Sink Like a Rock, Float Like a Bubble

Rocketman has always loved the water. He was born into a family of water-lovers. For one, we live in Rhode Island, a state that despite not being fully surrounded by water, has “island” as part of its name. While dating, Rocketman’s dad and I fell more in love the day that we discovered that we both would rather inspect sea creatures in a cove under a bridge than go out to a fancy dinner. A year before he was born, hubs and I fulfilled a life-long dream by completing a NAUI scuba diving course and earning lifetime scuba certifications. Rocketman was destined to love water.

I signed Rocketman up for swimming lessons when he was 8 months old. While other babies whimpered, cried and expressed fear and distress their first time in the pool, Rocketman had but a moment of concern and confusion before he began splashing, laughing and flipping around in my arms.

From that time forward, as soon as spring came around I would sign Rocketman up for swim again. We continued with Mommy  (or Daddy) and Me classes straight up until I was nine months pregnant with Bubba and stretching out my plus-sized bathing suit so I could catch Rocketman as he slid off a small slide into the pool and jumped off the block into my arms.

Swim ended and baby bootcamp began and chaos ensued. And when Rocketman was three, a magnificent, state of the art YMCA was built the next town over. And we had to check it out.

It was spring, time for swimming lessons. With Bubba in the Ergo on my chest, I strolled into the new Y with Rocketman’s small hand in mine. It was, indeed, state of the art. Modern art hung over our heads from the high ceiling, the adult gym whirred with brand new workout machines, and small cafe tables with brightly colored chairs littered the lobby. But the thing that tore Rocketman’s hand from my grip was the full glass wall that overlooked the swimming pool.

The swimming pool was large, much larger than the one we had used at our previous Y. But the feature attraction was not the pool itself. Bordering the pool, there was a kiddie area featuring a small splash pad. Water poured out of holes in the floor in an arc and sprayed out of a firehydrant and tall happy flower. Waterfalls dripped out of tall poles bent at 90 degree angles above the family swim area of the pool. Children screeched as a bucket that had been slowly filling with water suddenly leaned heavily over, spilling its contents on their heads 10 feet below. Rocketman stood, fixated, with his small hands and the tip of his nose pressing marks on the glass. And then he pointed at the bright red twisty turvy giant water slide in the deep end of the pool.

“Mom! I wanna go there!! I wanna do that!! Can we do that Mom? Now??”

But we couldn’t. Because in order to be allowed access to the giant water slide, one had to swim the width of the family pool and back. And Rocketman was only three. And could not swim.

But he thought he could! On our first day of swimming lessons at the new Y, Rocketman begged the instructor to let him go down the slide. She explained the swim test to him and asked if he would like to try it. I held my tongue and my breath as he splashed into the water with her by his side and sunk like a rock. She retrieved him from the water’s depths unfazed and encouraged him to swim the width of the pool. He did so…with the aid of her hand supporting his belly and propelling him forward. “Did I do it, did I do it??” And his face fell when she told him, no not yet.

With gentle encouragement, I explained that the reason we were taking swimming lessons was so that he could learn to do just that. And with practice and hard work, he would be passing the swim test and tearing down that slide in no time. I predicted six months, which would bring him to four. I was hopeful and he was determined.

And then he was diagnosed with sensory processing issues, low muscle tone and fine and gross motor difficulties. And swimming lessons became a nightmare.

This new pool was so big and beautiful that it drew children of all ages for all types of lessons. During one swim session, there could be at least six lessons going on in different areas of the pool, as well as family swim activities involving the splash pad and waterslide. Screeches of glee mingled with cannonball splashes and instructors’ voices straining to rise above the din. Coupled with the cool wet water covering his sensitive skin, Rocketman went into sensory overload.

Many children with SPD (Sensory Processing Disorder) will react to overstimulation with either a fight or flight response. Those who have a “fighting” response tend to be seen as behavior problems, bouncing off the walls, yelling, screaming, crying, banging…painfully frustrated about what the bombardment of sights, sounds and touch are doing to their bodies. Rocketman’s typical response was “flight.” Running out of a crowded theater, digging his fingernails into the doorframe to avoid being carried out of the house when there was a fire engine (and therefore potentially loud noise) across the street, or retreating inside himself to a safe place in his mind and looking off unblinking. The later is the way in which he went through his first few swimming lessons at the new Y.

While other kids were splashing, laughing, actively engaged, Rocketman was out in space. The teacher would yell, “When we float, what do we look like?” All the kids would yell, “STARFISH,” and splay their limbs out to the sides. Rocketman’s limbs would remain slack, his eyes floating to the left, unfocused on anything going on in front of him. He would be pulled through the lessons with an instructor at his side, appearing to be barely aware of where he was and why he was there. And I would sit on the bleachers with Bubba in my lap willing him to come back from wherever he was so he could learn and enjoy the experience with his peers.

I did some research. (aka Google searching) Some said that the more SPD kids were exposed to certain stimuli, the more their brains could process the stimuli. And so, painful as it was to watch, I did not give up swimming lessons, and Rocketman did not give up his waterslide dream.

As the sessions progressed, Rocketman seemed to become more aware. Now four and a half, he was gaining confidence and convinced he could swim, though I knew he could not. When it was his turn during lessons, he would hit the water and begin to flap his arms. His mouth would open and his tongue would come out and indescribable noises would emit from his body. Almost like he was blowing an invisible horn with his tongue out. Still clearly overstimulated. But at least he was responding physically in some way…?

And still we continued. Right through the the “turn around phase.” This time, while all other children were focused on the instructors and instructions, Rocketman would turn around, look at me, smile, stick his jaw out and grunt in a sing-songy way. I would spend the lesson mouthing, “Turn around,” and turing my index finger through the air while Bubba laughed and tried to jump out of my arms and join his brother in the bizarro fun.

One day, while Bubba was participating in Waterbabies in another area of the pool with Daddy, I watched as the three instructors took the three other kids in the group and swam toward the center of the pool. Rocketman was left sitting on the side of the pool unattended. I immediately felt uneasy.

Once again, Rocketman turned and looked at me, jaw jutting out, staccato grunts pushing out from his belly. I nervously held up my hand and mouthed, “Stay right there.” Then a wide smile spread across his face and he threw himself off the side of the pool and into the deep water. And, again, sunk like a rock.

I don’t remember flying off the equipment locker I was sitting on. I found myself kneeling at the side of the pool, stretching as far as my body would reach and plunging my hand under the water to grab a small flailing arm. It was as I was pulling a sputtering Rocketman out of the water that the life guard and all 18 swim instructors from the pool closed in on us. That was the day that Rocketman was finally convinced that he couldn’t yet swim, but the sick feeling that I had as I watched him sink has never quite gone away.

Rocketman was full swing into Occupational Therapy at that point. All experts agreed: swimming was great for him! It could aid in self regulation! It taught him where his body was  in space! It engaged all of his muscles that were low in tone and needed to be strengthened. And so we endured the torture until May of his year of four. And then we took the summer off to…swim. In the ocean, at the lake, and in our best friends’ new pool.

And Rocketman turned five. Therapy continued twice a week, but other than that, the summer was laid back, and full of pure childhood outdoor fun. And Rocketman thrived.

Everything seemed to “click.” Self-care, following steps in directions, and self regulation, things that he had struggled with daily for years, suddenly became non issues. He grew, he matured and he suddenly became the best version of himself.

And in November we started swimming lessons again. Bubba had broken all kinds of Waterbaby barriers and had been bumped up at two to the 3-6 year old class. And so Rocketman and Bubba took lessons side by side. And for Rocketman, there was no flailing, grunting, or throwing himself into the water. When the instructor would say, “What do we look like when we float?” Rocketman’s would me the loudest response of “A STARFISH!” He would smile and wave at his brother and us, but mostly his focus was the instructors, and following their instructions. When the session ended, Rocketman’s favorite instructor handed me his progress report. Every skill had been checked off as completed. But the recommendation was to remain in this level for one more session. “I know he could technically move up, but that class is 45 minutes instead of 30 and I think he just needs one more round of this class to increase his endurance. In the next class, they will mostly be swimming unaided.”

In school that month, the Pre-K kids were asked to write about a goal that they had. Rocketman wrote about the waterslide.

It was January. A year since Rocketman had flung himself into the water and sunk like a rock. Bubba was now in the same class as his brother. This did not phase Rocketman. He was glad to have the company.

When class ended in February, the instructor smiled as she handed me the report saying that Rocketman could advance to the next level- the highest of the preschool classes- and said she was confident that he was ready.

On a Thursday evening in March, I rushed from work to pick up Rocketman and then Bubba, sped to the YMCA, stripped their clothes off, threw their swim trunks on and rushed to join the first class of the new session.

But there was nobody there. I huffed and puffed up to a lifeguard as I surveyed the empty pool. “This is a biweek. Classes start next week.”

But we were there. And the kids were in suits. Hubs was on his way and we both had our suits. I called Hubs and we agreed to stay for family swim. The kids were ecstatic.

First they splashed in the splash pad. Then Rocketman asked if he could swim in the family pooI where the rule was that only those without floatation devices could enter without a parent. I encouraged him to ask the life guard, who agreed that it was fine.

I watched in awe as he independently swam around the low end of the pool. Then, his pupils got big and he rushed out of the pool and at me and asked, “Can I go on the WATERSLIDE?” I told him that he would have to speak to the lifeguard and probably pass the swim test first. He asked me what he needed to do for the swim test and then ran back into the pool. Without faltering, he swam from one side of the family pool to the other. When he got there he turned to me, smiled, and gave me a big thumbs up, which I returned enthusiastically. I gestured that he now needed to swim back. Without hesitation, he plunged ahead. This time, though, the current from the waterslide was rushing against him. It was slow going and nothing showed above the water but his face which was creeping along the surface tenuously.

I didn’t realize I was holding my breath until he made it back to the side. He was shaking as he scrambled up the side of the pool and rushed over to me. Pride and excitement spilled over as he asked if he could do it. Could he go down the waterslide? And then I had to break it to him that the lifeguard had no idea that he had just completed the swim test and would probably have to complete it again.

And there was no hesitation. He marched over to the lifeguard, asked if he could try the swim test, and repeated the laps, poking along against the current of the waterslide and scrambling up the side of the pool again. This time, his pride and excitement was directed at the lifeguard who looked down at him nonchalantly and muttered, “Ok.”

Rocketman didn’t understand.

“Did I pass the swim test?”

“Yes. You can go.”

“I can go? Go on the slide?”

“Go ahead.”

And then he had to clarify with me. Because he was so sure that he was misunderstanding the lifeguard’s message. But I confirmed it. He passed the swim test. He could go down the waterslide.

Hubs arrived in time to see Rocketman taking the steps two at a time, giggling and shaking with joy. He reached the top and when the lifeguard gave him the thumbs up, tumbled down the slide screeching with jubilance. And when he spilled off and  plunged into the water, he did not sink like a rock. He popped right back up above the surface and swam to the ladder, climbed out and said, “Can I go again?!”

And again he went. And again, and again. I explained to the bemused lifeguard that this had been his dream. A goal established two long years ago as a blonde curly haired three year old with his little nose pressed against the glass high above this very swimming pool. It wasn’t easy. It wasn’t fun. It was painstaking and frustrating and tedious. And so many times we wanted to give up. But we didn’t. We went to all the therapy and and enforced sensory diets at home and fought for IEPs. And spent every Saturday at the YMCA cringing.

But it was all worth it on that day. The day Rocketman came flying down the waterslide screeching with glee. And the pleasure I got out of watching this child do that was greater than the pleasure I have ever gotten watching my naturally capable child complete swim classes designed for children twice his age. I’m proud of him too. But there is something about seeing your child do something that was never going to be easy for him and succeeding only due to sheer effort and determination.

I brought both kids to swim class today, three months before Rocketman’s sixth birthday. I watched as he completed the crawl stroke without any floatation device, dove into the pool from a kneeling position and jumped off the block in the deep end and swam to the ladder. Any of the other parents watching him would see him as just any other five year old in the class. He looked no different from anyone else. But I looked and saw a child that has overcome the odds against him in a considerably short period of time, driven as a preschooler to do anything to achieve his goal. And teaming with pride, I can’t wipe this smile from my face.

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