Sink or Swim
This summer I realised that I am not as immune as I has previously thought to the effects of ageing; I had not made the link between the greying hair, the permanent frown lines, the need to calorie count and now being in my mid-forties. I have been engaging in self-deception ... again. The summer holidays were so blissful, because we nearly forgot all about ballet - except for one slight nuisance. Our son needed to maintain his cardio-vascular fitness. The normal running around of a twelve year old is not sufficient apparently for someone in full time vocational ballet training. So, we went swimming. Especially towards the end of the holiday, we went nearly every day. We assumed the unnecessary habit of swimming together in the same lane - a watery convoy. He's a strong and elegant swimmer; efficient, sleek and graceful. And, I would swim behind.
Aside from swimming lengths, we would also play racing games and diving games, hiding plastic clam shells for one another under the water and then racing to find them. I'm not ashamed to admit that it gives me a tremendous sense of pride to be able to announce that I am the stronger swimmer. Even at 45, I am faster, more agile and I can hold my breath for far longer which gives me an unfair advantage in the diving competitions. This makes me want to punch the air, clench my back teeth and shout, 'Yessss!'
There is a reason behind this child-like celebration of a Pyrrhic victory. Before the father and son underwater Olympics commence, we would swim lengths in the way described. He would swim first and I would follow. He set the pace and I fell into line. He decided how many lengths we would swim, and I would. This swimming of lengths is what gave rise to the sense of time passing and my own mortality. I may be the faster and more experienced swimmer, but he is the the more resilient. After about twenty minutes or so of ploughing along the lane, I would begin to tire. As the end of each length approached, I would think, 'This is it. This has to be the last one.' And then, with the mechanical precision of a well tempered machine, he would begin the next. Each time, I would react as much as it is possible to breathe a sigh of regret when swimming front crawl. Every time I caught sight of him kicking off to continue our marathon of lengths, I'd silently plead, 'Please let this be the last one.' And so it would continue: the son effortless and steadily gliding along, length after length; the father hoping that each length would be the last.
Eventually he would stop. He'd turn to me with an exhausted expression and say, 'Sorry, Daddy, but I think I've had enough now.'
'That's fine, Son.' I would say. 'You're only young, of course that's enough.' I would be nonchalant, casual, deliberately patronising, and hope that he didn't notice every pore in my body exhaling with relief. We'd have a few minutes' rest, and then I'd beat him in all the games.
I'm impressed by the way he swims; tenacious, systematic and resolute. And once again, our son challenges me as he sets an example. My rhythm of swimming is different. I swim in bursts that are powerful and direct, but hard to sustain for longer than ten or at most fifteen minutes. Perhaps this applies to the way I live my life. I am very efficient at fulfilling the short-term needs of myself and those around me, but I neglect the long-term. My patterns of behaviour involve short sharp bursts of energy that get stuff done but leave me exhausted. Swimming in the pillion position has given me new knowledge of what it feels like to just keep going. This is perhaps the mind-set which makes him want to excel at something so difficult, and why my talent seems to lie in finding immediate solutions, and initiating flurries of activity. The thought of long-term projects make me gasp and splutter - almost as if drowning in panic. I need to learn how to keep going, inexhaustibly. For me, the concern has never been about whether I sink or swim, or about the distance that I can complete, but for how long I can keep afloat while simply treading water.