To all outward appearances, Pete was a successful man. He had a good job which he enjoyed, a wife, Dorothy, whom he adored, and one daughter, Emelia, who followed him wherever he went. He liked to read and ride his mountain bike. He had many friends and everyone liked Pete.
But Pete had a secret: he couldn't swim.
Every summer when the time came to pick a vacation he would suggest the mountains or a theme park. He told his wife he didn't like the beach – too many people, too much salt, spiny things in the water. On occasion when they stayed in a hotel with a pool he wouldn't go in the water. He said he didn't like chlorine. He sat in a deck chair under an umbrella and read while his wife and daughter played in the pool. He felt left out and a little guilty but he tried to make up for it in other ways, playing games with Emelia and taking Dorothy out to dinner.
When Pete was a child he was taken to swimming lessons at the community pool just like all the other children. Every summer his mother dragged him, protesting, to the pool and every year it was the same. “Ok, everyone, let's try floating.” Pete couldn't float to save his life. He tried, less enthusiastically every year, stiffly extending his arms, tipping his head back, but keeping one foot on the bottom. Eventually the instructor would notice and he would have to sever his last tie with solid ground. He promptly sank like a stone. He would sit on the side of the pool, miserable and wrapped in a damp towel, and watch all the other children floating around happily. How on earth do they do it? What is wrong with me? he would think angrily.
The summer he turned 12 he put his foot down and refused to try any more. He was four years older than the oldest child in the beginning swimming class. He promised his mother he would avoid deep water and she finally relented. He never told anyone that he couldn't swim.
When his daughter was seven, a terrible thing happened: she fell from a tree she was climbing and was hurt very badly. She was in the hospital for a good while, her frightened parents hovering beside her. The day finally came when she was well enough to come home, but she was in a wheelchair. Emelia was paralyzed from the waist down. Pete was heartbroken for her. She had been so active. She had loved to run and bike and swim. Pete would have done anything to make his daughter walk again but he was helpless. He promised her he would help her do anything she wanted to do. She learned to operate her wheelchair and her arms grew very strong. She was not afraid to roll around the halls of her elementary school and the other children in her class cheered her on.
Summer came and with it swimming season. Bathing suits were in the store windows, advertisements for pool toys and snorkels were everywhere and all of Emelia's friends were going to the beach, swimming in pools and, in short, leaving her behind. She had a naturally cheerful disposition but it was not hard to tell how much it hurt her to see everyone else doing something she wanted to do but now couldn't. Emelia had periodic appointments with a physical therapist and one day her mother brought up the subject of swimming. The therapist did not hesitate to recommend swimming as wonderful therapy. She said it would be fantastic for Emelia to experience movement without the restraint of her wheelchair. To Dorothy's concerns about safety, the therapist said that Emelia's parents should at first just take her to the pool to accustom her to being in the water again, holding her and supporting her in the water. Once she had gained some confidence, the therapist would recommend a swim coach who had experience teaching children with disabilities. It was now almost the end of July, but she could swim all year in a heated pool.
Emelia was wildly excited to find out she was going to go swimming again. She had grown since the previous summer so she and her mother went shopping for a new bathing suit. Pete was beside himself with happiness to see his daughter so happy again. He privately tried to come up with some way to celebrate Emelia's first day in the pool and decided to make reservations at a restaurant that had family entertainment for that night. Unfortunately, the day before Emelia was to go to the pool, Dorothy sprained her ankle. The doctor said it was not very serious, but she should rest it as much as possible. Of course, both Pete and Dorothy had assumed she would be taking Emelia swimming. When Pete heard that the doctor had absolutely forbidden Dorothy to hobble around a slippery swimming pool, his stomach dropped to the floor. He looked with blank eyes at his wife. “Pete, you'll just have to take her, at least the first few times. I know you don't like chlorine, but I'm sure you won't mind doing this for Emelia for just a little while.”
“Daddy, you'll take me right?” said Emelia with anxious eyes. She was seated on the couch next to him.
He looked at his daughter and couldn't do anything but nod 'yes'. Emelia threw her arms around him and said, “You're the best Daddy in the whole world!!” Pete felt sick to his stomach.
That night after Pete and Dorothy were in their room, his wife said, “Honey, what's wrong? You can't tell me nothing is wrong. You've looked upset all evening.”
Pete sat heavily on the edge of the bed. He looked down at his feet. He remembered the many times he sank below the surface of the pool, water in his eyes, water in his mouth, water in his ears, thrashing in a panic to find the bottom. Coming up and coughing and coughing. Nightmares he had of drowning. He couldn't speak.
Dorothy leaned across the bed to take one of his hands. She didn't say anything else, just held his hand.
Pete thought of his daughter, of the helpless feeling he had while standing beside her hospital bed, of his promise to do anything possible to help her. He remembered the pleading look in her eyes when she asked him to take her to the pool and then the look of joy when he had assented. Pete wept.
Finally the story came out. In tears he told his wife everything, the summers of fear and humiliation, the extreme measures he had taken to avoid water, the fibs he had told, and his fear of taking his daughter into a pool. Dorothy didn't laugh or make light of anything. She held his hand and patted his back. When he was done, Dorothy was quiet a minute.
“Pete, honey, I understand how frightening it must be to think about getting in a pool again. But this time it's different. No one is going to ask you to float or swim. You won't be in over your head. All you'll have to do is hold Emelia and walk around with her a bit in the shallow end.”
The relief Pete experienced at finally telling someone something he had hidden for almost thirty years was overwhelming. He had not realized how heavy a burden he had been carrying all these years. He listened to what his wife had to say and thought about it for a minute. Suddenly it did not seem such a terrible thing to help Emelia get into the water. Dorothy was right. It was different this time.
The next evening after he came home from work, leaving a little earlier than usual, he picked up Emelia at home and drove to the community pool. He had had to leave work on his lunch break to go find a bathing suit, a very odd experience. It was the first one he had had since he was 11. Bathing suits seem to have changed a great deal but finally he found something he thought he would not feel ridiculous in.
When he wheeled Emelia into the pool area she lit up all over. “Hurry! Hurry! I can't wait to get in!” she squealed. Pete was having to fight down feelings of nausea just smelling the smell of chlorine in an enclosed space. Telling his family all those years that he didn't like chlorine was not exactly an untruth. He picked her up, leaving both of their towels in her chair. Carefully he carried her across the puddles and down the steps into the water. He concentrated on breathing in and out very slowly.
When he lowered Emelia into the water, cradled in his arms, she relaxed and a look of bliss came over her face. Pete forgot some of his distress just watching her. He slowly walked back and forth across the shallow end, dodging other swimmers. This isn't so bad; Dorothy was right he thought. He himself relaxed.
“Daddy, I want to swim. How do I do it without using my legs?”
“Oh, sweetie, I have no idea. You know, it occurs to me we should have gotten some floaties or something else to help hold you up. I don't really know how to do this.”
“That's ok, Daddy. Maybe I can just figure it out.”
A young woman who had been swimming laps stopped at the side of the pool. She looked at Pete and Dorothy and sized up the situation. “Hi, I teach swimming lessons. Do you already know how to swim?”
“She swam very well before her accident this year but this is the first time she's been in the water. The therapist just wanted her to get used to being in the water first before trying to swim on her own.”
“Ok, I see. Well, I would just suggest starting with some of the beginning things, you know, 'drown-proofing'. It's what we teach the really little kids just for water safety. The first thing to learn is how to float.”
Pete felt a sinking feeling. But, hey, Emelia already knew how to do that, right? “Great, thanks. We'll give that a shot.”
“No problem! Well, see you later.” The woman climbed out of the pool, dried off and left.
Emelia looked at Pete and smiled. “That was a good idea! Let's try floating! I don't have to move my legs to do that.”
Pete didn't exactly know what to do but he held Emelia in front of him, as horizontal as he could make her. Emelia let her arms float on the water and laid her head back. “Ok, Daddy, you can let me go.”
Let go?!? Let my precious daughter whom I almost lost sink in the water and drown?! Pete firmly kept his hands where they were.
“Daaaaddy! Let go!”
Pete swallowed. He moved first the hand under her shoulders, then the hand under her thighs.
Pete scrabbled in the water, panicking and dragging her above the surface. She coughed and sneezed. “Oops,” she said, when she had gotten her breath back. Pete was sure his heart was going to come out of his chest. 'Oops!?!' For the love of... You nearly died!!
“Ok, Daddy, let's try it again. I'll try harder.”
Pete nearly took her and walked right out of the pool. Then he saw the confident look on her face and took a deep breath. He let go again. She sank.
This time he scooped her up and held her up against his chest and shoulder like a baby. She didn't cough as much this time.
“Daddy, what's wrong? Why can't I do this? Am I never going to be able to swim again?”
His heart broke as he heard the tears and frustration in her voice. He seemed to hear himself.
“I don't know sweetie, maybe we just need to get someone to help us who knows what to do better than I do. You know, maybe we've been in long enough for today. You look like you're getting cold.” In truth it was Pete who was cold. He felt the cold deep in his heart, fear that his daughter had one more dream dashed.
Emelia recovered somewhat on the way home and by the time Dorothy was excitedly asking them how it had gone she was enthusiastic again, telling her mother how wonderful it had been to be in the water and how much she was looking forward to doing it again. Pete was not quite able to match Emelia's enthusiasm. When he and Dorothy were alone that evening he gave a more sober narrative. Dorothy was sorry that Emelia had not been able to float right away, but she wasn't discouraged. “You were right, honey. You just need help from someone who has experience.” Then she gave him a tight hug. “Thank you for overcoming your fears to help her. I know how hard it was for you.”
Over the next few days Dorothy called the therapist for swimming instructor recommendations and then called the instructors. She found someone who was happy to help Emelia get started swimming again. “You have a lesson next Thursday at five,” she told her daughter. Emelia was excited. Pete was relieved. A certified instructor wouldn't let his daughter drown.
Thursday afternoon found Pete and Emelia in the pool again. The instructor was a middle-aged woman named Gina. She had a kind smile and looked very competent. Emelia happily moved her arms around and did the dead-man's float. Pete had always hated that name. Then the time came to float on her back. The instructor supported Emelia in front of her. “Relax, Emelia. Let your muscles go limp.” Emelia relaxed. The instructor slowly removed one hand, then the other. Emelia sank immediately.
Pete dove forward and snatched his daughter out of the water. Emelia didn't cough because she had held her breath. Her face was not so happy as it had been though. Reluctantly Pete let Gina take Emelia. Gina again coached Emelia to relax. She noticed Emelia's back was very stiff. “Relax your back, Emelia.”
“I can't. I'm trying to keep my legs from sinking.” Emelia bit her lip.
“Remember, you don't have to use your muscles to float. It doesn't matter that you can't move your legs. Your body floats all by itself, you just have to let it go and trust that you'll float.”
Pete realized he was wringing his hands. He hated to see his daughter try and fail.
“Emelia, why don't you watch someone else float? Pay very close attention to what they do with their arms and legs. Don't be frustrated. You haven't had to learn to do this in many years and it can be hard to learn something all over again.” She turned to Pete. “Let's watch your daddy float.”
Pete almost fell over. “Um...” He couldn't admit he couldn't float to this nice woman holding his daughter.
“Please, Daddy?” Emelia smiled at him. “I bet I can do it if I watch you do it.”
Dear God, what am I going to do? It would be as easy to walk on water than to float on it!
“Well, sweetie, you know, I forgot my ear plugs. I shouldn't get water in my ears.” The lie rolled off his tongue. Emelia looked disappointed.
“Well, maybe we can do it next time?”
“Yes,” said Gina, “that's a good idea. You've been in the water about long enough for today anyway. I'll see you next Tuesday and I'm sure you'll be able to do it after you watch Daddy do it.”
“Right! Great!” said Emelia and Pete carried her out of the water and wrapped her in a towel. He felt a weight on his stomach.
When they got home he didn't tell Dorothy what Gina had suggested, but over dinner Emelia told her mother how happy she was that Daddy was going to show her how to float at her next lesson. Dorothy looked over at Pete but didn't say anything. That night she told him that the easiest thing to do was tell Gina he couldn't float and have someone else be the example. “But Emelia will know I can't do it and she'll be disappointed. She...she'll be ashamed of me.” Pete balled up his fists and stared unseeing out the window.
Dorothy came up behind him and put her arms around him. “Do you think we can just put it off until my ankle is better? It's only a few more weeks.”
“No,” Pete said heavily, “she'll know something is wrong. I'll just have to figure something out.”
The next few days Pete thought of little else. He tried to think of some way out of this but he couldn't. He even brought it up with God: “God, you have got to get me out of this mess,” but he didn't hear any answer.
On Sunday they went to Liturgy. Pete wasn't paying much attention. His mind was still running in circles looking for a way out. Two days. He only had two days to think of something. Then he heard his name:
“...Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat and walked on the water and came to Jesus. But when he saw the wind, he was afraid, and beginning to sink he cried out, “Lord, save me.”
Yes, Lord, save me! Save me from this torture! Pete didn't hear the rest of the service. He was too busy thinking about what he had heard. When he got home, he went upstairs and picked up the Bible from his bedside table. He hunted around but couldn't find what he was looking for. Chagrined, he fished the folded-up bulletin from his coat pocket and looked to see what the gospel reading had been that morning. He turned to Matthew 14 and read this section:
Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go before him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up on the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, but the boat by this time was a long way from the land, beaten by the waves, for the wind was against them. And in the fourth watch of the night he came to them, walking on the sea. But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, and said, “It is a ghost!” and they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them, saying, “Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.”
And Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat and walked on the water and came to Jesus. But when he saw the wind, he was afraid, and beginning to sink he cried out, “Lord, save me.” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and took hold of him, saying to him, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” And when they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.” [Matt. 14:22-33]
“O you of little faith.” That's me. I'm Peter. I don't have faith. I fear and so I sink. Just like I always have.
Pete shut his Bible. He sat on the edge of the bed and thought. Then he got on his knees and prayed:
God, you know I don't have any faith. Just like the apostle Peter didn't have faith. But I am sinking and I need you to save me. I don't know how you're going to do it but please, I need your help.
Then Pete knew what he was going to do.
The next day, Pete didn't go to work. He called in and told his boss something important had come up that he needed to attend to. He told his wife what he was doing. He didn't tell Emelia.
He drove to the pool. He changed in the locker room and walked out into the warm, humid haze. There was almost no one there since most people were at work. His knees were shaking but he kept saying to himself, Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me! He walked down the steps into the water and waited a minute to adjust himself to the temperature. He stood by the side of the pool in the shallow end and held onto the edge. He slowly leaned back in the water, stretching out his other arm and one leg. He closed his eyes. He didn't want to see if anyone was watching. He leaned back his head. He fought down panic as the water entered his ears. With his ears stopped, he could only hear the sound of his frantically pounding heart. He slowly breathed in and out. Lord Jesus Christ, don't let me drown. He picked up his other leg. He started to sink but he hadn't let go of the edge so he popped back up. He wiped the water off his face. He tried again. And again. And again.
Pete thought about Gina holding Emelia under her back. He wished he had someone to hold him up so he could relax. Lord, help me. Suddenly he felt a touch on his shoulder. He startled and opened his eyes. There was a man standing there next to him. Pete felt the blood rush to his face. He was horribly embarrassed.
“Do you need some help?” The man didn't look mocking or... really anything at all. Pete hesitated. The man just stood there. Well, I asked for help and I guess this is it.
“Well, um...the truth is...I don't know how to swim. I don't even know how to float. I'm trying to learn so I don't disappoint my daughter.”
“It's ok, I'll help you. Do you want me to support your back?” Pete nodded but looked away. He was still very embarrassed. “Just lean back and relax.”
Pete almost laughed. He thought it was like hearing the instructions the stewardesses on airplanes give out before takeoff: “In the event of a sudden loss of cabin pressure, oxygen masks will automatically deploy. Put your mask on and breath normally.” Yeah, right. Breath normally. Let yourself completely relax in the water.
The man put one hand on Pete's shoulder. As he did so, Pete felt a wave of security flow through him. He leaned back and stretched out his arms. He closed his eyes and put his head back in the water. He picked up one leg. He felt the man's hand firmly in the small of his back. After a long moment, he picked up his other leg.
He didn't sink. The man kept his hand under Pete's back. “Just relax.”
Pete tried to relax. Lord, thank you for sending this man to help me. Please don't let me sink. He breathed in and out. He slowly relaxed. He realized he had never really relaxed in the water before. The man didn't move his hand. Pete slowly allowed himself to go limp. He lay there in the water, not sinking! He thought he could probably try to float without the man supporting his back. “Ok, I guess I can try this by myself. Do...do you want to let go?” There was no response. Pete opened his eyes.
There was no one there. Pete was floating in the water all by himself.
He was so surprised he promptly went under and came up choking. He brushed the water out of his eyes and looked around. He didn't see the man anywhere. There was a mother with a few small children at the other end and two elderly people swimming slow laps but that was it. He stood, water streaming out of his hair and tried to make sense of it. Where had the man gone? But, he had felt the man's hand on his back until he opened his eyes. There wasn't time for him to have gone anywhere. What did it mean? Had God really sent this man?
He walked over to the side of the pool and leaned on the edge. The truth was, when he asked God for help, he hadn't really expected any help. He hadn't trusted. But he asked, and help came. Just like Jesus helped Peter in the gospel, He helped Pete in the pool.
Pete let go of the side. He stretched out his arms, leaned back, and, trying to relax again, he lifted his legs from the bottom. He remembered that he had just floated. His breath was shaky, but he noticed something: he wasn't sinking. Thank you, God!!!
When Dorothy heard Pete come in the kitchen, she turned around. His eyes were shining. He threw his arms around her and whispered, “I did it!” She hugged him back and laughed to see how happy he was.
Tuesday afternoon Pete took Emelia to the pool. “You seem awfully happy today, Daddy!” she said. “Did you remember your ear plugs?”
Pete laughed. He patted the new set of ear plugs in his pocket. “Yes, pumpkin, I have them.” The truth was he hadn't really liked the feeling of water in his ears so he had picked them up that morning on the way to work.
As Gina held Emelia up so she could watch him, Pete stretched out on the water. God, don't let me down now! he prayed. With his earplugs in he couldn't hear Emelia's delight but he could see it when he came back up. She clapped her hands and grinned. “I know I can do it if Daddy can do it!” Gina then held Emelia in the water and she relaxed her body.
Pete reached out to hold her hand briefly. “Daddy's right here, Emelia. You'll do just fine.” As Emelia began to float and Gina slowly stepped back, tears filled Pete's eyes. He was grateful the water hid them.
“I can do it! I can float! I know I'll be able to swim now!” Emelia threw her arms around Pete's neck. Gina was talking about arranging for regular swimming lessons. Pete didn't really hear her. Lord, thank you for helping me trust in You the way Emelia trusts in me.
In the years that followed, Emelia learned again to swim and joined a special swim team. Pete learned to swim right next to his daughter. When his wife suggested they go to the mountains for a vacation, Pete suggested the beach.