Swimming for Beginners

Written by Katie Kelly in honor of her brother Joe

K and J photo

Everyone knows the situation when a parent introduces his/her child to a friend who hasn’t seen the child in years. The friend says, “Oh you’ve gotten so big!” and the child simply smiles and nods in response, lost for words to reply. My mother has a lot of friends, meaning a lot of smiles and nods to virtual strangers were portrayed on my part. I carry this frequently recurring experience to remember a very important lesson my mother taught me: you can only make a first impression once. So I now find myself in this situation again–talking to virtual strangers, mothers and fathers and adults alike, trying to make a good first impression. This time, however, I will not just smile and nod and be polite. This time, I am going to tell you a story about a boy who loved math, pie, and football.

Joe was an anomaly. No matter who he was with or how old he was, he was different from all who surrounded him. Joe had a calm demeanor in all situations, despite the chaos spinning around him. He was a cornerstone to rely upon in a storm, a firm hand to hold in times of need. Joe’s deep blue eyes held wisdom from years and years beyond his physical existence. Everyone could find a companion in this lumbering, soft giant. Joe possessed such sincere and profound kindness, one often questioned how old this kid actually was. Despite all of the beautiful things that created his character, Joe was diagnosed with brain cancer in 2010. Was it fair? Of course not. Was he, of all people in the world, supposed to be punished with the burden of illness? Absolutely not. But, opinions do not change fact, and my family did not have the power to change our reality. Not once did Joe cry out “Why me!”No. He took this crushing blow in his lumbering stride and continued on. His strength never wavered, his deep blue eyes never filled with tears. As death eventually parted the two of us, I have memorialized my brother. In death we are granted this privilege, to glorify our loved ones in only a positive light, but this brilliance does not always cast sunshine onto the lives of the living. Often dark clouds and spontaneous rainstorms are cast upon us, and it is with the guidance of others and faith in ourselves that we swim through the floods of rain to reach land, to reach solid ground to plant our feet upon.

The only pearl of wisdom I offer parents about enduring this great, immense mass of water is that everyone swims differently. The power of the current may be relentless, but as long as you kick your legs and move your arms, you are making progress. It is not the job of a lifeguard to instruct those in the water how to swim and deal with the onslaught of waves that come their way, it is the job of the lifeguard to throw in a life preserver or provide assistance when someone is struggling to keep their head above water. I may prefer the butterfly, you may like to backstroke, another may enjoy the dog paddle, but we are all swimming with the same goal–to reach land. In times of sickness, death, and trying, it is the role of parents to be the lifeguard. Watch over your swimmers in the water and provide assistance when necessary, but you can’t carry them to shore yourself, then they will never learn how to survive the rough waters on their own. Provide your children whatever resources, tools, or outlets necessary for them to cope with the grievances they are facing.

So, here I am–a life preserver, or, for those who are just getting their toes wet, those little inflatable wings you slip on new swimmer’s’ arms. I am a vessel, an option, a tool to anyone who needs help staying above water, or just wants someone to chat with as they float along. Let your kids decide how they want to swim, who they choose to swim with, and once in a while, throw them a life preserver or two.

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