What We’re Made Of

August 25, 2010

The summer before first grade, I jumped off the diving board. This was nothing less than the second coming.

Because that entire summer? I sat on the sidelines, my butt itchy from the grass and my eyes squinty from sun and my heart shrunken and black with envy as I watched my sister jump, arms flying,  into blue.

I could swim, sure. But always,  I sought the shallow water,  stomach wrenching in terror whenever my toes drifted even an inch off concrete.

Kids much smaller than I took  leaps off that diving board. I saw them. I wasn’t blind. I saw them pop to the surface, eyes wide and teeth flashing; not one of them died or called out for the lifeguard or (worst in my book) threw up in the water.

Once or twice, I made it as far as the stairs leading up to the board. I waited my turn in line,  feeling like a normal kid. But I wasn’t a normal kid, and I knew it in every inch of my skinny little limbs… limbs that ran like a startled goat the minute they touched the warm metal stairs.

Mama was kind about it. “You’ll jump when you’re ready,” she assured me, eyes shadowed by cat-eye sunglasses. “Nothing to be ashamed about.”

But I was ashamed. That board screamed, in green neon, what I already knew: Dana is not a brave girl.

My sister didn’t understand the drama. “Jeez, there’s little babies jumping off that thing,” she said casually. “What, you think there’s sharks in the water or something?”

Actually, I had my doubts about that last item. I mean, have you seen that dark metal grate at the bottom of the deep end? My butt remained on the grass.

One day, near the end of the summer, I watched a neighbor girl who had Down’s Syndrome jump off the diving board. For some reason, that undid me. “I’m going to jump off that board,” I announced to Mama, and marched to the end of the line.

When it was my turn, I tromped up the four rough, metal stairs and walked rapidly to the end of the diving board. And looked down.

I didn’t turn tail and run back. Instead, I froze.

Legs threatening to give, I stood there, staring at the water.  I heard a strange roaring in my brain and couldn’t even discern whether kids were laughing or jeering or shouting with impatience, which actually was a blessing.  Mama got up from her chair and stood close to me, raising her cat-eye glasses. Wordlessly, the blond lifeguard got down from his high perch, dove into the water, and swam to the end of the board. He winked and treaded water. “I’ll catch you,” he said.

I saw his lips move, registered the blue of his eyes, but I didn’t budge. Another lifeguard dove into the pool, flanked the other side of the board. Then the older brother of  Down’s Syndrome girl, a boy named Greg, got into the water as well. “There’s three of us now,” he said, and held out his arms.

His beautiful face turned to blur, and sobbing, I turned my back on all three of them, returning to the safety of concrete. My sister wouldn’t look at me, and I didn’t blame her. I parked my butt back on the grass next to Mama, who handed me a cup of Hi-C and scanned a magazine with Elizabeth Taylor on the cover. Nobody spoke to me the rest of the afternoon, and for that I was grateful.

A few minutes before the pool closed, Mama started packing up our things. The kaleidoscope of children and kickboards and inner tubes had dissipated, and as I rolled my towel up with brisk efficiency, I said, “I feel like I could jump off that board right now,” knowing that it was too late. Knowing I was a liar.

Mama took off her sunglasses and looked me in the eye. “Well, then,” she said measuredly, “I guess you’d best go do it.”

I damn near peed myself.

Gauntlet thrown, I approached the diving board, walked to the edge, threw my eyes to the sky for a quick prayer to Jesus, and jumped.

I gasped to the surface, rabbity-hearted, and waited for applause.

I never got any.  But I did get a chlorine-soaked towel and a soft hand on my back, leading me back to my beloved concrete and the shallow water. Back to home.

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Liz @ Peace, Love & Guacamole August 31, 2010 at 10:36 am

This is a perfect story. Simply perfect. I loved it! It’s one of those stories, so rich with details and feeling, that will totally stick with me.


chaya August 31, 2010 at 2:12 pm

You do know how to relate an incident. I feel like I was there with you.

I learned to swim (forget dive) because I lied and said that I could. One day, I had to prove it, so I swam.


soccermom September 1, 2010 at 10:47 am

What a great life story. I am so amazed at how many people are scared of the water on into adulthood.


ck September 3, 2010 at 3:43 am

I know it’s not the applause you were hoping for, but I’m clapping for you. Tears in my eyes, yes. Admiration in my heart, you bet. And an understanding of how it feels to accomplish something monumental when no one else is looking.


Average Girl September 13, 2010 at 6:37 am

What a fantastic story! And, one that I’m sure you relive with each of your children’s accomplishments. I’m not a brave girl, either, so my life has been filled with silent moments where I’ve been waiting for applause. I’ve decided to just reward myself with chocolate, instead. (Great writing…)


Mommy Dearest September 29, 2010 at 12:20 pm

What a wonderful story. I had tears in my eyes…very moving.


alexandra May 11, 2016 at 5:49 pm

Remember whose daughter you are,

This is how you do it.



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