There's a lot of things that I can't do. For example, swim. When I was living with Alice, she enrolled me in group swim classes. This was my first introduction to a swimming pool, other than a brief time alongside one while in the orphanage in Chicago. As a smaller child, there had been a few trips to Lake Michigan, but they carry no fond memories. About all that I remember is not wanting to go in the water because of the dead fish that were floating near the lake shore. Many years later, my sister Liz told me that our father got a big kick out of, as she described it, trying to drown her. Thank goodness I have no memories of that. As I said, Alice enrolled me in swim classes. All of the kids were about eight years old, with no swimming experience. We were attempting to learn basics like floating, and going completely under the water in the shallow end to retrieve objects dropped in the pool. I'm assuming this was done to get us comfortable with having our faces submerged, but I am not certain. When we were having this lesson, one of the other kids told me that there was an easier way to get the rubber ring: just grab it with your toes and then pick it up. Easy! I did as the other kid suggested. I wasn't trying to cheat or be a bad kid. I didn't know there was a deeper purpose behind the exercise. It just was, like the other kid said, much easier.
On the ride home from the pool, Alice was livid. She had seen me lift the ring with my toes and reach my hand down to get it. I was screamed at me and lectured me all the way home, and a good part of the rest of the day, about what a terrible, useless child I was. Once again, I was a liar and a cheat and lazy and stupid. She told me how horribly embarrassed she was that the other moms would know that I belonged to her. I was also told that none of them would ever want someone like me in a swim class with their children. I didn't deserve to be in swim class, and after that day, I would not be allowed to attend ever again. If I drowned, and she hoped that I would, it would be my own fault. And I would deserve it.
After Alice shipped me off to live with Gram and Liz, Gram would drop us off at the local pool. I think she asked Liz if she could teach me some swimming basics. Liz was unhappy about it because it took her away from her friends, people of her own age. She would yank me around, making me scared, while yelling at me to just float. I'd panic, of course, and the cycle would repeat. Then she threw me down into the water with all of her strength. I went straight to the bottom, thinking I would drown. She did pull me back up, but I never again agreed to let her try and teach me how to swim. I can't swim to this day. My husband spent years on school swim teams and was a lifeguard and Olympic-caliber swimmer. He was even the Aquatics director at Boy Scout camps. His friends called him a shark because of the way he could cut through the water. And he's married to a woman who can't even float or go under water. He has offered many times to teach me to swim, and I know over the years he has taught people of all ages. And yet I still resist. It isn't him I don't trust, it's me.
As I got a little older, I used to ride on the handlebars of Liz's bicycle. One summer day she decided it would be a great idea to teach me to ride. Maybe she did it because she thought it was fun to ride, maybe because she was tired of hauling my skinny butt along with her when she rode. I don't know. I was excited to learn, and climbed on, ready to go. It looked so easy, after all. We were out on the street, and Liz was at my side, holding onto the bike. The wheels were wobbling terribly, and I fell off onto the asphalt. And I got back on, the bike was as shaky as ever, and I fell again. And again. And again. I had had enough pain and humiliation. Liz said that I would just never be able to ride a bicycle. I'd never get the hang of it. So when my neighborhood friends went rolling along, I didn't. I found something else to do by myself.
Several years later, when I was babysitting the kids down the street, their mother, Ann, told me that she remembered watching as Liz tried to teach me to ride a bike. I immediately flashed back to my pain and embarrassment on the failed lesson. Ann told me that she wanted to tell me something about that experience. I expected her to tell me that I wasn't made to ride a bike or that I had no sense of balance. Whatever she was going to tell me, I really wasn't eager to hear it. At any age, it's really hard to have someone tell you what's wrong about you. Then Ann surprised me. She told me that the reason I never learned to ride a bike was because my sister was lazy. Instead of running alongside the bike so that it kept upright, she walked next to it quite slowly. This was what had made the bike wobble and fall so much. It wasn't my fault. I had a poor teacher, and Ann had always felt really bad about it. The fact that an adult told me that it wasn't my fault, I wasn't the one who had the flaw, was an incredible gift that I treasure to this day.
And no, I still can't ride a bike. But I have seen these three-wheeled bikes for adults, and one day I want to have one. I will ride it everywhere. I'll go to the park and sit and read a book under a tree. I'll follow my nose to destinations unknown. I'll ride to the store and carry my groceries home in my basket. And after they are put away, I'll put on my swimsuit and do water-walking and exercising in the pool. I'll go in as deep as five feet, but my face will stay above water. And I'll be proud that while I haven't vanquished my fears, at least I have learned to work around them.