Moon in Palmer Lake, photo by Lucy Simpson, 2011
I move through the water with easy strokes of arms and legs. I spin from butterfly to backstroke and back again for an hour, while my children play in the shallows of the YMCA pool. It is like moving through weighted silk. It invites me to love my own skin.
I have overcome my terror of the water. I would always enter the water, but my shoulders would tense and the familiar fear would rise like lead in my ribcage. It was not an irrational phobia and definitely not natural to me as a person. The catalyst occurred when I was ten or eleven and every time I hit the water, I would flash back to those moments.
I remember the name of the lake wrong, a lovely circle of water in the woods of Pennsylvania, not too far from Maryland where we lived. I remember it as Echo, perhaps because I was reading Edith Hamilton's Greek Mythology at the time and fancied a poor sad nymph living somewhere in the vicinity.
My father would drive my sister and I north, as early as he could stand on a Saturday morning. I always loved this. He'd bring bacon, eggs and coffee to cook on the fire. We'd swim and return home the same day to our recluse mother. I saw my first chipmunk there.
I never felt safe with my father. This was still before the sexual abuse got very bad. I was in the water with him when he grabbed me by my feet and ran with me. Try as I might, I couldn't get my head above the water to get a breath. My chest was burning. When he stopped, pulling me into shallower waters. I spat out water and grime. I found my voice to accuse him. All he did was laugh and say he was just playing.
A few years after that, he threatened to murder the family while we slept. I slept with a lock on my door, put there by my mother, who was too inebriated at night to defend us in any other way. I worried about her sleeping on the sofa downstairs, worried that he'd kill her and my sister and I would have only him. He was always threatening to institutionalize me, saying the authorities would always believe him over me.
What makes monsters? I know he had a hard childhood. I know he was abused. I know he never had access to therapy or any of the self-discovery that our age is rich with. He died when I was fourteen, but I have always felt his presence when I've been swimming, whether it was in a blue sterile pool or in a green, opaque lake.
The other day, I was able to be free in the water, reveling like a seal almost. I was able to submerge and surface at will. I allowed myself the joy of the water on my skin, accompanied by the laughter of my children. I felt that he no longer had any power in my mind over me. As I did the butterfly with joy, I saw a woman look up from her book and smile at me. I'll never know if she has a similar story to tell, but I felt as if she was rejoicing with me.