I’ve seen too many bad movies in my lifetime, and there’s a scene from one of them floating through my head. A reluctant son, a persistent father, a lake, and a dock. The boy is good-natured, shy, and wearing a bulky life-jacket and noseplugs. Maybe a swimming cap. We’re meant to empathize with the son as his father, red-faced and aggrivated, lifts him by the straps and tosses him, head-over-heels, into the water. ‘Swim! Oh, stop whining. Just move your arms!’
This is not a classic approach to either swimming instruction or effective parenting. The boy learns to swim and hate his father, and one doesn’t exactly cancel the other. Yet, there’s a small part of me that understands the appeal…
Ian has a rabid fear of water. No, he doesn’t. Yes, he does. Wait. What day is this? Well, pollen’s a bit high today, and the moon is waxing. Oh, and Jupiter has those two storms colliding. What’s your favorite color? Orange? Hmm. Then Ian definately probably doesn’t like the water a lot for a while. But ask me again later.
I can remember a time, nearly two years ago, when Ian loved the water. We went swimming in a hotel pool in Kansas City, and Kelly and I were tossing Ian back and forth, splashing, dunking. He giggled, he shrieked. He laughed! And then it was gone. The next time we went swimming, he wouldn’t go near the water without us. He wrapped his arms around my neck, dug his feet into my sides, and wailed in terror the instant I moved. A shivering barnacle in Pampers Splashers.
And so it’s been for the past two years: persistent aquaphobia puncutated by brief moments of waterlogged joy.
We’d expected the problem to be even worse last year, when we took a vacation to Florida’s Gulf Coast. If Ian had a problem with the Hyatt, how much more would he freak at the Gulf of Mexico? Surprisingly little; he was more worried about sitting on the sand. It took some coaxing, but after a while he was hunting for sand-dollars with the rest of us. Well. He spent the time in an inflatable raft. But still.
We spent last week in Orlando, at a resort with a volcano in the pool. A volcano. In the pool. There were kids everywhere, and you couldn’t move for all the water-wings in the water. Ian wouldn’t have any of it. Not only wouldn’t he swim, he wouldn’t move from the steps without crying, even if we held him. This pool had waterslides and a waterfall. Did I mention the volcano? The pool could’ve been filled with Kool-Aid, it wouldn’t have made a difference.
We also tried the ocean, this time the Atlantic. A little colder, a lot more wavy. He was terrified. I’ve never seen Ian more afraid or less consolable. He couldn’t be tempted near the water, let alone in the waves. Which, of course, I can understand. He’d never really experienced ocean waves, and all the foaming and crashing is more than a little intimidating to someone only three-feet tall. But he wouldn’t go near the wet sand. He howled and trembled and clung to my neck, his body covered in sunblock and sand.
I was frustrated. With the pool and the beach, I was just tired of Ian’s refusal to even dip a single toe into the water. It wouldn’t have been so bad if Ian had always hated water, but he hadn’t. He’s always gotten used to swimming and splashing, and has always ended up enjoying himself. I’ll admit it: I have a tendency to push Ian too hard. He’s generally so confident and quick to learn that sometimes it’s hard for me to remember that he’s just three years old. And that I’m his father.
Plus, he was really harshing my vacation.
We returned to the beach at the end of the week, determined that Ian would enjoy himself. (I know, I know.) We’d been talking to him about the ocean and the waves, and how fun and safe they were. And he was convinced! We also let him choose a little inflatable race car so that he could float next to us. He was excited! (I know, I know.)
So. We arrived at the beach, and he started wailing the moment our sandals hit sand. I snapped. I grabbed Ian and the raft, and marched into the waves. Big waves. Hard waves. It was high-tide, which means the water was coming in. Rushing in. The moon’s a pretty big rock, and the waves were coming in pretty quickly. And as I stood being buffetted by the tide, Ian screaming in my ear, my only thought was, ‘Relax! Come on! This is fun! Gimme a break!’
I saw Kelly standing on the shore, and I grew even more upset. I motioned for her to come out with me. ‘Hey, I can’t emotionally scar this kid all by myself!’ She met me at the shore, and told me about the high-tide, and that the waves probably also had something to do with the roiling black clouds coming toward us.
She can be so logical.
After the storm, we tried again. By then I’d taken stock, and realized that I needed to make another entry into the diary I plan to give Ian’s therapist. Anything to save time, you know?
I leaned down to lift Ian, but he beat me to the punch and leapt into my arms. We started walking toward the water, and it started. The whining, the shaking. ‘Hey, Ian! Wouldn’t it be great to tell your teacher that you swam in the ocean?’ He paused. Ian’s so excited to start school in the fall, and any mention of the subject will catch his attention. A crack had opened.
‘Yeah! She’ll ask what you did for your summer vacation, and you can tell her that you played in the ocean, and swam in the waves!’ He smiled, ever so slightly. I was ankle-deep, and Ian was sitting on my head. But he wasn’t crying. I kept walking.
As the waves reached my thighs, Ian pointed to the beach and started whimpering to go back. “No! No! No ocean! I want to play on the beach!’ My mind raced. You’re losing him! You’re Daddy; make him laugh! What’s less threatening than a wide-expanse of thundering, salty, shark-infested water? Well, the water’s foamy and dark. It kinda looks like…
‘Ian, look! It looks like an ocean of root beer!’ He looked at me and frowned. Even he knew it was a stretch. But I wasn’t giving up. ‘Yeah! See all the foam? You can tell all your friends that you went swimming in root beer! They won’t believe you. They’ll say, “Nuh-uh!” But you’ll say, “Yes, I did!” And you can show them the pictures of you, swimming in root beer!’
I was almost chest-deep, and a wave hit. ‘Woah! That was a big wave of root beer!’ He giggled. He giggled! ‘Uh oh! Here comes another one!’ I jumped, and the wave went under us. This time, he laughed.
Ian turned around and pointed at the waves. ‘Here comes another one, Daddy!’ We jumped, but caught a splash in our faces. ‘Ew! That’s pretty gross!’ Ian nodded, wiping his mouth. ‘But you know what? I want more! More root beer!’ I turned toward the waves and shouted, ‘More root beer!’
Ian laughed as I jumped another wave…and he let go of my neck. He raised his arms, clenched his fists, and yelled, ‘More root beer!’ We splashed, we jumped, we swam. And whenever Ian got scared, I’d say, ‘Hey, Ian. What do we say when we’re afraid?’ He’d look at me, grin, and we’d shout at the top of our lungs, ‘More root beer!’
Some men just laugh in the face of danger. Ian and I, we’re more specific.