I'm a strong swimmer. I wake up at 6:30 every morning, drag myself out of bed, cram fistfuls of peanuts and raisins into my mouth and drive a few miles down the road to my community center, where I swim half a mile's worth of laps before dragging my soggy self home again. It's hard work, but it's good work—there's nearly nothing in this world that I love more than being in water. It's why I raced through every level of swimming lessons as a child, why I worked as a lifeguard as a teenager, and why I gave birth in it four years ago. When I'm in the pool, I often imagine myself out at sea, and challenge the notion that I'd be in overt danger; I know how to move, how to tread water, how to take breaks and how to expend and retain my energy efficiently. I'll say it again: I'm a strong swimmer.
I'm also a mother. I remember the life I lived throughout my teens and my twenties—free and light, without much of a care beyond what I could see in front of me. But creating life and bringing that girl of mine into this world changed me, of course; and now, I'm wont to scan every inch of the earth looking for risk and danger, resolved always to do everything I can to keep myself and my girl out of harm's way. I'm cautious, I'm often ever so slightly worried, and I default to helicopter behavior; losing the baby that was my daughter's only chance at a sibling had that effect on me. So I'm a careful person.
These two factors in themselves envelop me like armor; so when we were camping with dear friends of ours this weekend, I hadn't a single qualm about leaping into the lake and swimming out as far as I could go. It felt good to stretch my frog legs and swim, as I always do, but in open air. I was happy.
On Friday, as I had done the day before, I swam far out into the water; farther even than I had yet. I passed the peninsula that jutted out beyond the shore of our campsite, and carried out and onward. I turned around periodically to see whether it was time yet to turn back, and kept deciding that I could go another handful of feet or more. I saw strangers dotting the other side of the peninsula from where we were staying—they watched me with their arms shielding their eyes from the sun, which was beating down on me.
I can't remember what happened first: whether I realized what tiny and soundless specs my family had become, or whether that water around me had churned and gulped with such eerie force that I suddenly became panicked. Whichever it was, it instantly terrified me. I've never been scared in the water before; but there I was, alone and so far from land. I can't explain what happened exactly, but I could feel it; the water around my body had a different look and feel to it. I started swimming as quickly as I could in order to get myself closer to home—but whether it was real or contrived, I sensed that wasn't moving nearly as fast as I had been on my way out, even though I was swimming with the wind at my back. I scanned the peninsula's shoreline in search of those onlookers, but they were gone; how long had it been since I'd seen them last? Only a handful of minutes at most, I swore.
And there I was, in the middle of a lake that stretched worlds in front of me, and fifty feet below my tired body. I was so much more exhausted than I'd realized, since my swim outward had been so perfect and joy-filled. Now, in the throes of my worry, I was swimming with all my might and couldn't conjure up the fastest, best or most efficient way to get myself to safety. Had I been thinking clearly, I wonder in retrospect, maybe I would've relaxed my body, floated awhile, or swam more gently—but there on the horizon was my girl and my family of friends, frolicking on the beach, completely unaware that I was in danger. The only concept I could stomach was getting to them now lest I otherwise get to them never at all.
I saw in front of me a life devoid of me; my imagination played out a scene in which I slipped quietly under the water's surface, unbeknownst to everyone. I wondered how long it would take them to realize I was gone. I didn't bother yelling, knowing I was worlds too far away from any viable assistance. And that, of course, scared me exponentially more, and propelled me ever harder toward dry land.
I swam with everything I had; my nostrils flared, each desperate inhale a wheeze, and I made it at last to the closest side of that peninsula. I could feel my heart beating in my neck, my ears and the top of my head. And there, further along the shore of our campsite, little happy voices, and a wave from Daryl. I waved back. After a calming break, I swam softly back; and oh, never had I been so happy to have two feet on the earth, or so aware of what a speck of nothing I am on this unforgiving planet. That water cared not for my safety, and my own ego had nearly gotten me swallowed whole.
Careful then, though more careful now; more aware, more thankful, more certain than ever that I'm nowhere near ready to go. I am humbled, and I am grateful for breath, for rest and for solid ground.