One hot, sticky summer afternoon we thrill-seekers strolled along Haulover Pier. The boys horsed around and dared one another to hop into the ocean, some ten, fifteen feet below. Not only was I skittish about heights, I never learned to swim.
The boys jumped in one by one, hooting and hollering, and the girls followed. The one rule: Whoever dawdled – shoved over the side. For the benefit of all who considered me fair game, I gave all nearby a fair warning at the top of my lungs, “I Can’t Swim! Don’t Even Think About It!”
The words were no sooner out of my mouth than when a prankster shoved me over the edge. I careened into thin air and plummeted into the waters below. The deep, turquoise ocean slammed onto my face and chest, the air sucked right out of me. A solitary thought came to mind as I sank into the murky depths:
Not this, again!
I was seven years old when my new friend, Gina, and her mom invited me to a public pool. Gina’s mom wore headbands and tie-dyed psychedelic tee shirts. Mama had labeled her a “free-spirited hippie.” I thought she knew how to have fun.
Not used to being in the water, I lay contentedly on my stomach along the edge of the pool, watching the others dive and swim.
Behind me, the hushed voice of Gina’s mom urged her to do something. How I envied Gina. She had a mother to encourage her, who enjoyed the pool instead of going out all night and sleeping during the day.
“Go on.” I heard Gina’s mom say, closer now.
Suddenly, thud! Someone shoved me over the edge.
Splash! The cold water slapped me.
The water smacked my face and swallowed me. My mouth, my eyes popped open. I saw underwater for the first time. My nose burned from the chlorine. I pushed and pulled to get air, get air!
I surfaced and tried to gasp out the word help, but water filled my mouth.
A man jumped in and pushed me toward the shallow end. I barely had the strength to hold onto the rail and reach the steps. Weak and trembling from the cold, I grabbed my towel and wrapped it around me.
Gina’s face turned pale, her eyes gawked wide with terror. I plopped down on a chair, too stunned to move, too ashamed to speak. Then I heard Gina’s mom say, “I can’t believe she couldn’t swim.”
Six years later, I still couldn’t.
As I floundered toward the surface, my eyes were burning, my throat raw. When my mouth opened, I gulped more seawater.
I couldn’t catch my breath.
God, I’m drowning! Help me!
My lungs screamed for air. My muscles burned. I felt like lead.
So weak . . .
The current swept me farther from shore.
Too far . . .
Suddenly, a pair of hands reached for me. I saw arms. I clawed at them desperately—wildly climbing over the shoulders and heads of anyone brave enough to come near. I nearly drowned my rescuers. After an eternity, someone pulled me until I reached shallow water.
With what strength left, I paddled to shore and collapsed on the beach. The others followed and dropped next to me. Their expressions showed concern.
“That . . . that was close,” Earl croaked, coughing up mucus.
“Yeah,” his brother, John, chimed in. “We thought you were a goner for sure.”
“Man. You nearly took us down with you!” Sandra choked.
“I told you!” I grumbled. “I told you all I couldn’t swim.”
“Man, we didn’t believe you really couldn’t.”
I hated being afraid, feeling out of control.
Determined to overcome my fear of drowning, several months later, I learned to float and dive off the diving board. Although never a strong swimmer, I enjoyed swimming races underwater.
I conquered that fear.
(After having a couple of near drowning incidents – one as a youngster and one in my teens – I’m thankful for God looking out for me and giving me a way of escape. Later in life, I took swimming lessons with my own kiddos.)
An excerpt from Running in Heels – A Memoir of Grit and Grace
© M.A. Perez, 2013, All Rights Reserved