I lived in a lot of houses growing up (with the same family, though). Big ones, little ones, old ones, a few rented ones. But the one I lived in the longest and bonded with the most was a red brick house on a lake.
It had a large, quirky dock with grass in the middle that served as the main summer hang-out for me and my eight brothers and sisters.
Not only was that dock a landing pad for a friend's helicopter once and the perfect spot for a random horse to munch from, but also a place where I could be part of the swimming action, without actually having to jump in.
Some kids fear heights or the boogie man. I feared my head going underwater.
Sure, I'd tiptoe in from the shore up to my belly button or practice the doggy paddle. But for the most part, I stayed in my little comfort zone on the dock.
Sometimes, I'd sit at the edge with my scabbed, mosquito-bitten legs splashing away the fish. Other times, I'd stand with my hand as a visor blocking the sun, watching my fearless siblings swim out to and jump off the infamous big rock, located several yards past the end of the dock.
One day, though, when I was standing there, a big neighborhood dog, I think she was a German Shepherd, darted down the dock barking at a boat speeding by.
She ran right between my tall, stick legs and plunged into the water. And like a rodeo girl on a bareback bronco, she bucked me right off the dock along with her. Down under the murky depths my head went.
It felt like I was in a washing machine. I couldn't figure out which end was up. Fortunately, the water in that spot wasn't over my head, my feet quickly found ground, and I resurfaced, stunned, but in tact.
My siblings cheered from the big rock, as though I'd survived a tumble over Niagara Falls. Encouraged, I spent the rest of the afternoon, and every afternoon I could after that, practicing holding my breath and learning to swim by watching and imitating those around me. Soon, I front-crawled my way to the big rock and jumped off with the others. I even learned how to water ski.
I never did become a super strong swimmer, but I get by. And on the few occasions now that I get the chance to plunge into one of the 10,000 Lakes that surround me, those few brief, crisp seconds of solitude below surface are nearly sacred. Almost nothing triggers more childhood memories for me than the feel of fresh lake water and the smell of boat gasoline.
I was a hesitant, sitting-on-the-edge-of-a-dock kind of kid in many ways. But by the time I reached my late teens and twenties, I was all about adventure. I rode upside down on rollercoasters, kissed a couple of boys, skied down mountains in New Zealand, dyed my hair blond, backpacked around Europe, parasailed through the sky during my honeymoon, and faxed “breaking news” to the press as a PR girl.
But then I gave birth a few times, fell head-over-heels in love with my three little tadpoles, two brunettes and a blond, and anchored myself close to the dock once again. This time, as lifeguard—without the red suit and tan legs.
Motherhood, of course, has some jumping-off-the-deep-end moments, a surreal adventure in its own right, in which I often don't know which way is up. But the fear of losing sight of my children and the enormous responsibility of protecting them from anything that might pull them below the surface has, at times, okay a lot of times, swallowed me whole. Jonah and the Whale.
Right now, I'm in the sweet spot. My kids are old enough to hang up their own darn beach towels, but still close enough to the dock where they can hear me bellowing “that's too far” through my air horn. But, in spite of my sometimes zealous efforts to keep them close, they venture out a little more each day.
Too soon, I know, as it should be, they'll be swimming beyond the buoys and into other bays, leaving me and hubby sittin' on the dock by ourselves listening to crickets.
No offense to the late soul music legend Otis Redding, but hopefully, we won't just be “restin' our bones” and “watching the ships roll in.”
“Sittin' in the morning sun
I'll be sittin' when the evening comes
Watching the ships roll in
Then I watch them roll away again, yeah . . .”
Lettin' go of the rope and setting them free is going to be excruciating for me, I'm pretty sure. So I'm trying to let go gradually, inch-by-inch. Part of that process means kicking off my own flip-flops from time to time and venturing out past the buoys, too, towards a few neglected interests and dreams.
Diving in and attempting something we've always wanted to do, if we had more time or were guaranteed not to fail, is easier said than done. At least it is for tentative types like me or any one of us simply trying to stay afloat while caring and worrying for loved ones and making ends meet.
But we've only got this one earthly life to live. It's up to us to make the most of it by wading in past our comfort zone (or, in my case, my midlife skirted swimsuit line) a little. I'd rather my kids look back and remember a mother who failed and flopped trying than one simply sittin' on the dock of the bay watching the tide roll away.