I looked around and waited until the pool manager, Scott Lopeman, walked past me and into the clubhouse before taking off my shoes and rushing quickly to the pool diving head first into the deep end. Still hours before “open swim” for members of the Windsor Swim Club would begin, I lifted my head above the water and smiled, watching as the sun’s first orange-infused rays appeared over the horizon. Morning laps were my new routine, a needed break and bit of exercise as I was taking a college-level Communication Law class at the University of Illinois for the summer that was open to high school kids.
For me, there was something completely ironic about swimming. It was something I simultaneously loved and dreaded. Being in the water offered me a great way to freely exert myself with an instant sense of freedom. However, any feeling of delight in the pool was always sharply contrasted with the anxiety I felt right before getting in. Those few seconds, between taking off my shoes and plunging in, felt to me like a walk of shame given my one-toed feet. Upon reflection, I have countless memories of friends at Windsor cautiously dipping a toe in the cold water and innocently remarking to me, “Gee, Meg. How can you just jump in so fast?” Personally, I hated the stinging feeling of ice-cold water as much as they did. However, the faster I got into the pool, the less time anyone had to stare at or notice my misshapen feet. What I would have given to share this part of myself but what was the point? No one could possibly relate.
“C’mon Mommy! It’s sooooo much fun.” I froze. We were at our local town pool and our six-year-old son Charlie had finally passed the swim test. This meant he could join our nine-year-son Ethan on the big, winding yellow pool slide. Born with my genetic condition, both boys had different variations of my physical difference. Already that morning, the boys had raced barefoot up the long staircase and ridden the slide several times. They were completely unconcerned about how anyone might view their very differently-shaped feet. It was then that Charlie thought it would be fun to have me join them. My husband John meanwhile sat in the shade at the kiddie pool with our four-year-old daughter Savanna. I knew full well that joining them meant I’d have to reveal my feet. At first, memories of hiding my feet at Windsor Swim Club filled my psyche. However, today was different. I was no longer alone. I had unconditional love for my children and felt theirs for me in return. Perhaps it was simply childhood innocence that helped in their fearlessness, but I found the fact that we all shared this thing in common exhilarating and liberating. Charlie repeated his coaxing. “C’mon, Mommy…puhlease come!”
My husband John and I are both middle children of three. On a recent Saturday, when our eldest and youngest had their own plans for the day, we decided to take Charlie out alone for some middle child time. We started at the batting cages, then a meal and a movie. Knowing it would be impossible for the three of us to agree on a film, I did a quick search on Rotten Tomatoes for what the critics loved. “The Shape of Water” jumped off my computer screen. With the Tomatometer at 92% and thirteen Oscar nods, I decided it was a must-see, despite having no clue about the plot.
As it turned out, the storyline was certainly different than anything I could have suspected (and in hindsight, his comments after an explicit scene reminded us of our frequently lousy judgment when choosing what’s appropriate for our twelve-year old son.). Set in 1962, the protagonist Elisa played by Sally Hawkins is a lonely cleaning lady who we come to realize is mute. Elisa works in a high-security government laboratory. Unsuspectingly, she encounters a mysterious, scaled fish-creature (“the Asset”) from South America that lives captive in a water tank inside the lab. The Asset is studied and brutalized by government scientists and military officers. Elisa becomes instantly drawn to the creature and despite myriad obstacles the two fall in love. When Elisa learns what the government plans for the Asset, its very survival depends on her fearless commitment. Admittedly, I was quite perplexed at the notion of their love story and how it was portrayed visually. However, something clicked for me as soon as she confided in her close friend and neighbor about her deep love for it (er…him?). Communicating in her own way, Elisa pointed finally out what should have been obvious—the Asset was mute, just like her. Only he could understand what it felt like to walk in her shoes. Her ability to relate to him motivated her to show not only kindness but love and the courage to risk everything.to help him escape.
After the film, we headed across the street for sushi. I noted as we sat down the waitress observed Charlie and asked if he wanted a fork. Without missing a beat, Charlie held-up his two-fingered hands holding the chopsticks and flashed his warm smile to show her he was fully capable. The interaction was notable to me, since years ago I had given up asking for chopsticks, having eventually master them, but ultimately decided the fork was easier. Charlie’s confidence remained with me hours past the meal. But mostly it reminded me of how we were living parallel life experiences, and it felt undeniably comforting.
As we gear up tonight to watch the Academy Awards, I must admit I find myself rooting for Sally Hawkins to win Best Actress. Although it was only a character portrayal in a film, Hawkins was able to capture something I hadn’t thought to internalize. Elisa’s invisible difference was often brushed aside by strangers as a weakness–as nature’s mistake. But it allowed her to relate to, and communicate with, the Asset like no one else. It made her the fearless hero of the film. “He does not know what I lack,” Elisa signed to her friend. “He sees me for what I am.”
It occurs to me that what has allowed me to be the most courageous version of myself is having children that not only understand what it feels like to walk in my shoes, but who see me as they see themselves and deserve to be seen, as complete.
“Okay here I come!” I carefully removed the pool shoes I was wearing and followed both boys up the stairs to the slide. As we waited our turn, I could hear a couple of kids whispering behind us. My old feeling of shame began to bubble to the surface, until I was reminded of what was important. Ethan had already slid down and was waving at us at the bottom in the water, beckoning us with his sole finger. In the meantime, Charlie sat on the slide while I stood directly behind him. Just before he pushed himself onto the slippery tube, he called back to me and said, “Watch this! It feels like I’m flying!” He was right. I was on my road to unconditional self-acceptance and, leveraging the strength of my kids, I was ready to take the same leap.