The Deep End

By Sally Gosen Case

For 45 years everyone knew that I could not swim. Time and again, I tried to learn and failed. I simply sank like a stone.

I grew up on a river, in a family that loved boats. I remember my father’s unwavering patience, holding me at the surface in his powerful arms, repeating, “Straighten your back. Relax. You’re a frog, kick like a frog.” As soon as he let go, I sank. It was hopeless. Everyone else could swim, even snakes could swim, but I could not.

I grew up, married and moved away. Every time someone dragged me to a pool, I ended up shivering in the shallow end, splashed and tormented by small children. They would eventually get bored and swim away. I paid people to instruct me, but they gave up after a few sessions of watching me sink.

It wasn’t until after my 45th birthday that I began to seriously ponder this situation. I was a widow with a child and life lay heavily on my shoulders. My escape, my sanity, was my little boat…but I could not swim. I feared leaving my son as an orphan simply because I was insufficiently buoyant. I voiced my concerns to a friend who gave me a set of rather cryptic instructions. She told me to drive to a specific pool in a neighboring town. She said to arrive early. She said that I would swim.

That is how I found myself standing on the edge of a large swimming pool at an ungodly hour, scantily clad, terrified and almost awake. I was confronted by a sweetly rounded, motherly woman who quickly sized up the situation. She fitted my feet with swim fins, handed me a foam board, and said, “This is your lane. Swim back and forth.”

After a brief, stunned silence, I began to protest. Of course, she hadn’t heard me correctly. I wasn’t allowed in the deep end, I could not swim, I would sink like a stone.

She repeated her instructions and walked away. Walked away! To do something else! She wasn’t even going to rescue me! I had never been in water over my head. I had to be able to touch bottom. Obviously, I would drown. I looked around for witnesses to this homicide attempt. No one was paying any attention at all.

I sat on the edge of the pool. The water was frigid. She wanted me dead, I was certain of it. I pictured my pale, middle-aged body being dragged from the icy water of the deep end. There would be scandal. Maybe even lawsuits.

Vibrating with apprehension, I slid into the shallow end. Gripping my foam board in mortal terror, I began to kick. My feet flailed wildly until I learned to manage the flippers. Nine feet deep, nine feet deep ran through my head like a resounding curse. Nine feet deep, and I was at the far end, shaking and gasping. I pushed off of the wall and kicked my way back to the shallow end. I pushed away and headed back again. Occasionally, my tormentor would surface nearby, dolphin-like, and call out instructions. “Straighten your back! Relax!” Then she would be gone again, leaving me to my solitary battle with the deep end.

I kicked back and forth for two hours that day and could barely walk the next, but the curse had been broken. I had faced the deep end and survived. For months afterward, I regularly found myself on the edge of that pool, shivering and almost awake. It wasn’t long before I discarded the foam board and started actually swimming. Then I left the fins behind. In time, I learned to love my aqueous enemy, to relish the slip and roll of my body in both heated pools and mountain lakes. I will never be buoyant; I have to keep moving pretty strongly to be able to breathe at all. I am still, after all, something of a stone. But I can dive down, down, trailing bubbles in a long stream, frog-kick to the mirrored surface, and burst upward into light and air. I can plunge and kick and dive. These are not possible in shallow water. One cannot learn such things standing on the bottom. The only way I could learn to swim was to leave behind everything I thought I needed. I had to learn in the deep end.

About this writer

  • Sally Gosen CaseSally Gosen Case lives and writes on the beautiful Oregon coast. Her poetry and nonfiction have appeared in a variety of magazines, including Horticulture, Mary Jane’s Farm, and The Storyteller. Sally and her son coauthor an Oregon travel blog,

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One Response to “The Deep End”

  1. Sally, your story is a reflection of many who face their fears and find out they have more gumption and buoyancy than ever imagined. I enjoyed it.

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