For weeks I sat on the edge of the pool, dangling my feet in the overchlorinated water. I watched as screaming kids executed cannonballs and underwater handstands. My body ached with envy, but I couldn’t bring myself to jump in. At seven years old, I felt it was already too late for me to learn to swim. Seven-year-olds, at least the strong, brave, competent ones, had been swimming for years. My shame kept me firmly cemented on the ledge.
Each day, during those weeks, Dad would spread out a towel on the hot concrete and sit down next to me. He would drape his muscular arm around my bony shoulder and whisper, “Are you ready?” Every day I would shake my head no. But one particularly humid day, for some reason, I reluctantly nodded my head, yes. That is when dad scooped me up and walked us slowly down the wide steps with the long silver banister into the shallow end of the pool at the Dolphin Swim Club. I wrapped my goose-pimpled arms tightly around his neck and tied my skinny legs to his torso.
“We are going to start by learning to float on your back,” he said with a gentle smile. “If you ever get into trouble or you get too tired you can always just flip over and float.”
Flip over and float. He made it sound so easy. Stubborn with fear, I refused to let go.
“It’s okay, today we are just floating,” he whispered in my ear as he carried me through the water.
I clung tighter.
Dad lumbered around the pool with me glued to the trunk of his body for a long while. He bobbed up and down, back and forth. When I finally relaxed my shoulders and loosened my grip ever so slightly, he cupped the base of my head in one hand and gently lowered it into the cool water. He placed his other hand firmly on the small of my back.
“Now, just lie back,” he said calmly. “That’s all you have to do. That’s it, there you go, you are floating. That is all you have to do.”
Dad’s voice was faint but soothing through the water. I closed my eyes and felt the sun on my cheeks. My thin wisps of brown hair fanned out around my face.
“Ahhhhh, what a mechaye,” he said, repeating the Yiddish word for joy.
I could feel his smile through his words and instinctively knew their meaning. He didn’t do that thing that many parents do—let you go unexpectedly and making a big show of how you are doing it all by yourself. Instead, dad kept a feather touch on my lower back with just enough pressure, so I knew he was still with me if I needed him.
Just when I felt like I could float like that forever, a sudden splash of water smacked at my face. I panicked and flailed my arms and legs at the same time. I felt my body slip away from dad’s hand and start to sink. The water splashed over my mouth and nose. Dad scooped me back up in an instant. But those seconds left me sobbing and gasping for air.
“Shhh, shhh, shhh,” Dad said caressing my head. “You are okay, you are okay, Peanut. That little boy over there just jumped into the water and splashed you.”
He pointed to a boy with white-blond curls and a mischievous grin. I glared at the boy still sniffling.
“Don’t worry about him,” Dad said, “all you have to do is keep floating and you will be safe.”
I buried my face in the crook of dad’s neck for a long while. He didn’t take me out of the pool. He didn’t suggest we try again. He just kept bobbing along with me until I calmed down. Then I said, “Okay, let’s try again.”
Dad smiled. He looked proud. “Okay. Remember, no matter what happens just keep floating—don’t worry about what is behind you or in front of you. Just float. I will be here the whole time.”
Within weeks I was swimming freestyle, cannonballing, and even working on my underwater handstand, while Dad watched from the edge of the pool—there if I needed him.
Most importantly, that summer I learned to float.
Thirty summers after dad taught me to float, I was living a life I convinced myself was perfect. I was married to a man with whom I was deeply in love. I had a beautiful baby boy and a job as a lawyer in a successful Philadelphia law firm. And then within three months, I had stepped on a trifecta of landmines that left me flailing and gasping for air. My marriage began to unravel. I suffered a health crisis that I could have never seen coming. And I experienced a professional failure that left me wondering whether I chose the right career path. In short, my life imploded.
During those sticky months, I somehow managed to get through my workdays and complete the maternal checklist of dinner, bath, book, and bedtime. Then I would collapse into grief—lying on my couch, scrolling mindlessly through Facebook, crying, and eating the most comforting food Grubhub had to offer. I wasn’t ready to talk to anyone about what was happening to me. My old friend, Shame, was silencing me and holding my pain firmly in place. I went on like that for weeks.
Then, one night in late August, after I put my son to bed, I stared at myself in the bathroom mirror. I poked at the puffy red circles under my eyes. I was so sick of crying. I closed my eyes, hoping to open them to a different reality. But when I did, there I was, stuck with myself. “How did I get here?” I said out loud to my image in the mirror. The identity I had spent so much of my life erecting had crumbled in such a short amount of time. I didn’t know who I would be without the perfect marriage, the perfect job, and a healthy, functioning body. I splashed some cool water on my face, walked into my bedroom, and threw on the grey sweatpants and white t-shirt that had become my night-time uniform. The pants slipped from my hip bones. Despite the Grubhub, I was somehow losing weight.
I had always learned that Jews don’t kneel but for some reason, that night, I found myself on my knees at the edge of my bed with my hands cupped in front of me, the way I had seen little kids pray on television.
“Please,” I whispered to a God I had never spoken to before. “Please take this all from me. Please help me, God.”
I stayed there on my knees for a long while. I was waiting for an answer, a sign, some instructions about how to move forward. There was no answer, no sign, no instructions. God said nothing. Still, I felt calmer for having spoken the words, lighter somehow. I got back into bed and just kept whispering to myself, “You are okay, you are okay, you are okay.”
After that night, kneeling before my bed and asking for God’s help became my ritual. It wasn’t that I believed God was going to put the pieces of my life back together. I just felt less alone getting on my knees and asking for help. I began to use the words, “You are okay,” as my refrain. I repeated them to myself each time my thoughts pulled me into regret, shame, or overwhelm. I repeated them when I felt rage rise in my chest and when I felt terrified of what was to come.
By September, I was sleeping better, crying less, and reading more. I was singing to my baby boy again. One Saturday morning, at the end of that month, I was pushing my son around the perimeter of Rittenhouse Square Park when he suddenly began to cry. I lifted him from his stroller. His body was stiff. He let out a scream—a gas pain maybe. Clumsily, I held his rigid body in one arm and navigated his empty stroller into the park. I held him on a bench near his favorite statue—The Billy Goat. His body softened in my arms. He stopped crying as suddenly as he had started. He stared up at me with his big brown eyes. It was a cool, sunny day and the light breeze blew thin wisps of golden-brown hair off his forehead. Sunlight streamed through the trees and landed on my bare arms and his soft cheeks. I massaged his protruding belly with the palm of my hand. He looked up at me and giggled.
It was a mechaye. We were floating.
Tammi Markowitz Inscho is a Philadelphia native who recently left the practice of law to pursue her love of creative writing. Tammi is a creative writing instructor who leads writing workshops for youth in the Philadelphia area. She is currently working on her first novel. Her personal essays have been featured in the Philadelphia Inquirer and in the online magazine, Manifest-Station. Tammi lives in Center City Philadelphia with her husband and eleven-year-old son.