SWIM LIKE A FISH

SWIM LIKE A FISH

From Chicken Soup for the Latino Soul

Swim Like a Fish

El que nada no se ahoga.

Latino Proverb

Memories are like dreams, they are made of that same magical vapor. Misty and illusory, the details vanish in a fog. What’s important in a memory is what you take from it, the way you remember the truth.

It was a cool autumn afternoon. The leaves on the palm trees were green and swayed in the breeze. There are no changes of season in Miami, yet it must have been autumn because I know for certain I was wearing sneakers and a sweatsuit, and that my titi’s six-foot-deep, rectangular pool was too cold to use.

In the memory, I am seven years old. I’m all alone on the patio, looking into the pool at my reflection and the sky’s. I have the sense I shouldn’t be out here alone. I know I’ve been warned many times about playing too close to the edge even though my tío has been teaching me to swim. For Latinos, a tío is an uncle, but my tío has also been my babysitter, my abuelo, and sometimes even my dad. The men in our family have all functioned in each of the roles at one time or another.

I am looking at my reflection or a leaf, I can’t remember which, when what my titi has prophesied all along finally comes to pass: I fall into the deep end of the pool. Normally, this wouldn’t be such a big deal; just this past summer I had mastered swimming through the deepest parts. Of course, that was when my whole family was watching, when my older cousins were close by, and I was aided by inflatable orange arm floats and a two-piece princess swimsuit. Today I am wearing sneakers and sweatpants, items that become like dumbbells in the water, grabbing at my ankles and tiring me out with every feeble kick.

My uncle must have been watching from the sliding-glass doors in the living room, because within seconds he is standing on the edge of the pool as I thrash toward the surface. My long black hair is in my face. Like a black garbage bag, it suffocates and blinds me. I pant and cry out toward his brown leather penny loafers for help. My uncle does not jump in to rescue me, but the loafers keep pace beside me in the pool.

“Swim to the shallow side. You can do it! Keep swimming. Come on. You’re almost to the other side. Just like I taught you. Keep going.” His deep baritone voice is thick and soothing.

I spit and suck in water at the same time. “But . . . I can’t . . . make it!” The words come out in spurts as I struggle to keep my head above water.

“Not like a froggy. Cup your hands. Face to one side, arm over shoulder. Face to the other side, again arm over shoulder. Your feet are fish fins; swim like a fish! Come on, Mama. Just like I taught you.” He would accept nothing less than perfect strokes.

My panic gave way to exasperation as I grew more tired with each tiny kick. When I had made it to the other side, I got out of the pool and, catching my breath, looked up into my uncle’s beaming face. My large dark eyes must have conveyed the fear and outrage of someone who is both angry at the outside world and embarrassed by her own stupidity. I began to cry, a cry that turned into a wail that did not subside until my titi, looking through the window in the kitchen and seeing me soaked and the green pool still rippling, ran outside, scooped me into her arms, wrapped me in a towel and carried me inside the house.

Some time after they pacified me, after the warm bath, the dinner and the hot Swiss Miss cocoa with the floating marshmallows that always melted too fast, I forgot all about it. I didn’t even remember to thank my tío.

Years later, that memory surfaced. Maybe you’ve had a moment, a life-altering moment, whose meaning takes years to reveal itself to you. The events in our lives are not important because of the sequence in which they occur but rather because of the order in which we remember them. My uncle taught me a valuable lesson that day by the pool, the day I naively assumed he was letting me drown. He knew I would be able to save myself because he had already taught me how to swim. He knew that no matter what life had in store for me, no matter how many times I’d fall into the deep end of life’s scariest seas, I could depend on myself to find my way back up to the light, to the surface, close to God and the sun.

It is only when we doubt our strengths, when we fear the sudden change in the current, that we take in water and begin to sink. We drown ourselves. And our family members, whose job it once was to protect us from harm’s way, are our coaches, watching from the sidelines as we take control of our own lives.

Every decision we make, every kick of the foot and stroke of the arm, is a move toward our own destiny.

Melissa Annette Santiago

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