It was my father who got me to try Johnson City’s Memorial Park Community Center pool.
I had seen it, once, when it had first opened and I’d taken my parents — visiting me from Ohio — to tour the center. I knew my father would be glad there was a place he could swim, and I hoped it would entice them to visit longer and more often.
I miss my parents. The miles between us stretch too far and seem flimsy, as if they could break with all that distance.
Soon after our tour, my father swam in the pool and raved about it. So a couple of months ago, when he was in town, I decided to accompany him.
I should say here that my father and I are a lot alike. I have my mother’s coloring, but I have the shape of his legs, his round nose, his restlessness and allergies and his love of writing. I also love the water because of him. He was the parent who took me and my sister to water parks when we were kids and who splashed with us in hotel pools.
He and I were the only ones in the family to rush into the Atlantic Ocean when we went to Bald Head Island one late fall weekend a few years ago. The day was windy, and the water chilly, but we raced into it and let waves crash against us, then made ourselves swim for a minute — flapping our arms and kicking as fast as we could — before we rushed back out onto land.
The day we ventured to the Memorial Center, we shared a pool lane — not swimming in circles (I am not nearly as fast as he), but splitting the lane in half. My father switched between freestyle and breast stroke, and, as always, he was smooth in the water, sleek and fluid.
After 45 minutes, he stood up and lifted his goggles to the top of his head. “Do you want a lesson?” he asked as I swam toward him.
I knew it was a freestyle lesson, without his saying it. I’d confided to him a few weeks before that I’d never learned the stroke: as a kid, I had mastered the breast and back stroke, but if I’d ever known freestyle, it was lost from my adult memory.
I looked at the clock and hesitated, then realized: my father was offering to teach me something. I knew better than to pass that up. “Yeah,” I said. “I do.”
“I’ve been watching you swim, and you already have a strong flutter kick,” he said. This made me proud, like I was a little girl again. The lesson was starting out well.
He showed me how to move my arms while simultaneously turning my head and mouth up toward the ceiling to catch air. “Just do that once or twice,” he said.
After gulping a breath of air, I put myself face down in the water, then rotated my arms and kicked furiously, lifting my head at the right time. I managed the stroke, but not well, and it felt like I was gasping.
“It’ll get easier the more you do it. Remember to lift your side up as you rotate your right arm,” he said and demonstrated it. “Now, try to go a little longer.”
Sometimes I think about all the things I learned from my father: how to ride a bike, how to mow the lawn, how to write a story. He taught me to see all people as equals. He taught me devotion to God. He taught me to look for the lesson in troubled times.
I wish I could ask my father now all the things I will want to know later.
That day in the pool, he encouraged me until I’d swum a pool length, then another. I was still gasping a bit, but I wasn’t getting water in my mouth, the way I used to when I attempted the stroke by myself with no direction.
“You did great,” he said when I returned to him, and the trying felt like winning.
A few weeks ago, I practiced freestyle again. The chlorine smell reminded me of family vacations, and of my father. It always does.
I swam alone, but his directions echoed in my head.
I was a poor imitation of my father, yet I kept at it anyway, trying to emulate him in what he’d long ago mastered, and wanted me to know.
Shuly Cawood is a writer and editor living in Johnson City.