I watched from my seat in the sparsely populated bleachers as the swimmers began to assemble for the first race.
Underlying the smell of chlorine was a sense of restrained excitement and perhaps a bit of nervousness among competitors and audience alike. This school, like most others, had a surplus of pebbled concrete and splashing could be heard from the nearby practice pool. Though the main pool was empty, the surface ruffled from the same breeze that stirred the multi-colored triangular flags suspended above. The noise and activity began to subside as the swimmers started to remove their warm-ups. My eyes zoomed toward a muscular figure that was both foreign and familiar.
He swung his arms overhead, flexed his knees, and alternately shook his perfectly formed calves and thighs, as swimmers are apt to do before a race. Who was this man/child so toned, so fit, so focused on the race that my presence might not have been noticed had he not seen me beforehand? Was this the sullen, monosyllabic adolescent that I had to nag to be sure he was on time for 6 am swim practice? Where was the skinny underdeveloped body that had been concealed under too large sweats all through the preceding summer months?
That morning, about 20 years ago, on what later turned out to be a pleasantly warm fall day, my son Dedan specifically stated he did not want me to come to his swim meet.
Not once, not twice but three times.
He mumbled something about it being too much pressure if I were there, but did not divulge anything more. It was at a high school that I had never heard of before in Glendale or La Crescenta somewhere, one or two towns over from where we lived. The repetition was hardly necessary. After all, it was a workday for me, and truthfully I was a little bit relieved that my presence was not required.
And yet, I went about my day methodically making my scheduled sales calls and cramming all that I needed to do into the morning and early afternoon. I was torn. Ordinarily, I am a person of my word. When I said I wasn’t coming I meant it. Nevertheless, when I found myself consulting the Thomas Guide for the location of the high school where the swim meet was to take place, I had to admit that despite my denial I intended to go. I told myself I would stay on the fringes of the crowd.
If I was careful I could observe without my son even knowing I was there.
Once I parked my car, I followed the sounds toward what I hoped was the pool on the otherwise deserted campus. With a sinking feeling, I recognized the fallacy of my intentions. Who was I kidding? A swim meet was not a football game. There was no crowd for me to lose myself in. This was late afternoon on a weekday. There were the swimmers, other students, and some die-hard parents who could manage to get away on what was for most a workday. Furthermore, my lone brown face in the midst of the other non-brown faces pegged me as a supporter for the visiting team from Pasadena if nothing else did. And if that realization was not enough, my son, some distance away in the midst of his teammates, registered my presence as surely as if I had tapped him on his shoulder.
He turned toward me, our eyes met briefly, and his facial expression remained unchanged as he turned back toward the team. I wondered what was to come later. Did I need to concoct a story to explain my presence or would a simple apology be enough?
The first time Dedan swam at a major meet he was maybe 11 or 12. It was a regional event, and most of the details are fuzzy, but I do recall one of the teams was from Malibu. Our kids had something to prove. They swam for the neighborhood park, which made them the Loma Alta Swim Team, an unfortunate acronym for a sports team if ever there was one. Worse even than the pre-school he attended before called the Academy of Progressive Education or “APE” for short. Ironically it was here that he reportedly had such a fear of the water the first time, his teacher asked that I permit him to be excused from subsequent field trips to the YMCA pool.
That summer I was forever buying him replacement swim trunks. His explanations were vague, he lent them to someone, he lost a pair, he didn’t know what had happened to the ones I had just bought. When I saw some of his teammates, it was pretty clear where those missing trunks went. I was irritated at the time. But it was sobering to realize he was just trying to fulfill a team need, not merely being careless or irresponsible as I had assumed.
My irritation turned to dismay when one of the smaller members of the team (clearly not one who “borrowed” from Dedan) had on a pair of trunks that were several sizes too big. Someone had tried to remedy that with a huge safety pin at the waist. This boy competed gamely though, stroke, stroke, pull up his trunks, stroke, stroke, pull up his trunks. Of course he didn’t win, but just by finishing he earned the respect and admiration of all who watched.
What stood out for me back then was, every time Dedan won a medal he ran from the pool area, came to the shaded benches where the parents sat, and placed the ribbon around my neck. He then raced back to where he was supposed to be to get ready for the next race. I tried to remind him to slow down, conserve his energy for swimming but his joyful exuberance would not allow it. A normally talkative child, he didn’t say much, his satisfied smile spoke for him. Because the competition was regional, there were multiple teams and varied age groups. By day’s end I had 4 or 5 ribbons with giant discs clanking with my every move.
But now that middle school boy has disappeared.
In his place is a stoic unsmiling teenager. Someone, whom if you could persuade him to pose for a picture, no amount of coaxing could get him to smile. Looking at him now, it was not like a slap in the face or a punch in the gut, because those expressions imply pain, and it was not physically painful. But it was every bit as sudden and visceral. That moment, that realization, that not only is your child no longer a child, but is someone you don’t immediately recognize. Rather, he is a physical presence, silent, separate, and apart. You have to squint and concentrate to see any evidence of parental resemblance or influence.
And there I was on the sidelines enthusiastically cheering him on, but no longer really essential.
I don’t remember the outcome of the race or even the events he competed in. I recall struggling on the drive home to think up a plausible reason for going after I assured him I would not. I do remember that when he arrived home that evening before I could open my mouth to offer up my manufactured excuse, he said, “Thanks for coming to my swim meet,” and without waiting for a response he retreated to the solitude of his room and closed the door. I stood motionless in the hallway, wondering, not for the first time how to both love him and leave him alone.
Now a full two decades later, the plane I was on was preparing to land at Dulles Airport. Thankfully none of the threatened turbulence materialized and I took that to be a good sign. Having managed to sleep through the meal service I was hungry. But more than that I was just eager to be out of the confining seat and on the ground. I was ecstatic at the prospect of seeing my granddaughter even if she had mixed feelings about seeing me. One of the perils about being a long-distance grandmother I suppose.
My son would meet me on arrival as he always did. I tried to time it in order to avoid having him take time off from his job as a lawyer for the Department of Agriculture. He insisted on meeting me despite my assurance that I was perfectly capable of taking a shuttle. And of course, there he was, immediately recognizable with a smile that re-surfaced miraculously with the onset of adulthood. The leanness of youth was replaced with the solid bearing of manhood. He embraced me in that all-encompassing hug that conveyed our unspoken relief that I had arrived safely.
We maneuvered through the throng of travelers as we headed to baggage claim. Wordlessly, he reached out to grab my carry-on. Unlike previous trips, I was not here on business. I had not come to celebrate any particular holiday. I smiled to myself as I contemplated the real purpose of my trip.
Swim meets and water polo games were long ago memories. But my son had asked me to come and watch him compete in his first-ever triathlon. No distance, no high priced airfare, no prior commitments or other concerns about practicality, could keep me from doing so.
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