My oldest son, Miles, was evaluated by an educational psychologist last year. It was a painful process for both of us, because he intensely disliked the testing sessions. One moment, he would spell college-level words, the next he would refuse to repeat a series of numbers and run angrily from the testing office into the waiting room, burying a face streaked with hot tears into the playful IKEA furniture.
The result of the testing was a letter in which the psychologist wrote that Miles was “brilliant,” but also on the borderline of Asperger’s Syndrome. As we have delved into the literature on children like this, my husband and I have gained compassion and understanding for our little Einstein that usually allows us to appreciate his quirks without being frustrated into insanity. Usually.
As we were sewing up the final details of the determination letter, the psychologist said to me, “Do me a favor, no, do yourselves a favor, get this kid swimming.”
“Swimming?” I repeated stupidly, “Like, you mean in a pool?”
“Yes, swimming. He needs to use his body and mind together in a way that the body takes precedence, and the best way that I know is swimming.”
“I’ll try,” I said.
Dread filled my soul. We had signed Miles up for lessons at the municipal pool when he was four, and it had been an utter disaster. My husband reported to me each day of those two weeks. “He spent the first twenty minutes at the side of the pool shouting at the instructor. Once he got in, he just clung to the edge and wouldn’t listen to the teacher. What a waste of time.”
In a twist of fate only possible in a small city like ours, my husband wound up teaching Miles’s poor swim instructor in one of his English classes later that year. And we still see him at our favorite ice cream place, The Cup, where he dips cones every summer. He’s a good sport about it, but Miles still gives him a wary look when he hands him his single scoop of Moose Tracks.
So, I pretty much ignored the idea of signing Miles up for lessons. And Miles and his little brother Eli spent most of the summer visiting their aunt’s small pool, sticking to the shallow end and wearing float vests. Miles wore a snorkeling mask, the only way he would assent to put his face in the water. He even refused to go in the wading pool on swimming days at his day camp. As someone who loves swimming and the ocean, I was rather horrified by the whole spectacle. And embarrassed. And scared to death the boys would drown eventually if I didn’t do something. Clearly, I was falling down on the job. My kids NEEDED to learn to swim.
On a late August afternoon, donning the emotional armor I keep on hand for Miles’s Aspie-style outbursts at new situations, I cheerfully announced we were going to take a tour of a community center that had two pools, an indoor pool and an outdoor pool. “We might join!” I chirped enthusiastically. Miles responded with a positivity that flabbergasted me, “Well,” he said, “Let’s not just take a tour, let’s try it out!” Eli heartily agreed with a round of “Yeah, BA-BAY!” I grabbed our suits and towels and we headed out.
I don’t know what it was about that afternoon, but something changed for Miles. At first, he wore a float vest, but then he took it off. The outdoor pool was mostly shallow, and his confidence grew. Eli kept his float vest on but was soon bobbing around like a little otter. I wouldn’t call what they were doing “swimming,” but it wasn’t exactly drowning either.
I returned to the community center later that week and signed the family up for a year-long membership. The first time Miles lifted his feet off of the bottom of the pool and propelled himself a few feet with his face in the water, I startled him with my shouts of excitement. He hugged me proudly. I hope he didn’t see me crying, but I don’t think I’ve ever felt prouder of anyone. Ever.
We’ve been taking the kids twice a week for the past three months, and the change is incredible. No float vest. Swimming, real honest-to-goodness swimming.
It’s not always pretty. Miles’s stroke is a splashy disorganized mess. And he still wears his snorkel mask. But he is moving his body through the water. He is floating on his back, he is jumping in and seeing how long he can hold his breath underwater. He is not going to drown.
Eli, likewise, has blossomed into a strong swimmer. I giggle uncontrollably as he swims confidently on his back wearing his supercool blue-tinted goggles and singing “La Cucaracha.”
Most of the time, I take the boys, but sometimes Brandon will as well. And on Friday nights, we’ll often go as a family, all four of us having what we’ve dubbed “Family Swim Night.” There are never more than a few other people there to soak in the sunset views through the glass wall. At times, it’s just us and the lifeguard.
One recent Friday night, Eli swam to me, a big goofy grin on his face. I scooped him up in my arms and held him like the baby he no longer is. We floated there for a while, he marveling at the pink and purple streaks in the sky, and me at my beautiful family.