I don’t know how to swim. Yes, despite the previous line, a line seemingly immaterial-to-yesterday’s-today’s-and-tomorrow’s-news, this, too, is a piece of writing about COVID-19. Bear with me for a moment or go bake some bread or something. But back to the matter at hand: I’m 21 years old, I’m about to graduate with a college degree and I don’t know how to swim.
It’s not for lack of trying. When I was a kid, my parents tried all the usual methods: My mom would doggy paddle around a hotel pool, trawling me around on her back. My dad would lay facing skyward in the center of the water, encouraging me to do the same, reminding me that everybody could float. My mom and dad even paid for lessons for my sister and me.
Alas, it was all in vain. To this day, I can only go into five or so feet of water before I begin to feel uncomfortable. I generally avoid the water at beaches. And I don’t bother bringing a change of clothes at pool parties. I don’t know what’s more embarrassing: getting in and not going past a certain point in the water, or not getting in at all.
There’s one thing my parents didn’t try, of course. My parents never threw me into the deep end. My parents never forced me to sink or swim.
I don’t blame them. I was, shall we say, a strong-willed child (others might say stubborn, my father might say hard-headed, my mother “cabezudo,” the Spanish equivalent), and I imagine I would have overreacted. And what parent wants to see their child flailing, struggling, drowning in the water? What parent wants to be the cause of that flailing, struggling, drowning?
But the fact remains. I don’t know how to swim. The sight of a pool or a gulf or a lake or an ocean provokes fear, anxiety, sadness. When I look at a body of water perfect for swimming, I feel regret over what could have been, what could be now but is not, over what might never be. Eventually, I walk away. I walk away because I can. I walk away until I’m preoccupied with other things, until the fear and anxiety, the sadness and regret, are behind me.
There’s no walking away, however, from the situation in which we currently find ourselves. If you’re rich, I suppose you can walk to the other wing of your mansion, but it’s not as though you can leave it (who am I kidding, if you’re rich rich, you’re probably off spreading the virus in a highly vulnerable locale with daddy’s money from the stimulus package [not bitter at all]). But for the rest of us, we’re stuck in our homes, staring at streets emptied (hopefully) by the dictates of physical distancing.
We’re stuck at home mourning the loss of Class Day and commencement, of all the lunches and coffees and dinners that we were so looking forward to (actually though) but kept putting off, of the serendipity that can only come with real-world campus life. And it’s not as though the loss of these things was as passive as it sounds; they were very much ripped from us by circumstances beyond our control.
And those circumstances are scary. Thousands or hundreds of thousands or millions of people will die, and are dying now. More will be infected with a sickness whose symptoms amount to, as a friend put it, drowning on dry land. And it’s not as though it’s an illness that only seems to affect a certain subset of the population. It can’t be abstracted away into irrelevance when your friend’s dad has it, when your friend has it, when you’re scared you have it, when you have it.
The country’s social and political fabric continues to fray, to be assailed by a metaphorical axe, flamethrower and rocket propelled grenade launcher. In Brooklyn, corpses are being loaded into truck trailers because the morgues are full; just a few days ago, a white nationalist intended to blow up a hospital, of which there are already so few; a coterie of American senators profited off of their foreknowledge of the pandemic’s impact on the economy, which is in shambles, if you hadn’t heard; meanwhile, our great leader brags that he is a “ratings hit.” Could somebody please turn off the fan or pass me a hazmat suit?
I understand why some people are trying to act as though this is all just a big inconvenience rather than the catastrophe that it is. I understand why they want to keep going to their classes, why they still want to present at virtual Mellon Forums, why they want to “grab a meal” over Zoom (gag). Floaties can be helpful when learning to swim.
But floaties didn’t help me when I was a kid, and they’re not helping me now. Nothing could be more unthinkable to me, save for what is going on right now, than to merely “adjust” in the name of how we used to live. To me, it almost seems inappropriate, disrespectful, to proceed with business as usual, albeit via webcam. The way we live now, for me, calls for a radical departure from the old, especially when I was on the cusp of having it all end anyway. Zoom, Mellon Forums, grades, aren’t a part of the future I want for myself. And the future is now. The time to learn to swim was yesterday, and now, faced with a pool, it’s sink or swim.
Funnily enough, in the last four years my parents built a small pool; swimming helps with joint pain and inflammation and all that. Every time I go to the backyard, I stare at water so clear it’s almost as though it’s not there at all, imagine what it feels like to float, remind myself that it’s just deeper than I am tall, that it’s safe. Soon, I’ll go to the deep end. I’ll think about all that was slated to happen in the last few weeks of term — the Spring Fling I was going to have, the spring fling I was going to have, the closure that would come after four years that felt like a dream — and jump in. There’s a chance I’ll drown. But there’s a chance, too, that I’ll learn how to swim. And I’ll be the better for it.
ADRIAN RIVERA is a senior in Jonathan Edwards College. His column usually runs every other week. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .