I remember my mom telling me the news in a Ponderosa and salty tears trickling to my plate of turkey and gravy. In those early days of my childhood, people didn’t die. Maybe your fish died or the neighbor’s tired, old dog died, but not people; especially, not people you loved.
But here was my mom, sitting across the table from me, saying otherwise. He had a heart attack she said. It’s when your heart shuts down and stops beating she explained. He had the best kind of heart, though, I thought.
I remember floating face up and staring at the twilight, and how the water felt tucked inside my ears. I remember the sound of water lapping gentle rhythms around my motionless body. I remember his arms cradling me and his instructions. Relax. Fill your belly with a big breath. Hold on to it. And let go.
Guardie, my godfather, had taught many children to swim. He and my godmother, Papa, lived on a lake in West Virginia and for many years they coached the local youth swim team. I remember watching Jeremy, their grandson, swim the butterfly. It was one of the most beautiful and shocking things that I had ever seen. I hadn’t known the body’s capabilities in water.
But, this was a first lesson, and I was not learning to curve my back or flap my arms like a butterfly. I was learning how to float. I took another deep breath and filled my belly with air. I leaned my head gently back into the water. I listened closely for Guardie’s voice and relaxed my body in his arms. Finally, I believed that the water would hold me.
I close this slice with a poem that reminds me of this memory and inspired this piece.
First Lesson by Philip Booth
Lie back, daughter, let your head
be tipped back in the cup of my hand.
Gently, and I will hold you. Spread
your arms wide, lie out on the stream
and look high at the gulls. A dead-
man’s-float is face down. You will dive
and swim soon enough where this tidewater
ebbs to the sea. Daughter, believe
me, when you tire on the long thrash
to your island, lie up, and survive.
As you float now, where I held you
and let go, remember when fear
cramps your heart what I told you:
lie gently and wide to the light-year
stars, lie back, and the sea will hold you.