I used to swim all the time as a kid in Jamaica. As a matter of fact, it is quite possible I spent more time in water than on land. Perhaps, this is why it is no surprise to me that I took my first steps a few feet away from the sea. For me water has always been a space where one could be both incredibly focused and at ease all at the same time. Of course for folks who don’t swim, this sounds insane. Who can be at ease when surrounded by an element that does not seem to respect the fact that oxygen is key to the survival of mankind? And yet, being underwater, holding my breath, and diving as far as I could into the deep end of a pool or the vastness of the sea used to give me a real thrill.
It was my mother who was with me on the beach at Port Henderson in Jamaica as I took those first steps. Knowing her, she probably saw me fall several times, while warning anyone nearby to not even think about picking me up. With that likkle but talawa strength she has which allows her to face challenges with a courage I have seen rise up throughout her life when she needed it the most, she probably stood before me with her arms stretched wide, waiting patiently for me to figure it out. One fall, two falls, three falls, and I can see her with her beautiful smile, not paying any attention to the men who admired her West-Indian beauty, looking at her likkle bwai learning not only what it means to stand, but more importantly, what it means to fall and then get back up and try all over again.
It was my mother, who once we were settled into our new life in Brooklyn after she had decided to leave a failing marriage and start again with nothing in the States, who would wake me up at the crack of dawn every Saturday and drag me halfway across Brooklyn to the YWCA for swimming classes. She wanted to make sure that when summer came and I was packed off to stay with my uncle in Kingston, I would have no problem in the water. Political gunfights in the streets, gangsters breaking into houses and slaughtering off families or just the overall madness of Jamaica in the Seventies might take me out, but she would be damned if I died simply because I could not swim.
My first memory of being in the water is of looking at my mom while clinging for dear life to the side of the pool as she told me from a few steps away to swim to where she was standing. Come baby, come to mommy, she would tell me with a jinnal-smile on her face and little me, trusting as ever, would stretch out my arms and kick my feet and swim to my mom. And every time I was about to reach her, she would step back a bit further and further and further and further while saying to me, “Just a little bit longer baby, just a little bit longer.”
The first couple of times she did it, I thought I was the problem. Maybe I was misjudging my starting point in relationship to where she stood. After all, what kind of mother plays such a dirty trick on her baby? My mother was that kind of mother and she had a good reason for it. Those first lessons I had in the pool with my mom would prepare me for all the many lessons in life to come.
The last day I spent in the pool at the Y was when I had to take a swimming test that consisted of me swimming multiple laps back and forth using every stroke they had taught me. Even thinking about it all these years later, I remember wanting to give up as my body grew exhausted trying to finish the exam. The only reason I did not give up is that I heard my mother’s voice in my head, her proper Jamaican accent drawing me to her arms. “You soon reach me, Sean. You soon reach me. It’s just a little bit longer, just a little bit longer.””
A few years later, when my my family took me to Bermuda for a trip, I was such a good swimmer that no one ever thought to worry about me in the water. You see him, one maid, back in Jamaica, used to tell the other maids, that bwai is a fish. Yes mi sis, a real fish fe true. Well this likkle fish of a boy was swimming off the beach in Bermuda when he all of a sudden stood on the edge of what felt like an underwater cliff and got carried down by an undertow. A powerful current swept me for what seemed like forever down the face of an ocean mountain. All around me was the Atlantic that was no longer the touristy Bermuda blue one sees in commercials, but had become a sort of colorless mass of darkness. I could feel the coldness of the water that had lost the heat of the sun. I could see the sheer face of what looked like a continental shelf that had no beginning and no ending. And for a moment I couldn’t even tell where the surface was in relationship to where the bottom was as my body rocked and twisted to the power of a force that did not seem impressed by my ability to swim countless laps in a YWCA pool on Flatbush Avenue. I remember feeling for God only knows how long that if I wanted to, I could give up and even though I would obviously die, God would make sure it wouldn’t be that much of a horrific death. Yeah, I know, I was a strange, strange kid. It was just as that thought hit me that I heard my mother’s voice telling me, “Just a little bit longer and you will reach me, just a little bit longer.”
I let the current carry me a little bit further down and then a little bit further out, cause for some strange reason, I knew not to swim against the current as the ocean is trying to kill you off, and then once the current weakened a bit, I looked for the light of the sky and swam up to safety. Once on the surface, I saw the distant shoreline, took a deep breath and headed toward the beach.
This morning I felt the coldness of the ocean again except this time there was no water in sight. The feeling of drowning in an element that did not seem to care that mankind needs oxygen to breathe was carrying my body deeper and deeper into a mass of darkness that feels all too ready to take my life and the lives of those around me. And this time, I don’t feel either focused or at ease as I stretch my arms out to reach my mother at the other end of the pool. Also, my mom is not only not in the pool, but she isn’t even in the same state I am in since we now live on opposite ends of a quarantined world. And yet, I still have to keep swimming a little bit longer so as to not completely give up. As I hear that people, some of them who were part of professional and personal circles of mine, pass away from the virus and the news about the virus gets more dire by the hour, there is a part of me that would love to just sleep this whole nightmare off and only wake up when it is over. But if I do that then how could I be there for my wife and daughter throughout this madness?
The darkness of the water is cold against my skin. The current too powerful to immediately escape. I feel we are all so turned around by churning water that it is hard to tell where the surface of the ocean is in relationship to the pitch black chasms at the bottom of it all. And we are all faced with the question God asks of women and men when all seems hopeless. Do you want to just give up? Throw in the towel and call it a day or even a life? Or do you think you can make it back to the shore? For me the answer is the same one that came to me that day many years ago off the coast of Bermuda. Hearing my mother’s voice in my head, I take a deep breath, look for the light of the sun, reach out my arms and swim back to the surface where I can finally see the shoreline and then taking another deep breath, I decide it is time to swim to the voice saying again and again… Just a little bit longer, Sean, just a little bit longer.
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