Saturday, September 19, 2009

Reflecting Pool

I don't know how to swim. Somehow, I managed never to learn. I watch kids at the community pool take their swim tests, crossing from one side of the shallow end to the other and back again without touching down. I think I might be able to do it if I tried, but certainly not with ease or grace. I reflect that it's a weird thing to be an adult and not know how to swim. Then I think about my great-grandmother.

My great-grandmother didn't learn to swim until she was in her fifties. And then she swam every day until she got sick. I wonder how long she would have continued to swim if she hadn't refused to go to the doctor when she heard what kind of doctor it was.

I've been thinking a lot about my great-grandmother while I've been sick. I've been keeping the fever chills at bay with an afghan she knit. It's a true old-school piece of knitting--acrylic yarn in yellow, brown, orange, and two shades of green--and the work is flawless. It's not especially soft, but it's comforting to swaddle myself in it and imagine her working on it. I wonder what she would think of her adult great-granddaughter. Would she like me? I hope so.

I have this idea that I have a lot in common with my great-grandmother, because I don't know how to swim and I have an unfinished project languishing on her old knitting needles. But the truth is that I don't know much about her. I know she was a swimmer and a knitter. She loved babies. Loved them. She had four of her own. My mother was her second grandchild, and in pictures, my great-grandmother looks overjoyed to be in the presence of a tiny, new person. I also know that she was terribly depressed at the end of her life. I suspect she'd know all too well what my dark mental insides look like.

My great-grandmother killed herself when my mom was in her twenties. Needless to say, my great-grandmother's death was incredibly painful for my mother. The story has long served as a cautionary tale for me ("This is what happens when you don't get help") and also a comforting affirmation that my depression is not my fault; it's my biological inheritance. Some people have a certain cancer that runs in their family. I have alcoholism and suicide.

This past Wednesday, my great-grandma would have been 108. I wonder if she'd gotten well if she would have lived that long. I'm not sure what she'd think of me, but I know she would have loved Westley. She would have loved to see him swim. She would have taken him to the pool every chance she got.

In addition to being my great-grandma's birthday, this past Wednesday was Westley's first swimming class for fall. This is his third go-round with swimming classes. Several months ago, when he started lying on his tummy in the bathtub and blowing bubbles, I figured it was time to look into swimming lessons. "Lessons" at his age mostly amount to getting used to being in the pool, singing songs where splashing is involved, and introducing the ideas of kicking, paddling, and blowing bubbles with no pressure to get any of it right.

On Wednesday, my mom took Westley to class. "He really swims now," she told me when they got home. "He's actually learning to swim. He kicks his legs and moves his arms."

My first thought was that my great-grandma would be overjoyed.