It doesn’t interest me if our daughters become athletes. I want to know they have stood with a team, cheered or shrugged and tried their very best. I want to see a smile in flushed cheeks and feel they gave it all in field or lane’s memory.
This season in a pool at the end of our short road, Betty went from ten seconds underwater to the butterfly, the backstroke, the breaststroke. She started on a team called the seals when it was still last year and ended on the dolphins. For a few evenings a week she’d sit soaked amid homework, spelling words and sisters jealous of her new mermaid skills. The season came to an end on her strong limbs and chlorine-brittle hair last Saturday.
In the empty pool before two island teams merged Betty was excited to be in her first meet, the last of the season. In the rush of bathing caps and teenagers, somehow, she lost her way to confidence.
Before the first heat and the opening cheer she’d decided she was the worst swimmer in black and royal blue. Maybe she didn’t believe she was the worst, but she certainly didn’t believe in herself. It was really hard to witness.
My small, New England town was known for lacrosse. Following suit in pleated skirt of black, polo of grey, I picked up a stick at nine and fell in love. State Champ status clung to the gymnasium walls in felt banners. By my junior year, so many of my teammates were just incredible and our record mirrored our perfect pony tales, Narragansett Bay tan lines and country club palates.
It could have been the music I loved or the poems I wrote, but sometimes I checked out on the field. My parents, standing at the chain link off early from meetings, traffic and clients, yelled words of encouragement:
Attack! Go at it! Go get it! Run faster!
Words like this make me want to loosen my laces, fall crossways on my bed and flip the tape. I know someone else on my team could do it…better. I’ll force a foul, check a stick to check out the bench.
Years later, at 10,000 feet in the backcountry of Montana’s Beartooth Mountains for the first time with the boy I’ve fallen in love with and new Telemark skis strapped to my feet I’ll hear a similar chant:
Attack, Jenn! Go for it! Jump turn!
I jump to a stop as soon as the steep levels, release the binding and consider walking down, all five thousand feet back to town, back to that bed and familiar pattern.
Hours later, on the twisty mountain road home, Luke will look right inside me and realize exactly what he needs to say. It’s what he now says to our girls on the ski slopes, pool sides and bike paths:
Yes. Just like that. You got it. Nice! Amazing! Look at you!
I always need to be recognized for what I’m doing, not for what could have been in a moment I can’t repeat.
I want my girls to feel that support, to know I’m next to them. I understand the power of ski team race bibs, of pleated skirts and pony tales. There’s strength to be gained from cheering on a team.
And it’s why I wouldn’t let Betty, our Elisabeth Rose, take off her bathing cap, throw down her goggles and hide under her lucky Hawaii towel.
I hold her hand, hold the door to the outside closed. She closes her eyes, bites her lip and begins sobbing. She wants her blanket, her stuffed elephant. I want her in the crowded pool practicing laps. I want her to hear the sound of underwater, the familiarity of the bubbles rushing over her.
Every ounce of me wants to pick her up and walk the block home. Luke sits along the wall with sisters ready to cheer, sisters piled high with snacks and crayons and the busying tools of a four-hour swim meet. We’d all given everything to the day to be present for Betty and all she wants is to be home and alone.
Her coach says her power animal is the raccoon. She needs her goggles on to see in the night. Her towel is her fur and she needs to wrap it around her. Like all good raccoons, she needs to stay close to the den.
Leaving feels like the easy road. It feels like the path shortest to a forgotten memory.
I have her stand and she squeezes my hand. We talk about the ones who came in last in heat. They smile, everyone cheeres. Swimming is about beating personal time, after all. An hour of my heart hurting in ways that have me questioning everything about my parenting style travels on, and suddenly she shuffles over to where her team stands poolside. Nervous, I follow. A few minutes later, she hands me her towel.
The team boys have been writing all over each other in black Sharpie. Inappropriately spelled statements like, Eat My Bubel. The girls are drawing hearts and angel wings on backs. Before the second wing is finished, I hear Betty say, Go, Mama.
I’m so glad I have a sunglass habit for times when it’s too much to push back. With the piles of Hello Kitty coloring books and cheerful ready-to-cheer sisters, my tears came and my glasses go on.
Sometimes it is hard to know my way as a Mama. And in this sweet little family of ours we really all want the best for one another.
Betty’s little sisters, 5 and 3, held hands silent at pool’s edge when heat 17 finally comes. Or was it 27?
She did a nervous back stoke in a pool she wasn’t sure earlier if she’d ever get in again. She comes in last as we came unglued in our cheering. Actually, everyone in there is chanting Betty, Betty, Betty.
It is commonplace for last finishers to be fiercely cheered. She climbs out of the pool, all smiles and pride.
Mama, says Betty, can you believe I didn’t want to do that?!
and today, a bit of unedited writing
joining Just Write
and thank you all so very much for your comments and messages on a piece that was really so, so hard for me to press post on. A Different Kind of Model has reached so many of you and for that I am happy.