During the skills test on the first day of swimming lessons, my younger son refuses to backfloat. The instructor tries to ease the back of D's head into the water and the kid curls up like a leggy armadillo.
D is demoted from his class, escorted to the shallow end of the pool, to a pod of kids half a foot shorter than he is. He is a dejected character in a Peanuts comic, head flopping, shoulders bent, eyes downcast. He sobs the whole way home. He is never, ever going back.
That evening, my husband and I talk him into agreeing to give lessons one more shot. We want him to learn to swim. I couldn't do much more than dog-paddle until my 30s; my husband still sinks like a rock. D, just shy of his 10th birthday, needs this essential life skill. Needs to be better than us.
The next morning, I hear D crying in his room. He is not going.
"Let's just go to the pool and see how it goes," I say. "Get your swim trunks on. Please."
He shuffles into the living room in his pajamas, sad Charlie Brown again.
My brain is a mess of worry and sympathy and frustration. His big brother can't miss his lesson, so D has to at least get in the car. But I can see how badly he doesn't want to go, how the embarrassment of the day before hangs on him. But I don't want him to be a person who gives up easily. But he's tried to float for years. But I want him to swim.
D loves music, so I get out my phone. "We'll find some songs to get you pumped up," I say as I type into the Spotify search bar. By the magic of the internet there is a playlist with the name "Random songs to get you pumped up." I hit shuffle.
ABBA's "Does Your Mother Know" starts to play.
"Oh, this is a good one," I say. He stares at the floor. I wiggle to the beat. "Come on, man. This is disco."
I add the diagonal-point move like John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever. I roll my arms and shimmy like a Tina Turner backup dancer.
D looks up and raises an eyebrow. He starts to sneak off, and I remember the move where you slowly point at the crowd — in this case, my audience of two bewildered preteens. I funky chicken, run in place, robot, vogue. I don't know how to do the Bus Stop so I just pretend I'm letting people on and off a bus.
I have exactly zero clue what I'm doing. My older son is laughing hysterically. D's eyebrow stays up. I can tell he's trying not to smile.
I groove. I boogie. I flail. I hope. When the songs ends, D stands, rolls his eyes, and declares that he will get dressed and go to the pool.
My knees and lungs ache as I watch him stomp down the hall. I've turned off the music but the song sticks in my head. It's definitely not what ABBA was singing about, but the question from the chorus takes a turn in my mind, and I feel my eyes sting as I think about how completely clueless and helpless D's demotion at the pool has made both of us feel.
Does your mother know? So often, I don't. I remember holding him the day he was born, hearing his big brother galloping down the hallway, and thinking, How am I supposed to do this?
He gets his swim trunks on. Gets in the car. Gets in the pool. I hear his new instructor praising him for listening well and trying hard. He reaps the rewards of being the oldest kid in the group, of having a little more time to ease himself in.
At the end of class he declares he loves swimming lessons and can't wait to go back.
As we walk home on one of the last days of his class, I bring up the backfloat. Is he ready to do it when they test him again? I see the nervousness crawl up him, his body start to curl.
"You just have to tip your head back and trust the water to hold you up," I say. "It's physics."
"Physics doesn't work like that for me," he says. (This is the same child who announced in kindergarten that he didn't believe in putting spaces between words.)
I tell him physics works even when you don't believe in it. I tell him I have faith that if he keeps practicing, he'll learn. I don't say how hard it is for me to trust the water, too. How little I know. How little anyone knows. We flail. We hope. Sometimes we manage to swim. ♦
Tara Roberts is a writer and college journalism adviser who lives in Moscow with her husband, sons and poodle. Her work has appeared in Moss, Hippocampus and a variety of regional publications. Follow her on Twitter @tarabethidaho.