I may as well come out with it because it’s there. And if you look at me long enough, you’re bound to see a trait I first noticed when I was four or five and understood at thirteen. I didn’t think about it much at the time, but it resurfaces now and again to buoy a notion that my father was a swan, and I am a duck.
Daddy tried to teach me to swim with his grace, his long, easy strokes. Facedown in water, his head turned slowly from side to side to inhale and then exhale. And all with his legs stretched straight, his toes pointed to kick and splash like an Olympian. But I couldn’t move my arms, legs, and head in sequence. Instead, I became an underwater swimmer, breath held, arms flung to the side, with legs pumping hard in the pools or oceans or lakes he took me to flap around in.
When I was thirteen, we traveled to Hawaii for the summer. Again, he worked on my strokes. But I preferred to dive into the skyscraper waves and always seemed to miss the perfect moment when the swelling water crested to bodysurf alongside my father. Instead, the monsters usually broke on my head, and I would roil and furl until my bottom hit the Pacific Ocean’s floor with a thud.
The closest I’ve ever come to drowning was that summer on Waikiki Beach when a massive wave pressed me underwater until my lungs felt they would burst. But the tsunami hit a sandbank and returned with such force, I popped high in the air as I gasped for breath. Daddy couldn’t stop laughing, and I was so mad at him I marched (not gracefully) back to shore and pouted on the highest dune to watch my short life pass before my salt-stung eyes.
On a recent trip to Ireland, I watched the swans in Dublin’s Grand Canal and on lakes in St. Stephen’s Green, their long S-shaped necks and skating ballet reflected below them. Families glided in perfect Vs. Now and then I’d see a baby nose down and circle off course. That swan would be my father. He was the one always leaving the bevy—the non-conformer, the risk taker, the happy traveler.
Perhaps that’s why he was so patient with my inelegant stokes. For under the surface, he too was a duck like me. I wonder what he saw mirrored in the water? When I looked at him, I saw a swan. But what did he see? As if to answer my question, a flock of Mallards and wayfarers waddled to shore and surrounded me with a loud chorus of grunts and yodels and quacks.
Photo by Peter Castleton, Creative Commons via Flickr. Post by Darrelyn Saloom, co-author of My Call to the Ring: A Memoir of a Girl Who Yearns to Box.