My children lie to me. Dominic & Finn, 8 and 5, try to sell me on all kinds of bullshit about their capabilities. Currently, they are peddling the farce that they can swim. Sure, they can flounder at the shallow end. But in the deep, where it counts, they cannot. They threaten to disappear below the surface with each flail. Sometimes they do disappear and I have to snatch them from the grip of death. I am all fear when they are in the water. But today, after a month and a half of living in a van on a summer road-trip through the western United States, I have decided that we are going swimming anyway. Because love says I can’t let them drown.
We are in Redding, California; it’s 104 degrees and we are taking refuge in the air conditioning of a burger joint. While they eat I scroll through the map on my phone looking for water.
“You guys want to swim?” I ask, already knowing this is what we will do.
“Yeah, Dad,” Dominic says and bits of fry fall out of his mouth.
“Clean that up, you pig.” I smile. He laughs. Another half chewed fry falls out.
“I can swim, Dad. We should swim.”
“You can’t swim, Finn. Why do we keep discussing this? Neither of you can swim. This shit can save your life. You need to learn.”
Finn doesn’t say anything. Dominic either.
We finish up and exit the air conditioning into the monstrous heat.
We get in the van and drive to Whiskeytown, a village on the lake of the same name in California. It’s sweltering and we whip camp together and change into our suits. Whiskeytown’s campsite consists of twisted roads on a hillside, and we cut across all of them on a narrow, dirt path hedged by dry scrub. The trail dumps us onto a sandy beach in the shade. It’s afternoon and the sun is dropping and it’s much cooler in the shade by the water. I place my towel and sandals in a pile. The boys put theirs on top of mine. I walk to the water and they run in front of me. Finn is wearing a swim shirt, Dominic is not.
The boys enter the waist-high water and mill about, as expected. I push further out.
Like most of California we’ve seen on this trip, it’s crowded. There are lifted trucks, rednecks, and sunburns. Alcohol isn’t allowed at the beach, but there are cases of beer half-buried in the sand. Most patrons have left the water and are laid up on the beach in the waning slice of sunlight like drunken seals. In the lake there is a young couple, both blonde, making out and four boys float by on a raft, shooting each other with squirt guns. Canada geese swim through the group unfazed. I turn and see the boys standing in the water, not really playing. The water is cold but they are not shivering yet.
“Hey, it’s time,” I say.
Their faces drop.
“I know. And I don’t care.” I walk back toward them. “We’ll go one at a time. Just for a bit. You guys need to learn this shit.”
“I can swim,” Finn says. Then he dives and swims like he’s five feet underwater, but he is on the surface. He does not come up to breathe. When he runs out of air, he stands up and spews water from his mouth and smiles.
“Don’t drink the water, dummy,” I say and point to the geese. “They are shitting in it right now. Do you want shit in your mouth?”
“No, Dad,” he says, smiling.
I keep walking toward the boys. The blonde couple stops making out and then they exit the water. I get to Finn and say, “I’ll tow you out a little further and you can do the same thing.”
“I don’t want to. The water’s too deep.”
“Just do the same thing.”
Finn is starting to shiver, his white swim shirt is soaked and translucent. Dominic has his arms wrapped around his body in a self-hug.
“Come on, buddy. You’re getting cold. You need to move. I’m not cold, see? I’ve been moving.” I understand that body mass is a factor here, but I don’t let up.
“I don’t want to go, Dad.” He balls his pink fists and rubs his eyes, smearing the fresh tears around. His face is white except for his cheeks.
“I don’t care. You need to learn.”
“Don’t, Dad. Don’t make me go.”
“You’re going.” I say it soft and look out on the water.
“Dad…” He is sniveling and shaking now from the cold and he has enflamed circles around his eyes from rubbing them.
I squat in the water and scoop him up. He clings to me, his face next to mine. His rapid breathing thrums on my chest. I look at Dominic and say, “If you’re going to stay in the water, stay right here. Don’t move. You don’t know how to swim and you’ll drown.”
“I know how to swim, Dad,” he says.
“You’ll show me when Finn is done, then.”
“I don’t want to. I don’t like deep water.”
“You’re going to try,” I say, and see he’s starting to shiver as well. “You can go back to shore. You look cold.”
“I’m not cold,” he says, his teeth chattering. Another lie.
“Fine. Just stay put.”
He cries too, but not like Finn. He holds back everything but the tears.
I walk with Finn on my hip until the water is at my chest. His grip is tight and the geese move away from us as we approach. The water is muddy from the stirring of feet.
Finn sucks back a wad of snot and I say, “Buddy, it’s gonna be fine. Just do what you did back there. You’ll do fine.”
“I can’t, Dad. I can’t do it.”
I stop moving and dig my toes into the mud. He hugs harder, putting his cheek right against mine.
“Okay, buddy. What I’m gonna do is push you away from me and you’re going to swim back to me. Just do what you did.” There is no anger or annoyance in my voice.
“It’s too deep. Don’t. Please please please don’t.” His pleases elongate and his volume goes up along with his pitch.
I push him away so that both of my arms are sticking straight out, my hands in his armpits. He flails and screams and claws at my arms, grabbing anything he can get. I take one arm away and he adheres to the only one he has left.
“I’m gonna let go. You have to try.” My voice is still calm. Flat.
“No, Dad, no. Please. Please.”
“No no no.”
I let go and he churns froth with his panic. He sinks, arms outstretched, reaching for me. His head goes under, green eyes wide, bubbles ejecting from his nostrils. Then his face disappears into the murk and in these finely strung-out moments I can only see his pink hands, stiff fingers, just on the surface. Still reaching. The nails white and needing a trim. They disappear too and there is only the swirling of brown water.
I reach in and pull him out.
Water pours from his mouth and he wraps all of his limbs around my body. He burps twice and his breathing machine-guns.
“Buddy,” I say. “You have to try. You can’t reach for me. You need your arms to swim.”
“I did try, Dad. I did. Can we please stop? Please.” His body is a vice on mine. “Please.”
I look back to Dominic. He is standing in the same place, still hugging himself. Still vibrating from the cold. The sun has dropped. The four teens have left the water and it’s only us now, my family, left swimming. There is a chill, but I’m not sure if it’s from the air or water or something much darker. Finn’s orange hair is pasted to his head and he is shaking in my arms.
“Four more times,” I say. “Then it’s your brother’s turn.” Then I say to Dominic, “Are you cold?”
“No,” he says. His skin looks puckered, even from here.
I repeat the process with Finn, letting go and retrieving. Nothing changes other than time. He does not try to swim. He does not stop reaching for me. Each time he asks me how many more times he has left and I ask him to try. I talk as if I am talking to an adult. But Finn is not an adult; he is sheer terror and inconsolable. I stay calm, collected, because I know he won’t try, because I know what’s going to happen, but even though I know there won’t be any success here, I keep pushing. Because this is the only way I know to love.
After five attempts, I walk him back to Dominic.
“Okay, dude. Your turn,” I say. I put Finn down and reach over and rub the top of Dominic’s head and then say, “Finn, like I told your brother: if you’re staying in the lake, you stay right here. Don’t move. You’ll drown. I love you, buddy, but you can’t swim. And you’re gonna get cold.”
“I’m not cold, Dad,” he says. His lips are blue and there are thin red lines around his eyes. “And I can swim.”
“Sure, buddy. Whatever you say. Just stay put.”
Dominic is taller and I do not hold him. I turn and walk back into the lake and he walks next to me. No words are exchanged, but I hear him crying. He does not rub his eyes like his brother. His shoulders are straight, neck extended, posture tight. A boat speeds by in the middle-distance and we both pause to watch it. When Dominic can no longer walk he starts jumping to keep moving forward. I reach out and scoop him onto my hip. We still do not talk. His breathing is calmer than Finn’s, but he is shaking all the same. I cannot tell what he is thinking. I don’t know what time it is. I cannot say, with certainty, that these decisions are the right ones or the wrong ones or that this time with him will be remembered or forgotten. I cannot say what will happen next, even though I should know.
I walk us further into the water, until it is at my shoulders.
“I know you can swim, big guy. I’ve seen it. Don’t be afraid. You can do this.” I say this knowing that I have not once ever seen him swim in real life. Only videos of him doing it for others.
He looks at me and tears have matted his eyelashes into these thick, black lines above and below his green eyes and he is terrifyingly beautiful.
“I don’t like deep water, Dad. Please don’t do this.”
“I’m gonna push you away, and then you swim back to me. Not far, okay? I won’t push you far. Just swim back to me, I know you can.”
“Don’t, Dad. Please. Please.”
“It’s gonna be fine, buddy. You’ve got this.”
“Please.” He lets that please hang in the air like an abyss between us.
I turn and see Finn, his swim shirt glued to his chest and stomach. His shivering looks like a seizure. There is a beach behind him and the crowd has migrated into the final sliver of sun still baking the land. Finn is in the shade though, a long boat ramp behind him. Beyond that are hills with swaying cottonwoods and tall oaks. And the sky aches blue with wispy clouds intersected by arrow straight contrails. There is a deep vibration to this place and I am not sure if it is real or I want it to be real. A goose swims nearby. Both Dominic and I look.
“Look, that goose can do it. So can you.”
“I can’t. Please don’t do this.”
“Okay, here we go.”
I push him away and he reaches for me. But I back away, toward shore. Like his brother, he froths the water. But unlike Finn, he stops reaching and his arms do work below the surface. It’s as if he is on a ladder that is falling from the sky and if he climbs fast enough he will survive. His head drops, but it does not sink below the surface. This moment is slow, even for me. I think he is screaming, but I can’t hear anything for some reason. I can see all his teeth, the silver ones shining. His eyes are hot pink from crying. Still, his head does not sink. He comes for me. Moving closer. I back up more, but do it slowly so he cannot see my movement. And I see something change on his face. His mouth morphs from horror to laughter. I back up further. I think we are talking, but I still can’t hear anything.
He swims toward me, the sloshing of water frightening the geese. The boat returns, but heading a different direction. I move back again, keeping just enough distance between he and I so that he cannot touch me. And he keeps on, his spindly arms and legs moving as fast as he can move them. And on his face, for a microsecond, I see pride. Then his feet make contact with the ground and he starts jumping toward me. I catch him and he wraps his arms around my neck.
I say, in a voice that is so quiet and fragile it almost rips apart in this air, “That was excellent, Dominic. I’m really proud of you.”
He is still crying. And his grip is stronger than his brother’s. His head is over my shoulder and when he talks the sound is funneled into my ear.
“Do I have to do it again? I don’t want to. I don’t like the deep.”
I look out on the lake while Dominic breathes in my ear. There are islands in the distance, thick with trees. My son shudders in my arms and I know his brother is freezing behind me, not moving an inch. I can feel Dominic’s heartbeat like a sewing machine against my ribs. The geese have wandered off somewhere and the bottom of the sun is kissing the horizon behind me.
I get why they lie to me. I’m not stupid. I can almost feel it, the weight of the rationale behind those lies, like there is extra gravity here, just for me.
So I want to tell Dominic that it’s okay. We can stop. I want to tell Finn I’m sorry. I want to reach my hand into both of their little chests and find that glowing, warm heartstring that makes them lie, and whisper to it: I’m not disappointed in you, I’m disappointed in me.
But I don’t know that love. My love makes me want to tell him how badly I need him to swim. Not because it can save his life, but because it will save mine. Somewhere along the way his narrative twisted itself into mine, and I cannot imagine a life in which he goes into the deep and doesn’t come back. And as much as it hurts to watch him like this, he doesn’t know what devastation the alternative is. I want him to know how much I despise the unknowableness of the deep, same as he does. I want to tell him that unimaginable heartbreak is down there, and that all I can do to help is try to get them to outswim it. God, Dominic, outswim it. Please, Christ, outswim it.
Instead I say nothing and hold him as tightly as his growing body can handle.
We continue to look out over the water and the body of the lake cools around us. His breathing is still way, way up and the heart that is half mine within him is thudding away.
Then I say, “Four more times, buddy. You have to do it four more times.”
And without hesitation, he says, “Okay.”
© Nicholas Dighiera
[This piece was selected by Sarah Broderick. Read Nicholas’s interview]