The hands-on physicality of encouraging our not-yet 3-year-old to jump in and swim for his life at the YMCA struck me as dad duty. Besides, my wife, Lynne, was a few weeks post-partum. At first, I looked forward to this time out of the house with my son, James. I thought of it as our guy time. However, this impulse was more out of naive optimism, out of hope that the sessions would be more like formalized roughhousing in the water, with the added intention of teaching the lad a few strokes.
Even though we had been through having a newborn, the relentless demands left us all exhausted. I wanted to have some fun splashing with James. But I came to dread the lessons, which were like synchronized swimming to nursery rhymes. The water made James more timid then I had expected, and I didn't know that in order to father him through his fears, I'd have to let go of mine.
During the first lesson, we gathered in a circle. I saw one other dad and a grandfather. The rest were moms, who sang the introductory song, a variation of "This Is the Way We Wash Our Clothes," in waves of softness and warmth. The mother's voices floated over the water and the children's heads. You could see them say, "That's so good sweetheart" with their widened yeses, and nodding heads as they sang their maternal chorus. That was the first moment, I thought, oh crap. As I stared at the drops of water falling from James's hairline, trickling down his neck to the pool, he turned and saw the oh-crap look on my face. I faked a grin and sang in a flat, off-key tone. He faked a grin back. Each line of the song gave the teacher a chance to display a movement for the children to imitate, like cupping water in her palm and wiping it on her face.
She sang, "This is the way we wash our face, wash our face, wash our face. This is the way we wash our face, so early in the morning." Because I felt bad telling Lynne how I really felt about the lessons, James and I both faked a grin at her when we returned home, and when she asked how it went, we both said great. I felt bad about disliking the lessons so much. I knew James wished Lynne could be there. I knew it before we started singing in the pool and I knew it even more when he wouldn't follow the teacher's directions.
We sang "Humpty Dumpty" and swayed back and forth, coaxing the children, who sat on the edge of the pool, to slide into the water.
"C'mon buddy!" I shouted. My fingers pressed into the skin around his ribs. I eased him into the water. "I gotcha, Bud," I said, in a voice only he could hear.
The parents walked through the water, while the children rested the back of their heads on their shoulders. To help James relax and float, couldn't I sing to him too, like the others? Didn't I owe him my best Jack Johnson impression as the class sang "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star?"
He clings to his mother for comfort, for affection, for assurance. And after a caesarian section, Lynne needed help standing up. I took a turn feeding our newborn daughter, Mary, a bottle at night, but every few hours, Lynne breastfed her. Singing "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star" to James wasn't just about getting him to rest his head on my shoulder. It was about taking some of the strain off of Lynne. It was an opportunity to teach James to trust me, too. It was about releasing all my silly hang-ups in the melody that James recognized, in part because I sang it to him when he was an infant. If I smoothed out the white cotton over his back with my hand and sang that song when we were alone, if I sang it to him in his dark nursery, and he rested his head on my shoulder and fell asleep, then couldn't I sing it again?
I've heard that after the age of 2, children begin to store memories that they can recall later in life. If he can remember anything about those lessons and the summer his sister was born and how she was constantly latched to his mother's chest, hopefully it won't be the oh-crap look on my face. Because if he does remember that particular moment, I'll know that I lost a chance to show him that sometimes being masculine means doing something that makes you feel uncomfortable.
The teacher taught the children to curl their toes over the rounded edge and leap into the water and the arms of the parental aquatic partner. The teacher shouted, "Go!" The objective was to jump in and kick their legs while the parents kept them afloat with an outstretched arm. I smacked the surface of the water as if I was hitting a forward volley in tennis and taunted James, who stood and rubbed his eyes.
"C'mon, buddy. Jump," I shouted. "I'm right here."
He giggled as I lunged toward him from the water. His skin was warm. His hands patted my shoulder as he shouted, "Daddy! Wait."
"Okay, now. I gotcha. Let's see you kick," I said.
James looked at the other splashing lanes as he hung on my arm. "Dad! Look. Balls!"
The teacher had dumped foam noodles and plastic balls in an assortment of primary colors. I pulled him down the lane and he kicked. I substituted a noodle for my arm, and James was in hot pursuit of the balls.
"Great kicking, son," I said. "Now you've really got it." He grabbed a red ball and held it as if he'd never seen a sphere before.
"Dad! The blue one. Let's get that blue one." James lunged for it without kicking. It was so close. So I nudged it in front of him.
"Kick for it, son. Kick."
James grimaced and thrashed his legs, pushing the water with his free hand. When he held both balls, I patted his head. And we both smiled until it was time for another song.
Whenever I hear "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star," I think about the last lesson, when James finally released his back and became part of the slow-motion circle of drifting children. His wet hair rested on my shoulder and rubbed against my whiskers, and the strands of his cowlick floated in the wake of our walk. The mothers' song rose to the ceiling, where warm air, chlorine vapors and imagined stars hovered above us. I owed it to James to sing; after all, it was my voice his ears sought over the waterline.