Telling Secrets…Then Taking It a Step Deeper into the Grave

Copyrighted by Lorna Tedder. Originally published in Crimes to the Third Degree.

I’m going to tell you a secret.

Well, okay, it’s not really a secret—it’s just something I don’t talk about, and because I don’t generally talk about it, people assume that it’s a secret or something that I’m ashamed of.

Flying By Night novelIt’s not that either.

It has more to do with not wanting to hear criticism, subtle or blatant, and in being so weary of condescending attitudes whether it’s a spouse or boyfriend or an 11-year-old best friend or a five-year-old girl, all feeling superior because of this one…secret of mine.

So here it is: I can’t swim.

There. Satisfied?

It has nothing to do with seeing “The Poseidon Adventure” when I was a little girl. It has to do a far worse things.

Maybe in a past life, I was a witch drowned in water torture or maybe I was aboard the Titanic and trapped beneath the decks. I don’t know. I don’t really feel either. I can’t get past my own current life to examine what happened in previous lives in this regard, but here I am, living in a beach town and I can’t swim.

I love going out on a boat and just enjoying and watching. I won’t be skiing or swimming, and usually I’m the only one in a life jacket.

Of all the people in my circle of influence, it’s my colleagues from work who seem to be actually the most understanding because a military base draws people from all over the world, places that don’t have lakes or rivers or the ocean, nearby other people like me who enjoy the water but grew up in the desert one way or another and never learned to swim or grew up knowing plenty of people who didn’t know how to swim. I can’t describe how many times have been ridiculed and berated by other adults.

Then again, there are the insidious offerings of help by signing me up with their five-year-old granddaughter so that she and I can “learn to swim together” and the five-year-old can show me what a “big girl” she is and shame me into learning to swim.

Oftentimes I’ve confessed my secret to someone I’ve cared about and who genuinely cared about me—and the next words out of their mouth almost always has been “Well, I can teach you.” Even kindly said, they missed the point. It wasn’t about their skill or talent or my laziness. For some, the offer was full of self-superiority.

I’ve had a few people ask why I can’t swim, but they’ve never really gone any deeper than that. They’ve seen it merely as a matter of initiative. To me, it was a visitation to something from long ago.

They’ve asked, didn’t I ever have the opportunity to learn to swim when I was growing up?

Oh, yes. Almost. My mother saved silver half-dollars as part of her plan to pay for swimming lessons so I could have lessons like my brothers from the local public pool in the little town where I grew up. Unfortunately, the pool closed down and was turned into a fundamentalist church—no kidding—a few months before I qualified for the minimum age limit for lessons. I’m not sure I could have gotten past my first lesson anyway.

But the issue goes deeper than a pool closing down or lessons drying up, and yes, I know the issue is there. I’m very aware of it. I haven’t fully addressed it at this point, but I am aware of it, the reason why I’ve never learned to swim either as a child offered lessons from various friends and their parents or as a teenager offered lessons by numerous friends or as an adult offered lessons, berated, ridiculed, and threatened Gods-only-know how many times with being tossing into pool to force me to learn to swim. I once, while being dangled above a pool, had to threaten some idiot that if he threw me in and I survived, I absolutely would have him arrested for attempted murder. By the time he put me down, I was a crying, blubbering mess and the party had been ruined for me as well as everyone else there. The more these people have pressured, the more I have resisted because no one’s ever gotten to the root of the problem…and I do know where this fear comes from.

I don’t go there often, and this is the only time I’ve ever gone there in writing.

I was about three years old—maybe two, maybe four—and I loved playing in the sandbox my daddy had made for me. I had a sun hat, probably one my mommy had made for me. I was barefoot in the sand, enjoying the earth, the element of my choice and the element that I seem to need so desperately.

There in my sandbox, alone in the yard, away for the driveway, against the wire fence that bordered on the field that included a small creek— the fence between the creek and me—and I was safe enough between a fence I could not get through, with my beloved Collie nearby, and with my mommy washing dishes at the kitchen window about 50 feet away and able to glance up as she washed dishes with a kitchen window open, listening to me singing and telling stories in my sandbox.

I remember being in my sandbox, playing, and then there’s a blank in my memory or maybe it’s not such a blank in my memory as it is the fact that it happened so fast..though at the time I believe that it seemed to take forever.

All I know is that the Earth opened up and swallowed me.

That I was somehow falling and slipping past the fence. The fence that I was to “stay on this side of” was suddenly over me, flying past above me as I was being sucked downward, swallowed up by the Earth, buried alive in damp dirt, mud, and then water washing in over me and filling my eyes and mouth and ears and nose. My sandbox turning into a grave.

My mother tells the story and she remembers standing at the kitchen window, watching me as she washed dishes, hearing my singing stop as she glanced back up in time to see the ground swallow me.

There was an underground water supply directly beneath my sandbox. Water had eroded beneath my sandbox on its way to a nearby “watering hole” on the other side of the fence, and when it caved in, my sandbox capsized and slipped underneath the protective fence, the dirt and sand around me mixing with the underground water supply and burying me in mud and muck and dirt and water, all in the flash of an eye.

My mother just happened to be watching at that moment. Maybe that explains one of the reasons why she’s always been overprotective.

She ran as hard as she could, and she remembers that she fished me out of the mud, pulling me to her. She knew that I was alive because, once I could open my mouth and taste air instead of mud and water, I started screaming bloody murder. She carried me to the bathtub and wash me off and washed out my mouth and hugged me until I was warm again.

But I remember it a little differently. I remember that feeling of being buried alive with the dirt and water and the mud completely covering me until everything was blotted out.

I don’t remember having time to yelp. I don’t remember anything going on inside my own body. I remember arms pulling me out, hands drawing me forth.

I remember my mother’s voice telling me to just keep my eyes closed and breathe through my nose and to just keep my eyes closed so I wouldn’t see. I don’t remember myself screaming or clinging to her and, if anything, it is the opposite that stays with me. I remember her running all the way back to the house as hard as she could. I remember the skin of her upper arm beneath the short-sleeved blouse she wore. I remember her upper chest soft through the fabric of our shirt soft against my cheek.

I remember defying her to open one eye just enough to get a glimpse of light because I desperately needed to see light at that point, not just hear her voice and know that everything was okay but to see light and know that I was no longer buried alive. My eyes could see light then. I saw the grass, green beneath my mother’s feet. I saw the edge of her arm and the light and the world around me jiggling up and down as she ran, wheezing in breath, clutching me to her chest, and I remember that she was hysterical and urgent and I could hear her heart pounding furiously in the ear that I pressed against her flesh, and I remember her running inside the house, hauling me into the bathtub, and I remember eventually both my eyes open and looking at the dirt in the bathtub and so amazed at how much dirt has covered me.

I already knew very well, even at that young age, about funerals and death and burials, and like many children had that fear of being buried alive or smothered to death or drowning.

But when it actually happened to me, although I’m sure I was terrified, I don’t remember being terrified. I don’t remember my fear at all. I remember my mother’s fear instead. I look back now and see myself as calm and rational, being taken care of, being somehow outside myself and the situation.

I remember her voice, see it in that memory of that little sliver of light through a mud-covered eye and the world jiggling up and down around me as she raced to save my life.

So all my life I have heard “What? You can’t swim?!” or “Why can’t you swim?” or at best “Why don’t you learn to swim?”

But nobody ever asked why my fear of drowning was as strong, even those who knew about the watery cave-in that nearly claimed my life before was old enough to read, even those people never connected the dots.

They say you live together but die alone. I came very close to there.

So far, every time I’ve taken the initiative to learn to swim, I’ve gone right back to that place of being swallowed up. Caves and caverns I can do, even deep underground tunnels. But if there’s water…if there’s water….I’m on shaky ground, just as I was then.