Next time around, I want to be a fish. Or a mermaid. Or at least a swimmer. All this life I have watched practically everyone I know and millions of people I don’t know playing in water and actually enjoying it. In this life, water strikes an unreasoning fear in me. I can even panic in the shower. How ridiculous is that?
I have a few memories about water from my childhood. Not one of them is pleasant. I remember my parents taking my four siblings and me to this little stream called Upatoi Creek. Somewhere near Columbus, Georgia, because that’s where we lived then, so I was probably seven or eight. I remember telling my mother to watch me as I fell backwards in that rocky water. Somehow I didn’t crack my head open, but I recall my mother’s expression. She looked like she was trying to have a good time and failing at it. My dad was playing with us – one of the few times ever – but she was pretty much frozen.
I remember another time when we visited my Uncle Bill in Florida. My dad’s brother always liked to be Mr. Big Man, and he and my dad decided we should all take a boat ride in his second-hand boat on the St. Johns River, at the southern end of the Okefenokee Swamp. (This episode predated things like life vests and common sense). Well, things were going great on this little boat that was designed to hold six people and now held eight, until the motor sputtered, choked, and died. The men kept fiddling with it for a couple of hours, and finally got it going. By this time, it was late afternoon and the sun was going down in Swampland. So we wound up on the St. Johns River, habitat to alligators and other equally evil swamp creatures, at dusk, miles from anything man-made. Nature is great, but sometimes you really want to find something man-made. Quite the adventure. My mother was furiously stoic throughout the evening. I remember her mentioning in passing that it was stupid to be out here like this, that we could all be killed. There’s a distinct possibility she mentioned it more than once. As we were puttering back to the pier, something in the water started bumping the bottom of the boat. Uncle Bill grinningly assured us it was indeed an alligator, the most dangerous creature in the swamp. My mother was terrified, and so I was also terrified. I don’t recall the rest of the evening, but obviously we got out okay. I can still see that black water, filled with peril, slipping past the boat. And I can still see my mother’s terror-stricken face.
At one point, a few years later, my mother decided that though none of us had ever received swimming lessons or even been in the water more than a few times, we should spend a summer afternoon with nine thousand other screaming, frantic kids at the city pool. Swimming in the summer is a good thing, right? Not for me. All I recall is standing among shrieking wet bodies trying to keep up. Kids were shouting and jumping and splashing and seeming to have a jolly time. Being quite nearsighted and having to leave my glasses out of the pool, I couldn’t even recognize the few kids I did know. People splashed water in my face and pushed and bumped into me and it was absolutely horrible. We did not return to the pool that summer, or any other summer. So much for the swimming pool.
And then there’s the time I almost drowned. I mean, I wouldn’t have; there were too many people around, and apparently all of them could swim. It was at the graduation party when I finished high school. One of our classmates had a pool, and we all went there to celebrate our stellar accomplishment after the ceremony on graduation night. Most people were in and out of the pool; I just hung out on the patio and in the house. There were so many people that it wasn’t obvious I wasn’t swimming. Playfully, the hunkiest boy in the class picked me up and held me over the water, threatening to drop me. I kept saying, “No, don’t drop me. Please don’t drop me in the water!” The crowd kept saying, “Drop her. Drop her!” He dropped me in the water. I mean, the pool was three feet deep there. All I had to do was to stand up. But my mind went into panic mode and I floundered around like a panicked person whose head was underwater. So Mr. Hunky jumped in the water and saved me. I remember my arms around his neck and my legs around his waist and my head on his shoulder as he strode manfully across the water and set me on the edge of the pool. It was a totally sexy moment. I almost kissed him when he set me down, but propriety stopped me. He leaned over and whispered, “You didn’t say you didn’t know how to swim. I wouldn’t have dropped you.” And then he rejoined the crowd on the patio and continued his frivolity. (It was absolutely worth it).
My most recent experience with scary water was when my then-husband and I visited my daughter at her lake house. We had always gone out on the boat and watched the children on the Jetskis and all that. But this time Husband decided we should take a spin on the Jetski. I didn’t really want to, but I let him talk me into it. I put on the life vest and got on. It was terrible. We sped away and bounced on the waves and even purposely bounced over the wake made by the boat. It dawned on me that I could absolutely die right there if I fell off that thing. Not only that, and almost as serious, I would also lose my glasses. Everyone’s life would be ruined and mine would be over and it wasn’t worth it at all. I made him go back to the pier and let me off that thing. No more Jetskis for me.
I’ve also read some crime dramas in which really bad people drowned other really bad people, and even some good people. The writers who produce that stuff sound like they’ve really actually been drowned, when obviously they haven’t. They can get really graphic, describing bursting lungs, horrendous pain, and rabid panic.
And movies. There are some extremely realistic portrayals of people drowning. Those actors are good. They look like they are really drowning, but you know they’re not because who would take a job where they’re going to actually die? No one. And in a few months they show up in another movie, so they must be still alive. But it looks so reaI. All of that comes back to me whenever I feel the least bit threatened by water. My brain thinks I am going to experience bursting lungs, horrendous pain, and rabid panic. It doesn’t make a lot of sense, but there it is.
So in my next life, I want to be a fish. Or a mermaid. Or at least a swimmer. I want to exult in the glory of the ocean. I want to snorkel in the Great Barrier Reef and deep sea dive and explore underwater caves and shipwrecks. I want to swim with dolphins and ride in a submarine. I want to float lazily in swimming pools with a sunhat on for hours at a time and drink fizzy beverages. I want to learn to ski and do skiing tricks. I want to make amazing dives from the high dive. I want to own an Olympic-sized swimming pool of my own and do laps in it at night, under the moon and guided by the lights in the bottom, and when I finish I want to put on a long white terry cloth robe and sit in a lounge chair and drink a glass of white wine while I drip on the Mexican ceramic tile patio.
I want to love the water, next time around.