Climbing the Ladder
A summer story of life's ups and downs
The lifeguard's legs stretched outward, two tanned highways to the land of milk and honey, as she lorded over the empty diving pool. I felt her judgy gaze as I mounted the ladder, but today I had to show my four-year-old his mommy was brave.
Our second baby's birth had swallowed up the summer. I thanked the gods of telecommuting that I could live in pajamas during the shit that happens when a family expands from one to two children.
Did I say shit? I meant to say shift. God, I'm tired.
Despite it being my second rodeo, this return to work made me nervous since my first re-entrance had ended in disaster four years earlier. My bitter, forever-single manager had launched a behind-the-scenes campaign to get rid of me, and by August, I was eventually fired. That painful career flop had slapped hard but without time for deep "what's it all worth?" self-reflection. I had to bounce back fast, or we wouldn't make rent.
A special kind of hell is NYC job interviewing in August - if you've ever done it, you know exactly what I mean.
By the following year, I'd "rebounded" at a horrible firm where the money was too good to be true. That summer had been sacrificed rebuilding the company's website while its man-child CEO barked art directions through a mouth full of pistachios or circled the boardroom like a shark "to get his steps in." I knew boss man just wanted to look over his employees' shoulders to see if we were on LinkedIn to bail this sinking Titanic of a company before we'd all be laid off. And we were at the end of August.
Happy Labor Day! We're restructuring - here's two weeks' severance.
Flash forward to my next role and the summer of canceled plans for everyone. In 2020, the healthcare field was chaotic and downright scary. Shocked by how our former NYC lives instantly vanished, we banged kitchen pots at 7 pm for NYU's hospital, where its parking lots were full of freezer trucks, and ghosts now walked among us - a newly silent and eerie city.
And last summer, I got pregnant. Enough said.
So now here I am in the summer of Two Children with a body that feels like it's fallen apart and a painful understanding of why there are so many jokes about turning forty.
But, it's a rare perfect end-of-August blue-skied Saturday, and after my parents' endless invitations, I'd finally bothered to shave my legs and spend a day at the pool. Paranoid about being let go again, I'd been working my ass off, muted endless conference calls so no one could hear the screaming baby being tended to by someone else so I could pretend to be on conference calls.
"Mommy! You have to dive!" my four-year-old son laid down this gauntlet before I'd even put the bags down. Over the last two months, to get him off the pool steps, my parents really upsold him that mommy had once been a fantastic swimmer and even studied water ballet. Now, this was probably hard for him to believe since all he sees mommy do now is talk to a computer, eat macaroni over the sink and try not to fall asleep while reading Babar.
Yes, mommy used to have pretty fun summers with pretty cool hobbies.
Yikes, the high dive seems much higher than I remember, but he's already pulling me.
"God, you're so pale!" my mother confirmed my vampire status. Well, at least she didn't say fat. I grasped the ladder's cold steel rungs and ascended as I held in my stomach.
There were a few other onlookers, but I decided not to dip my toe or go up to my waist first. I've gotta give the little man a sense of theater, and leaping off the high dive stone cold is the only way to play it. But now, as I climbed, I was terrified to bellyflop and reopen my c-section.
Finally, at the top, I unsteadily walked the plank and felt its give under me. It hadn't been the best time to remember the jump always appears worst from the end of the board. I could pretend I was still nervous about the C-section, and everyone would give me a pass, but I saw my little guy's smiling face squinting up at me. So I curled my toes around the very end of the board, a trick for improved propulsion that suddenly came back to me despite being dormant for a decade.
"Ok!" I tried to sound confident. "Count me down!"
"3...2…1…Gooo!" my son squealed.
The countdown is vital. I flashed back to twenty other summers when I'd been carefree and fearless. Then, miraculously the muscle memory came back, and I put my hands in prayer and took the leap. I even remembered to point my feet for a minimal splash as I fell through the air and knifed into the water's surface.
Is there anything better than summer's first dive into that freezing water? I was more awake than I'd been in four months. When I popped up, even the snooty lifeguard applauded.
Later, my father remarked, "I'm just so proud of you!"
"Why?" I asked, bemused.
Dad looked at the little guy now off the steps with Mom in the three-foot end. "You probably hadn't done that in a long time, but you did it. My mother did it at Coney Island. I always remember that."
That's all we truly want, our parents and children to be proud of us, the alpha and the omega. Titles and salaries come and go. But on that summer morning, at a time when I could barely keep my head above water, I plunged into some kind of legend.
As if on cue, the little guy popped up, his face dripping, "Ok, mommy, now do it backward."
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