Swimming Lessons

By Marsha Tennant

My daddy taught me to swim in the ocean at Va. Beach, Virginia. That lesson has lasted a lifetime and been tested many times over the years.

Swimming is much like life. Practice makes perfect but sometimes the waves of life come crashing in and over us, upsetting the natural rhythm of daily living. I had no idea that this lesson would be tested for me again as an adult when our roles would be reversed.

Fifty-two years later I can close my eyes and see us in the ocean together. Dad was wearing his red plaid swimming trunks, and I was in a red and yellow paisley print tank. We were only waist deep for him but it seemed to me like we were miles out in that vast blue and gray water. We had talked on the drive to the beach that this would be the day for me to finally learn to swim. I was terrified but knew that I would not be allowed in the water if I did not learn. At eight I didn’t want to play in the foam at the edge of the water with my younger brother and cousins.

He held his hands gently on my belly and repeatedly told me that I could do it. “Just paddle, pumpkin. You will stay up. I promise.”

I looked out toward the horizon where water meets sky and felt so small and helpless. I knew my daddy would not tell me something that was not true, but I lacked the confidence in myself to believe. As long as he was touching me, I knew that I was safe and wouldn’t sink so I relaxed my body and paddled. At first I was waving my arms and kicking my feet wildly. It took a great deal of time and patience to coach me past this point.

“I can’t hold you all day. You are going to have to do this on your own,” he reminded me.

It was so easy while he was there. I was keenly aware of his subtle touch. How could I hold my body up while paddling without his help? There was too much uncertainty all around me as the waves swept over us, blinding me for what seemed to be an eternity.

“Do you have me, Daddy? I can’t feel you.” I gasped out my cry. Water filled my mouth and eyes.

“You are doing just fine, pumpkin,” he said.

I called back, “I can’t feel you, Daddy.”

Again he repeated, “I’m here. You’re swimming.”

It wasn’t until I moved past his body that I realized he had released me. He was there. That was the truth. He didn’t move but I did.

The minute I realized I was swimming solo I sank! My daddy gathered me up, and we repeated the exercise throughout the afternoon. Just before sunset he stood in the shallow water with the foam gathering around his feet while I swam on my own. I didn’t sink and the sureness and strength he had patiently cajoled me with all afternoon produced a fledgling swimmer. I ran back to the blanket where my mom and brother were waiting boasting of my new accomplishment. “I can swim!” I yelled to everyone on the late afternoon beach.

Three years ago my daddy lay in a hospital bed in the home that he and Mom had shared for forty of their sixty years together. He was in the final stages of an angry cancer that had taken only three months to complete its deadly job. It was my turn to stay close, hold tight and support him. For some reason that day at the beach over a half century earlier circled my head and became a clear snapshot. I didn’t want him to go. I wanted to be eight years old again and having another swimming lesson. I wanted him to hold me like he had all those years before. This was a lesson I didn’t want to learn.

As he slipped away from the shore I heard the voice of an eight year old little girl whispering, “You can do it, Daddy. I’m here. I won’t leave you. Just keep swimming.”

The white and gray foam washed over my feet as I watched the final moments of the last swimming lesson my daddy and I would share.

About this writer

  • Marsha Tennant Marsha Tennant is the author of the children’s book, Margaret, Pirate Queen. She was recently published in AARP Bulletin and Mary Jane’s Farm. She and her husband retired and moved to the beach from Calabash in an attempt to downsize and spend time with their new grandson. A second Pirate Queen book is circling while porch sitting these days!

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