Fear

It was a hot day-- heat swimming up from the pavements, everyone dreaming of lemonade. After school, I drove my girls up to the river to jump in and cool down. The beaches would be warmer, balmy pacific lagoons with still-waters and lethargic tropical fish. But we needed something bracing-- something reminiscent of glacial Rocky Mountain streams.

The river up the road is easy-- a short drive (through the river itself) to a pitted and pocked parking area. Then a short walk between colorful and peeling rainbow eucalyptus trees to a steep stream bank. There are a few picnic benches and pavilions-- overflowing rubbish bins and redolence of skunky Pakalolo-- and on weekends families come with pavilions and tents and rock-blockers and barbecues and coolers and generators-- but today the place was empty.

We skid down the mud-root-mud gulch onto the little rocky "beach"-- just a few dozen feet of flat ground on the bank of the river. Over the years, people have carved and terraced the river itself to form a series of cantilevered mini-pools and a long, bottom-scraping "slide" over uneven rocks that spits you into a deep murky pool on the far side of the river. If you coast along in the current, you pass over a trench, past a mossy cave, and 30 meters on or so to a little rock dam. People gather their courage and jump from on top of the cave into the deep pool, and shriek when the cold water slaps over their heads.

It's a beautiful spot: ferns along the smooth slick rocks, the light shining mirrors on the top of the little cave, sunlight illuminating underwater sepia rocks and dimming behind clouds, wild sweet-smelling Awapuhi-- ginger-- and wild mint underfoot.

We drop our beach bags (the wet one with snorkels, flippers, kickboards, goggles, and the dry one with towels, sun-hat, lemonade and coconut water) and stripped down to swimsuits. I am grateful for the body nonchalance I see here constantly-- with my stretchmarked belly, 6 months pregnant, white as copy paper, and my inadequate bikini top-- I draw exactly no reproachful looks. There is always someone bigger, odder, older than me wearing far less with more grace and confidence.

The girls charge straight into the water. The 8 year old is fully equipped-- flippers, snorkel mask, snorkel-- and I know that she won't surface for an hour. She will be face to face with underwater mosses and poloka kiko ("frog dots" aka tadpoles) and hunting for interesting river rocks to bash into knives or pretend cellphones until the moment we leave. The 5 year old isn't shy either-- she shrieks with the cold but charges in with her kickboard-- leaping from the shallow into the deep, face down, arms outstretched.

I am more reluctant but I make the girls count to three for me and then I jump in too. When my feet leave the ground I know the cold submersion is inevitable-- under I go, water in my nose, lungs shocked and thrilling with cold. It's frigid. Blessedly cold. I stub my toes on the river rocks and dark boulders that rise suddenly from the riverbed. I slip on the shale into the deeper pool and windmill my arms to anchor my toes in the shallows.

The girls are off. The little one sets off with her little kickboard to the "fairy cave." I am aware that ten feet of dark rushing water is beneath her happy kicking. I cheer her on and hope I don't telegraph anything but confidence in her abilities. The big one snorkels through the current, gets scraped along rocks-- long bruises along her thighs that would hobble adults-- but she jumps in again. They set off together with an elaborate game. There are powers "you are weather and I am plants!" and armor "Crystal and ice with diamonds!" and animal sidekicks "Eagles! Tigers! Giant Snakes! Snowy Owls!" and peril from mermen or eagles or swimming tigers. They paddle back and forth over the deep, over the weedy shallows, all the way across the pond to the far dam.

I watch them from the shallow with amazement and horror. I am in awe of their fearlessness. Also, I am terrified that they will capsize, let go of their kick boards, panic and sink and I will be too far away, too slow, unable to help them. The fear of what could happen is so vivid in my mind's eye I'm half-way panicked-- my heart is racing and all of my senses are pricked-- my amygdala is lighting up like Christmas.

But it wouldn't do them any favors to pass my fear over to them. So I stand there as tense and alert as a hare, and only finally breathe easily when the tadpoles in the shallows pull them back within arm's length.

I think, "This is ridiculous. I am being ridiculous."  I had to pass a tense test for a sailing class in college: stay afloat in a 20 foot deep pool for 30 minutes. I nearly hyperventilated, terrified my boyfriend, but I bloody well did it-- wild eyed and freaked out but afloat. I can swim across a pool. Technically, it's possible for me. And looking across that little pool in the river-- maybe 4 meters across and MAYBE 40 meters long-- I know objectively that I am capable, easily, of swimming across that depth and distance. But I feel unable to start.

Again, This Is Ridiculous.  I ask the girls to Please For the Love of God Stay in the Shallow Part So I Can Swim For One Second, and I borrow one of their kickboards. I REFUSE to be cowed by this fear. By the vertigo of that deep unseen bottom, by the dark currents waving the dead ti leaves under the water. No. I grab the kickboard and I set off across the pool. I am startled by the strength of the current pulling me away from the shallows. I go past the cave. The light reflects in wavelets on the ceiling. If I slow I begin to sink. I know that I am over the deepest part-- the part where when my husband jumped in he said he couldn't feel the bottom. 12 feet? more? I do not imagine the murky boulders and dark sediment far below me. I push on till I am nearly to the far dam and the stones a few feet below me are visible, and then I can stand up and turn around to see where I came from.

I wave at the girls-- Not Panicking! Having Fun! STAY THERE! I mentally apologize for them if my fear is planting in their minds at all. I hope it doesn't-- I hope their own bravery will choke out any cowardly weeds I may accidentally sow.

And then I set back. I kick hard but can't seem to make any headway against the current. My legs are splashing out of the water. Nothing-- I'm stationary. I try to kick like a frog, to move like a mermaid-- I finally let go of the kickboard with one hand and pull my way through the water. The girls are eager to have their board back, to head out to their cave again, to slide down the brutal little chute into the deep pool. They do, again and again, until our skin is all plucked-chicken and our teeth chatter. Then we climb out and back up onto the bank, wrap up in towels, and make our way back home.


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