A single tear
A whistle blows indicating ‘take your mark’. I watch as he pulls himself up. I see his every muscle coiled and ready to spring into action. Tendons are taunt. I can sense his heart racing. In his mind I know he races the race. He must be working to slow his breathing-he will need the breath in a moment. He’s told me that this is when the adrenaline rush begins. It’s racing through him: spreading to his limbs, burning his mind. It oozes from his chest down his arms to his very fingers which are clutching the metal so hard that his knuckles are white. With every beat of his heart, tha-dum, tha-dum, tha-dum, the adrenaline flows.
He knows what he had to do, this little fella of mine. I sit, high in the stands where I can only watch as he prepares. As the moments settles upon him. I know and he knows that that he has 1:00:00 to make it matter. One minute. That’s all. One minute. If it’s 1:00:02 than it’s all for naught.
I imagine that in his mind he hears the taunts and jeers. The ridicule that’s always there. The boys who play with balls laughing at this little boy who plays in water. They tell him he’s not an athlete. They mock him, mock his sport. They belittle his titles. These big boys who have men’s bodies long before they have men’s minds-what they don’t understand they mock; and they mock him. He pretends it doesn’t matter. He shrugs off the hurt but I see it. I see the shadows of his eyes where light should be. I see the slump of his shoulders, the sag of his stride on the days where the mocking is at its worst. I admire him for silently thumbing his nose at all that they say. He proudly wears his championship t-shirts proclaiming just what he is. On one hand he dares them to jeer. On the other he begs them not to. He longs to fit in but what he loves most isn’t anything that these boys; with their balls, their footballs and basketballs and baseballs understands. His need for water is bigger and stronger than his need for their acceptance. So he swims. And swims and swims.
There have been hours and hours of work. He’s swam miles and miles at practice. Because of his size he’s got to treat even the practices as if they are races. He’s pushed himself past the point that he thought he could go; he’s dug deeper when his body told him there was nothing else to give. I know.
I’ve listened as he’s lamented that it’s not fair. It’s not fair that the other boys can half-heartedly gallivant through practices without a care in the world yet still beat him. I’ve listened as he later talks with pride that his heard work earned him a place leading the practice lane, ahead of the bigger and stronger, older and more seasoned boys.
Tonight he has one minute to make it all count. In one minute his season is decide. In one minute he had either succeeded or, in his mind, he’s failed.
He’s in the water. I am in the stands. I sit feeling every bit as nervous as he. I want for him to taste the victory. I want him to understand that no matter the time on the clock he’s a success. He has the heart and the ability to push himself. I want him to know that hard work and heart are enough in this life. But enough isn’t enough; he wants more. He wants it all.
As an adult I know a win won’t silence the boys. It won’t. What they didn’t understand before they won’t understand no matter how many ribbons or metals he has. Does he understand that? Does he understand that he can’t change them?
As I sit here watching I worry thus he’s down there worrying this he is not enough. I am afraid I didn’t teach him well enough that who he is IS enough. But there isn’t time for any more life lessons-not from me anyway. This next life lesson, good or bad, is all on him. There isn’t time for me to hug him , to take his little face into my hands, look him straight into his gray eyes and say: You are enough. You don’t need a time flashing on a scoreboard in a crowded natatorium to prove that. You prove who you are in practice. You are enough. Like him, I’ve got to sit back and hope that my hours and hours of parenting were enough. I’ve got to trust in the words I’ve said before. I’ve got to believe that I’ve given him what he needs to face this…be it a win or be it a loss. His race is in the pool. My race is in perception of the outcome.
We are both asking ourselves ‘did we do enough? I know his fear is to not win. My fear is that he won’t take pride in all he’s done. My fear is that he will judge his worth by the time at the end of the race. I’ve taught him to face his fears…to look them in the eye and say ‘not today’. At least I hope I have. He’s taught me that too. There is no better lesson learned than one you learn from your own child. He’s looked his fears in the eye. He’s stood tall and firm when fear wanted him to cower. Is it enough? In one minute we will know.
It all comes down to this moment. One race. I see him look left. I see him look right. He’s a boy but he is flanked by men. They are bigger and stronger. They have more experience. On paper they are faster. ‘Acknowledge this but don’t let it beat you’ I urge from my place in the stands. ‘Don’t lose before you start’. If will could send messages it would be telling him this. I wish I could tell him that the numbers on the paper don’t count. Thus they don’t matter. Every race is new, every race brings the hope of a win. This is the time. The moment. In this arena it’s the power of the will, the desire of the heart that will win. And his heart is big. His heart is mighty.
1:00 means victory. 1:01 is defeat for him. Not for me. For me a victory will be a hug at the end of the race, a hug where I feel his quivering limbs, feel his pounding heart and know that he gave it his all as he whispers ‘I did it Mama. We did it.” A victory for me will not be the numbers flashed on the wall. My victory will be when he reaches across the lane divider to shake the hand of his opponent be it to congratulate or to be congratulated. My victory won’t be determined by time.
It’s time. The whistle blows. Time stands still. It is as if the entire world is waiting; Waiting on a moment. I am holding my breath, clenching my fist. My own heart beats, tha-thum, tha-tum, tha-thum. I can’t take my eyes off the boy in the pool. The cap emblazoned with his school colors. He glances up -a quick prayer? He tightens his hold on the block. I see his strength. I see his will. He’s ready. He’s primed for battle.
The gun sounds. The crowd simultaneously draws breath and exhales in an explosion of cheers. The excitement is palpable. Around me parents are on their feet their arms extended. Their voices raised as they call to their sons, “GO!” I sit. For once I am quiet. The energy pulses through the crowd until I can almost sense it reaching my boy. I add my energy and watch as he propels himself forward. Every muscle, every tendon uncoils and explodes. He makes his body long and lean to slice through the water. One last gasp of breath and he’s off the block. Even his toes help in the fight to get him into the water. He dives deep, deep until the sounds are gone and all imagine all he can hear is the beating of his own heart and the whisper in his mind: 1:00:00. I sit still. I watch. I whisper ‘please-please-please’ to myself because there is no one to hear my plea. My own knuckles are white as I grip the edge of my metal seat where I am perched. I watch.
And he races. He races with all his has. He races to prove every bully wrong but more importantly he races to prove himself right. To prove that every time he thought “I can” he was right; Because he can. Even from high above the pool I can see it. I can tell. He’s fighting. Fighting with all that he has. My eyes well with tears. He’s poetry in the pool. His movements are intentional. His power is graceful yet strong. I am in awe of what he can do. In the pool you don’t know his little. In the pool he is mighty. He believes when he finishes the race, when he gives one last burst of strength and touches the wall to stop the clock that he knows if he won or lost. He will be his own hero or he will forever be his own enemy. Not for me. He is my hero. He wants something and he’s fighting to get it. Against jeers and taunts and people telling him NO he’s said ‘I’ll try’. He’s worked and worked and worked and worked to get here. 32 boys have raced. There are 8 in the pool now. He’s there. There in the pool, in the heat with the fastest, the biggest and the strongest. Will be he the last one to finish? Will it be enough that he was there? That he earned the right to fight with the best? I hope that it is. I hope that no matter what the clock says at the end that he can be proud. I hope he knows that he’s already won. He’s there. He’s in the race. He’s earned the right to race.
And so he races. He fights.
I can’t sit still any longer. I leap to my feet with the heart in my throat. I raise my hands high and I say, Go-baby-go-baby-go. I say it over and over. He’ touched the wall at the far end of the pool. He’s in the race. Water splashes as the boys power through the water. There are 50 meters left. There is a rhythm to his movements. I find myself breathing with the strokes. Up, reach, down, pull. And again, Up, reach, down, pull. Again, up, reach , down, pull. We both breath. Up, reach, down and pull. The wall is in sight. He coils, flips and powers off the wall propelling himself down the pool. There are 25 yards left. I am jumping up and down now yelling for him to go. I am tempted to look to the clock to see where he stands but I don’t. This race isn’t about the clock from me. It’s about him. And he’s winning the race I want for him. I don’t need numbers to tell me that. The numbers will matter to him but they don’t to me.
15-yards, 10-yards he goes. The rhythm gets faster-the strokes get longer. He’s quit turning his head to breath. He’s taken his last breath of this race. He’s got to be so tired but still he fights. Up, down, reach and pull over and over again. I quit cheering. I quit breathing. I feel as if I am finishing the race with him. My lungs burn. My heart pounds.
He’s there. One last burst to touch the wall. To stop time. It’s his moment of truth. The moment that he will know. He rips off his goggles and turns to see the clock. The great decider. His eyes adjust. His heart and mine thrump a rat-a-tat-tats. A single tear slides down my check as I watch him. I don’t look to the wall where the time is flashing. He does. He reads the time and one single tear slides down his face, hiding in the trails of water on his face.