “Yeah,” I said. “I do.”

“I’ve been watching you swim, and you already have a strong flutter kick,” he said. This made me feel proud, like I was a little girl again. My kick is good, I thought, yay!  The lesson was starting out well.

He showed me how to move my arms while simultaneously turning my head and mouth up toward the ceiling to catch air. “Just do that one or two times,” he said. 

After gulping a breath of air, I put myself face down in the water, then rotated my arms and kicked furiously, lifting my head at the right time. I managed the stroke, but not well, and it felt like I was gasping.

“It’ll get easier the more you do it. Remember to lift your side up as you rotate your right arm,” he said and demonstrated it. “Now, try to go a little longer.”

Sometimes I think about all the things I learned from my father: how to ride a bike, how to mow the lawn, how to write a story. He taught me to see all people as equals; he taught me devotion to God; he taught me to look for the lesson in troubled times. 

I wish I could ask my father now all the things I will want to know later.  

That day in the pool, he encouraged me until I swam the length of the pool, then another. I was still gasping a bit, but I wasn’t getting water in my mouth, the way I used to when I attempted the stroke alone, with no direction.

“You did great!” he said when I returned to him, and he gave me a big congratulatory hug. 

His grin was as wide as mine.

A few weeks ago, I practiced the freestyle again. His directions echoed in my head. I was a poor imitation of my swimmer father, but I kept at it, mimicking what he’d long ago mastered, and wanted me to know.  

Published in the Johnson City Press on December 8, 2013 as "Never Miss an Opportunity to Learn from Dad."