Pools, Sprinklers, and Memories of Inescapable Places

For a few years now, Daniel has had an intense fear of swimming pools. He dips his toes, puts his feet in, while he sits on the edge or on the steps. But he doesn’t go in. When he does try, his body stiffens into a statue. I have begged, promised rewards, sometimes even become angry, saying that he used to jump in pools all the time, that there are lifeguards, that we would never let him get hurt. Nothing. No way.

But take Daniel to the ocean, and he will not come out of the raging waves. We have wondered about this, asked him questions, joked lightly about how he is not afraid of waves and sharks, but won’t go into a pool. No answers. But there he is, letting the waves crash into him, riding them, one with it all, with absolutely no trepidation.

A few hours ago, on our way to the water park on the boardwalk where we go each time we are in Ocean Grove, Daniel tells me he wishes we were going to the beach instead of the water park. There’s nothing to do there, he says. His friends are all at the beach. That place is for small kids, first of all. I listen, then tell him that all this may be true, and I, too, prefer the beach to a circle with sprinklers. But I remind him that we have Imani, and you know, sometimes we have to do things to make people we love happy, which is the same reason we had stayed at the beach late yesterday, so he could surf longer, even though Imani wanted to leave. Now it’s our turn to do something for his sister, I tell him, and he agrees. I remind him that he can choose to sit in a chair and sulk, or enjoy himself while we’re there.

He tells me he will not go in the water, but he isn’t sulking, he just doesn’t want to. Then, he says, “Mommy, can I tell you something about this place? It’s kind of like swimming pools, you know, how they freak me out? Like when my body gets all tight and I feel like I can’t breathe? I think it’s because there is a gate around it, and it’s closed in like a pool, and it makes me feel like I’m trapped, and I can’t escape. It’s like all around me it’s closed, and I can’t come out, even though I know I can come out. That’s just how it feels to me. The sea doesn’t make me feel this way because there is so much space. And I feel good about myself, not like in the water park and the pool. Over there I feel like I’m in prison and I can’t get out. I know that the sea can be dangerous, but I don’t feel afraid because the sea makes me feel freedom.”

I thank my son for explaining all this to me, tell him it’s good to talk because it makes us feel better, and helps people understand us. I praise him for being able to learn about himself this way and express all this, and say that there are adults who can’t do as much. I ask if he would like me to find an excuse and tell Imani we are not going to the water park, but he says that he doesn’t mind watching her play, he just doesn’t want to go in the circle himself. We sit in the shade, then in the sun, then back in the shade, talking, eating snacks, occasionally interrupted by Imani, who is either freezing, or thrilled to report the latest happenings in the sprinklers.

My mind slips into layer after layer of conscious and unconscious memories that shape my child’s self, despite all else that is there to shape him. Sometimes, I think Daniel doesn’t know, doesn’t remember his life before this family we are today. It truly seems that he doesn’t. But six years after he walked out through the gate of the home in Montego Bay for the last time, he is paralyzed when he perceives he is in a place that encircles him. And six years after he joined his family, he is able to articulate this fear, and find ways to work around it. It is moments like this talk on the boardwalk that teach me what it means to be a mother, and remind me that as long as there are my children, there is room for me to be a more compassionate, accepting, and giving person.

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