Sink or Swim

Walking to my car from his garage, he is already wearing his swim trunks, carrying his backpack on one shoulder, garage door opener in one hand and water bottle in the other.

“Hey Candice.  How’s it going?”  It is the same question he asks every Monday at 12:30PM, a predictable routine each week.  Always dressed in his swim gear waiting on the asphalt when I pull into his driveway, we’ve talked about changing at the gym many times before.  “It’s no big deal.  I’m already ready.”

He puts his belongings in the backseat of the car, climbs into the passenger seat and fastens his seat-belt.  We make the drive 1.75 miles from his house to the YMCA.  The front desk attendant scans his card and punches the guest pass for me.  We enter our separate locker rooms and meet on the other side some minutes later.

The first time we went to the pool a month or so ago, he stood over the deep end looking blankly, his towel still thrown over his shoulder.  “Do you want to still swim?” I asked, half-hopeful that his answer could be no.  “I’m just getting ready.”  On the other side of the pool a handful of children wore yellow floaties strapped on their backs and kicked wildly to a swim instructor.  A mom sat on a bench, iPhone in hand.  An older gentleman bobbed up and down the lap lane.  A lifeguard stared blankly at her feet in a chair perched above the pool.

He tossed his towel on an empty bench, leaned forward and jumped in feet first.  A wave rushed over the water and a few people looked our direction.  I followed suit and jumped in as well.

“Do you have a goal for how much you want to swim today?”  I asked, pulling wet hair out of my eyes.

He smiled shyly, shrugging his shoulders.  For a second, I worried perhaps he didn’t actually know how to swim.

“Well, do you swim a lot?  When’s the last time you’ve been swimming?” I continued.  His response skated around answering directly.  “Oh you know.  I swim.  I mean I do swim from time to time.  It hasn’t been too long.”

That day, we managed 25 laps.  Twenty five lengths of the pool.  We were tired and a bit out of breath, perhaps underestimating how much 25 lengths would take out of people who weren’t “swimmers.”  We finished off our day with a walk around a local park with his chihuahua.

The next week we swam 30 laps.  The following week, 40.  I stopped and dried off a few laps before 40.  Not being a strong swimmer myself, I have a few moments of panic every now and then that I will drown if I push myself too hard, get a cramp in the deep end and then die, unexpectedly, tragically.  (I have little confidence in the lifeguards after observing one use her cell phone to prop a door open.  A man entered through the door she had propped open with her phone and the phone came crashing down on the tile floor.  I’m not confident that person who uses a cell phone for a door prop is properly trained in lifesaving techniques but that’s another story…)

“33, 34?” he asked.  His eyes looking for permission to stay longer.  “Go for it.  I don’t have it in me.”  Up and back, 33, 34.  He paused in the shallow end, “so 35, 36?”  “35, 36.” I nodded.  Up and back, 35, 36.  Then 37, 38, and 39, 40.

At 40 he stood up at the end of the pool and looked the length of the pool for some seconds in reflection.  Turning his head towards me, he asked “40?”  I smiled, “yep!  That was 40!”

On Monday, he swam 72 lengths of the pool.  The sign on the wall said 72 lengths equaled one mile.

After the second time at the pool I started down a dark road of thinking that swimming every single Monday would, to be blunt, be incredibly wasteful of my time.  I hate swimming.  I hate swim suits.  I hate the smell of chlorine.  If given the opportunity, I would swim the entire time without getting my nose wet.  I have a distaste for the way pool water burns the eyes.  I hate the way skin smells after being in a pool.  I do not enjoy the monotony of up and back, up and back.  And swimming, certainly wasn’t fully using my intellect, my gifts, what I was good at.

It wasn’t until the day he swam 40, that I noticed I was missing the point.  Monday afternoons weren’t about me.  I could either continue every Monday loathing how my timewas being spent, or I could realize that Monday’s weren’t about my time, but his time.  I could either sink, hating each Monday afternoon, or swim, and be respectful of how he would like his time to be spent.

As a staff member, it’s hard to separate the feeling of not being interested or not liking something, and the role that we play in supporting people in doing things that person enjoys, things they are good at or interested in.  It’s tough sometimes to play a role and being curious about something you could care less about.  (Art, historical reenactments, sports, religion….These have all been things staff here didn’t personally “care about” but still helped the person explore and deepen their role in it.  Because the “caring about” doesn’t have to be about the topic, just the person you’re working with.  There’s a marked difference between the two.  There is a particular sweet spot of caring about the topic and the person and we’re learning our way into that design, too.)

It would be easy to sit on the bench next to the pool and just watch or play on my phone, as many other “providers” have done for people with disabilities (or wait in cars, or sit outside, or do anything else but participate with).

There is something important to being along for the ride as you watch someone discover something new about themselves, meet someone new, come up with an interesting project idea.  And while I never liked beer and can’t stand the taste of it, if I refused based on my own preferences, where would Michael be?

I have no intention of just swimming every single Monday, swimming behind him in the lap lane.  But, we have started to notice “regulars” and are hoping to create a meet up of people who work out at similar times at the YMCA.  While building his confidence through swimming, he’s understanding that he can push himself a little harder physically, can accomplish small goals and we’ve already discussed the idea of building a team of friends and neighbors to walk a 5k together in the Spring of 2015.

Next Monday we’re going to hit the weight room first, after observing a few guys our age working out, and then swim.  I’ll jump in the pool, too, feet first, not because I care about swimming, but because I care about him.

Candice Jones Peelman