This afternoon I went for my usual swim. I still use the indoor pool despite the outdoor pool being open for the summer because it is less crowded and usually a lot less screaming children. I can do my laps in quiet… er, well, not quiet perhaps since there is usually also an aqua-aerobics class of some sort going on so there is all the shouting and talking. But at least the lap lanes are empty, I can usually have one all to myself for my entire hour. Plus, I burn like a lobster in a hot-pot despite SPF 15 billion lotion and the outdoor pool is out there under all the bright sun shine!
As usual, I start my swim, do a lap then do a few stretches. There is a ledge at the deep end that works really well to stretch calf muscles. I raise and lower on my toes easily and feel a nice stretch that I can’t get otherwise. I also hang on the edge of the diving platform to stretch my shoulders. As I worked through my usual stretches my peripheral vision picked up on a young girl swimming by herself in the non-lap section of the pool. As I did my stretches she started to copy my moves. I smiled.
I finished my stretches and began my full set of laps. I noticed the little girl move into the farthest lane and swim along as best she could. My second lap, she moved to the lane directly next to mine. Luckily I was the only lap swimmer at that point otherwise the lifeguard would have told her she could not stay. At first I thought she was moving across the lanes because her mother was sitting on the side of the pool. She crossed into my lane and climbed the ladder out to talk to her mother. When I was back at that end of the pool she wanted to climb back in but hesitated. I waved her to come back in.
That was when she started talking in that endless little girl chatter. She liked how I dove down, my butt tends to go airborne as I dive down and my feet slowly submerge, and she wanted to swim along side as I dove down. I can touch the bottom, 12 feet at the deep end, but she could not. She tried over and over but just could not make it. I could not help but smile at her exuberance and innocence. My workout went to the wayside as I basically began to play with this young girl. Surprisingly, she is able to swim the length of the pool, albeit slower than myself and out of breath when done, but she is strong enough to do it without stopping.
She told me she is seven years old. She told me how her parents walked from Ecuador because they couldn’t afford to fly. They left her behind for a few months with family hoping they could create a better life for her here. He father now owns a small deli in my neighborhood. I asked her if she remembers Ecuador, if she missed it, and she said no. They were so poor they didn’t even own a shower or bathtub, they had to bathe in the ocean, and that’s why she likes the pool because she doesn’t feel sticky but clean when she’s done (and her eyes don’t burn). She told me she eats every day since they moved here. She told me she has her own room where back in Ecuador she had to share her bed with cousins and her grandmother.
She told me she doesn’t remember Spanish anymore so sometimes she doesn’t understand her mother but she’s looking forward to school when she can learn even more English. Her aunt works as a custodian at the Y so that is how she can afford to swim every day. She hopes to swim professionally. She smiled so bright when I told her she was strong, fast and an excellent swimmer already at seven considering she just learned to swim this year.
I told her how lap swimming works, sharing lanes with other swimmers, being courteous, and she eagerly practiced what she learned when someone else entered our lane briefly. She liked being in the “grown up” section of the pool. Before I left she made her mother write down the days and times I usually swim so she could meet me more often. As I ran my errands and got on with the rest of my day I have had this little girl on my mind. Thinking of her makes me smile.
I realized, listening to her story, how privileged I truly have been all my life. I’ve never had to make do with bathing in the ocean. I’ve eaten every day (too much which my body clearly reflects) and in some expensive restaurants around the world. I went to college as an adult but it was somehow always a given that I would achieve a degree, even when I swore off school at 18. I returned every year to Europe, to swim in the pools, rivers, lakes and oceans, without fear that I may never see my family again. I grew up swimming in pools, oceans and even our own lake. I’ve always loved swimming but almost allowed my fear of judgement prevent me from ever doing it again — never because there was not the opportunity.
I never had to share my bed except when I had a sleepover or visiting relatives.
I also thought about my oldest brother, he was her age when my parents came to the US. My parents left Germany for many of the same reasons this little girls family left Ecuador — no money, no job prospects and hope to build something better for their families. My brother never talks about his childhood when he first came here but now I feel the need to ask.
This little girl said the best part of being American was that now she could swim every day for the rest of her life. That touched my heart, not only because it is a love I share, but because sometimes I get wrapped up in the bad things, the political climate, the things that need to change that I forget just how lucky I am to live where I do. When I left her she was practicing the basic freestyle stroke I showed her and I found myself hoping to swim with her again soon.
When I got home today and opened email there was one from a news site reporting about the crisis of children at our border and I thought at least one of them made it, safely, and is happily practicing her swimming and I’m grateful I met her today.