What We’re Made Of

June 20, 2012

This post isn’t new, but I thought it was the best example to answer MamaKat’s question this week: “Write about a time you were forced to step out of your comfort zone.”  MamaKat’s Writing Workshop rocks, so head on over there if you want to read some wonderful words.

What We’re Made Of

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.

{ 21 comments… read them below or add one }

sister sister June 21, 2012 at 6:08 am

Great story :). I applaud your resolution not to jump into the arms of a cute, blond-headed lifeguard…and not be swayed by a pretty face. Seriously though, I really liked your story. I could almost feel the yearning of wanting to jump and all the feelings that came along with being a little to scared to do it.

hi from mk’s


Martha June 21, 2012 at 6:41 am

The first of many leaps! There’s such a fine line between fear and excitement–there’s really only one deep, mindful, surrendering breath between them. Like you, I don’t want to get to the end of my life and say, “Well, that was a dud. Do I get a do-over?”

Great post, Dana!


TKW June 21, 2012 at 9:44 am

Thanks, Martha! I was always such a “fraidy cat” that the day really stood out in my memory.


Katybeth June 21, 2012 at 7:21 am

I was cheering for you….Timing is everything. I read something (maybe Pinterest yesterday) that reflects how I feel whenever I reach the edge of anything and I’m expect to jump, ” Hey, you know what we haven’t thought about in awhile MONSTERS!”


TKW June 21, 2012 at 9:45 am


I don’t think we ever fully lose our fear of monsters, whatever their shape.


Arnebya June 21, 2012 at 8:19 am

Oh, I loved this, loved how your mama let you be, didn’t push, only subtlely with well if you’re gonna, go on ahead. I remember being thrown in the water and it’s probably why I still can’t swim today, why at 38, I am still registering for classes, attending two, then requesting a refund. Luckily, I’ve been able to keep from projecting this fear onto the kids and though they aren’t full-fledged swimmers, they are at least comfortable in the water.


TKW June 21, 2012 at 9:46 am


This tugged at my heart. As a girl who never learned to ride a bicycle after she fell off, I understand.


Jenna June 21, 2012 at 8:51 am

The visceral emotions of childhood come rolling back as I read your words.


TKW June 21, 2012 at 9:47 am


I always kind of flinch when people refer to the “innocence and beauty” of childhood. There’s a lot of dark stuff in there, too. Maybe it’s better that we tend to forget about those.


hollow tree ventures June 21, 2012 at 11:06 am

Wonderful story! It made me think of my diving board leap, and wish I could go back to that pool to see if it’s really as high as I thought it was at the time. I think I expected it to change me – like once I jumped off, the spell would be broken, my fear conquered, and I’d want to do it again and again. I didn’t throw up in the water, but I never did it again, either. ;)


TKW June 21, 2012 at 1:24 pm

Hollow Tree,

You didn’t? After my first leap, I was addicted. :)


Jennifer June 21, 2012 at 4:42 pm

This story makes me cry. Our mothers are so much alike in some ways. We call that “pushing through the pain.” Cady is so terrified of the water. Last night was her first swimming lesson in three years. I called home and asked how it went. “I was a little scared momma, but I pushed through the pain.” I hope one day she can look back on that like you look back on this.


TKW June 21, 2012 at 6:59 pm


Good on Cady. She’s got grit.


Alexandra June 21, 2012 at 4:48 pm

My gosh, but you can write, woman.

In my heart, I wish people would feel about my words the way you make me feel about yours.



TKW June 21, 2012 at 7:01 pm


I’m not sure if I can write as much as I can remember, and keep an old wound open enough to talk about it. As always, I am so happy to have you in my life.


pamela June 21, 2012 at 5:54 pm

I think the definition of bravery is doing something that scares the crap out of you. Anyone can jump off the diving board if they aren’t afraid. It takes a brave person to jump when they are scared shitless. Love to you brave girl.


TKW June 21, 2012 at 7:04 pm


And Miss M. who is the same age I was in this snippet, just jumped off the high dive a few days ago. Who is the brave one, I ask you? I couldn’t believe her tenacity. *sigh*


Jennifer Worrell June 22, 2012 at 8:43 am

You described the whole diving board terror thing beautifully! Wow! I was scared right with you!


Kelly June 22, 2012 at 8:52 pm

I miss those days. I was once able to climb those rickety metal rungs and cart myself to the end of the board and just jump. Now I can barely bring myself to tiptoe through the shallow end to get to good lounging depth. Wild abandon has left me.


Barbara June 23, 2012 at 10:55 am

I was ever the coward about things too. I would finally get around to it all, but new things always scared the bejesus out of me. It’s a wonder I grew up and had kids. :)


faemom June 27, 2012 at 12:08 am

Those diving boards are scary. Seriously scary. In Orange, it didn’t matter how young the child was, they made them all go off the board on the last day of lessons. My heart nearly stopped when they dropped a toddler Sean off the board and into the waiting hands of the lifeguard in the pool. And he was fine!


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