The Butterfly Effect
The little storefront swim school is loud and bright and reeks of chlorine.
The moment we walk in the door I am agitated and want to leave. But the parents are required to stay in this room. When I was a kid, all the mothers sat in a separate air-conditioned waiting room and thumbed through copies of The Ladies’ Home Journal. Not only were they not required to watch the swimming lessons, it would have been perceived as overbearing and strange if a mother had asked to stay and observe. I would have been mortified if my mom had done that.
There are eight different lessons happening at once: mommies and daddies in the water with their babies, making sure they learn to swim before they learn to walk. Preschoolers and toddlers and second graders. And then there is my daughter, her eleven-year-old body leaving childhood behind. She learned to swim a bit late. It’s hard to believe, looking at her now, that she used to be afraid to put her face in the water. She’s so excited I’m here today. She waves at me, a tiny smile on her face. “Watch me,” it pleads.
My hands itch to grab my phone and disappear into Facebook or email for just a minute. Just to leave this hot headachy noise-box. I pat my pockets. No phone. I’ve accidentally left it in the car.
My fingers twitch. I’m profoundly uncomfortable now. I have to reason with myself. It’s a phone. I didn’t leave the children in the car. But I still feel panicky. I’m unreachable! I can’t reach out! What might happen?
I’m fully aware of how addict-like my reaction is. Part of me is watching detachedly as I grasp at straws. Could I sneak out to the parking lot without anyone noticing? Run, grab it, dash back? Is my nine-year-old old enough to run and get it? She’s very responsible. Am I really thinking these things?
I’m stranded, alone with myself, with my daughters, with strangers, in this sticky chlorinated fluorescence. No escape. No ignoring the intense physical discomfort–asthma is squeezing my lungs, my skin is crawling with agitation from the bleachy air—and no ignoring the heat either, pressing on us like a living thing. My little one snuggles up next to me. “I’m HOT,” she complains. She and I are wearing winter clothes. It’s cold outside. I roll up her sleeves, and then she slides closer. I try to scoot away.
“If you are hot, why are you leaning on me?” My voice is snappish and I instantly wish I could swallow the sound.
She pouts. “Because I want to cuddle with you!”
I take a couple of long, slow, chlorine-tainted breaths to clear my mind. I can resist, or I can succumb. One of us has to stop pouting. I’m the Mom.
I lean into the irritability in my body and confront my fate. I put my arm around my youngest (hot, hot, hot!) and stroke her hair. I watch my older daughter in the pool. I watch her without taking my eyes off of her. Around me, the parents of the other big kids are buried in their phones, their tablets, and I now feel virtuous. I don’t have my phone. I do have a book, a lovely May Sarton journal, cool, quiet, peaceful…but I close it and put it away.
When the girls were babies, I didn’t have a smart phone. I had long, blank, tiring hours that were both full and empty at the same time. The odd, together-aloneness that is the stuff of being at home all day with people who need you for everything, but don’t really talk. Chasing a toddler and losing a thought. Sticky naps and the milky grassy scent of baby. Rocking in the hot afternoon patch of sunlight, a nine-month old asleep on my chest, the TV remote just out of reach, my own head nodding, her heavy sleep a damp weight on my chest, a tattoo, a locket.
Mornings at the park, her six-week-old sister asleep in a sling strapped to my body, one hand on the baby, one hand reaching for the laughing two year old; one eye on her safety, one eye peeled for another mom to talk to, someone to keep me from drowning in the boredom and the fatigue and the joy. Maybe the mango man will have his cart at the playground gate and my daughter and I will split a mango, her tiny mouth puckering as the juice runs down her chin. All of me there, present, in the frenetic energy of the park, in the tedium of motherhood, in the sights and smells of life.
I stay. I’m in it. I’m watching and uncomfortable and cranky and I enter a sort of meditation of watching her in the pool.
Blue, the blue of her impossibly thin body with its tiny womanly curves, a woman inside a teen inside a child. A streak of brilliant blue as she moves through the water like a dolphin. Not a metaphor. She is undulating dolphin-like, a seal, an otter, a kelpie. They are practicing the butterfly stroke, and I want to see her do the whole beautiful thing, but today’s class is devoted to kickboard workouts. She doesn’t seem to mind.
All her swimsuits should be so blue. A French indigo, the blue that heaven would be if I believed in a heaven apart from Earth, which I don’t. Her hair is dark and damp and tendril-ing behind her. She should wear a cap. She should cut her hair. All the other little swim girls have caps or pixies, but she’s a mermaid.
At home this morning, her little sister sat for hours watching a mermaid show on TV until I finally succumbed to maternal guilt over too much screen time and shut it off.
Now she sits on a bench in this unbearably loud hot room, her little red cheeks ablaze. She’s fretful, and I tell her to take off her boots. We should have worn bathing suits too.
Her sister is a mermaid, but she doesn’t watch her, buries herself in her ipad again, more screen time. And I worry about screens, but think well, at least her sister is getting some exercise. And then I worry about chlorine, the smell of which is so strong I’m dizzy and nauseated. She will be spacey after swimming, from chlorine and from exertion. The swimming is good for her. The chlorine makes her cranky. I try to get her scrubbed clean, but she’s too old for that now and has to do it all herself, so who knows how thoroughly she washes it off?
Little blue mermaid in the water, watching me at each pass, looking up to see if I am looking. “Thumbs up,” I give her. “Great job,” I mouth.
I smile but the smile looks forced. I can tell by the look on her face she thinks I am fake-smiling. How intimately we can read each other’s faces. I want to explain to her it only looks forced because I am trying not to cry. Because her swimming blue body is among the most beautiful things I have ever seen. My eyes are hot and salty and my glasses are getting fogged. I switch to a serious thumbs up, so she knows I’m taking her seriously. I watch her as if my life depended on it. And maybe it does, because if I stop focusing on her laps, I will start to feel the bleachy hot closeness that makes me dizzy. I will feel how small she is, the only thing between her and the water just a thin layer of skin. I will feel too keenly the ways I’m making it all up as I go along, Somehow, I got the Mama costume but not the script. I never know what’s coming next or what my lines are.
The water is alive with liquid movement, she lives in it like a fish, no, like a mermaid, like a…
She is water.
She is the water and the water is her, only impossibly bluer and clearer and I wish the lane went on forever, that she didn’t have to stop and turn around at the pool’s edge.
Her tiny shoulders are powerful, arms windmill-ing forward in a graceful arc, the water is hers to command. My heart is shouting, “Look! Look, that’s my daughter!” and I press my lips together to make sure I don’t say it out loud. I wish she could feel this strong on land, where she wears a jacket even on the hottest days and hunches her shoulders to hide her burgeoning body. In the water she is free, all muscle and sinew, limbs and torso, as buoyant as a seal. Her white skin is glossy with water; her arms cascade ever forward, drawing her across the lane. Someday they will teach her that fancy swimmer’s flip, and she’ll never stop for anything.
A fifth element: fire, water, earth, air, my daughter.
Anne-Marie Akin makes music with babies, guitars, and grown-ups, sometimes all at once. She has worked professionally with children and parents her entire adult life, but is a rank amateur when it comes to mothering tweens. A native of Memphis, Tennessee, Anne-Marie never wrote a damn thing until she moved up north to Chicago and got so cold she had to write just to keep warm. She is an MFA student in Creative Nonfiction at Northwestern University, a recipient of an NEA teaching artist fellowship to Ragdale, a songwriter for Carnegie Hall’s National Lullaby Project, faculty member at The Old Town School of Folk Music, and composer of The Milkshake Song. She has two albums of original music: I Fly to You and Still Dancing. Her story Maybe, Baby, appears in the compilation The Buddha Next Door. And Elvis Presley once kissed her mother’s hand. @Annemarieakin