Just Add Water


Once upon a time, I had no interest in swimming. It was somewhere between the God-forbid-my-hair-gets-wet and my-swimsuits-keep-shrinking years. Swimming at night, after removing all the bulbs from the poolside lights, was the safest option; swimwear was my sworn enemy. 

Then Cowboy was born. From the first moment his little legs dangled through a baby float, he enjoyed being in a pool. Many kids with autism have a love affair with water, and our tiny fish was no exception. But, as his affinity for it grew, my swimsuits continued to shrink. So, I made my peace with full-coverage swimwear. Thankfully, swim skirts were in style for a woman my age. Rather than looking like I was part Amish or sexually repressed, I blended in. Unless, of course, a group of teenagers, twenty-somethings, or exercise freaks invaded the pool.

But when I hit 40, my courage grew. I bought a couple of two-piece non-bikini suits that showed three inches of my bare stomach, which hadn’t seen the light of day since 1976. I kept a repertoire of water garments handy – one pieces, two pieces, skirts, shorts. With all my trips to the pool with young Cowboy, I never knew when I’d need a dry one at a moment’s notice. And when I entered the Hot Years of Menopause, they became my favorite clothing.

Concerned that our son would be the only middle-aged man in history who still wore water wings, Flash and I decided it was time for swimming lessons. After year-round private lessons for two years, Cowboy was ready for open water by nine years old.

"Okay, he's independent in the water, now," his teacher, Sunbeam, told us. 

"What do you mean?" I asked nervously. 

"He's okay without y'all in the pool. If he falls in, he'll be okay." Flash and I stared at each other in disbelief, and a huge weight lifted from our waterlogged shoulders. Cowboy’s love had become obsession over the years; we were accustomed to spending 275 days a year in water; more, if we visited indoor pools. My skin was rendered permanently pruney, and my feet paid a high price for the Obsession Years.

“What’s wrong with your feet? They look funny,” Flash told me, one evening.

“That’s not nice. Have you seen your nose?”

“Your feet look webbed.”

“They’ve been like this for three years, Mr. Observant. Haven’t you heard them slapping on the ground when I go barefoot? Or noticed how much faster I swim now?”

He glanced at my duck feet again, concerned.

“Look,” I explained, “I spent eight years with the lower half of my body under water. I adapted.”

Cowboy is still happiest in water. But when he was a small child, swimming was a necessity. Whatever challenges he had, on any given day, melted away in the cool, blue ripples. Our excursions, which lasted eight hours or more, calmed Cowboy and saved our sanity; I daydreamed of living in our own private water park.

In the mornings, we’d bathe in the lazy river, stopping under one of the fountains to shampoo our sun-streaked hair. Exercise, dreaded on dry land, would be cooler; sweating would no longer be an issue. Our regimen would include going down water slides, hopping waves in the wave pool, and taking laps around the lazy river. Dishes would be washed on the splash pad, and there would be no dusting. With floors made of white sandy beaches, I’d never own another vacuum; my life would be complete. Dirty laundry would drastically decrease – we’d wear swimsuits during the day, every day. At night, after a dive-in movie, we'd change into pajamas, then rock to sleep in hammocks under the stars. When Houston winter would rear its ugly head, lasting approximately five days, we'd don wetsuits or hang out in the hot tub during the day; at night, we’d head into our heated, sealed cabana. Our concession stand would always be stocked with plenty of hot dogs, hamburgers, nachos, and huge dill pickles. Music from the 60s, 70s, and 80s would be piped in, and we’d invite local bands out to play on the weekends, when we hosted parties. Most importantly, there would never be long lines for any attractions.

In the meantime, while we are still house dwellers, we frequent water parks as often as possible. But Cowboy’s obsession ended five years ago; now, our visits last only four hours. Sometimes, he’s ready to go home before we are. “Can we stay a little bit longer?” I often whine to him. Sometimes, he indulges me. But when we took him to Schlitterbaun in Galveston, he was ready to go after an hour. We insisted he be patient.

“We’re not leaving yet, Cowboy. We’ve only been here a little while,” Flash explained. Cowboy didn’t look well; we suspected he had a fever. But the lure of the water was greater than our parental call of duty. So we stayed longer. Until guilt kicked in, and I had visions of our being on the ten o’clock news as Bad Parents Who Forced Their Sick Kid to Play in a Water Park.

But last summer, I got to swim as long as I wanted, when my friend Thelma Lou invited me to a water park. We went with no kids, but I had no guilt; Cowboy was at a local camp, having his own fun. And what he doesn’t know won’t hurt him. Not only is Thelma Lou a fellow Water Lover, she’s a Hair Wetter. None of that “Oh, don’t splash me, I might get my hair wet” nonsense for us; at our ages, it’s all about staying cool.

Two weeks ago, we treated Cowboy to a stay at the Moody Gardens Hotel in Galveston. He picked that hotel because he remembered how much he liked the pool. But after floating around Palm Beach water park for three hours, he wasn’t interested in the hotel pool.

“Cowboy, that’s why we stayed here. We need to go swimming tonight. Do you want to eat dinner or swim in the hotel pool?”

“Eat,” he answered.

“Okay. We should stay here at the hotel, and eat by the pool. That would be fun, huh? Don’t you want to do that, Cowboy?”

“No,” he said, shaking his head. He and Flash wanted to go off-site for dinner. Since the trip was for Cowboy, and it was also Father’s Day, the guys won that round.

“Okay, but do you want to swim when we get back?”

He shook his head again.

We drove to dinner. On the way, I googled our hotel to see how late the pool would be open. After we ordered our food, I sat there thinking about floating in the beautiful, chlorinated water.

“Why is our food taking so long? It’s been 10 minutes, already. It’s not even crowded in here,” I told Flash. “It’s getting dark. I want to watch the sun go down.” A poolside sunset would be perfect, I thought.

“You can watch the sun go down over the beach, right out this window where we’re sitting,” he answered.

“It’s not the same.” Time was ticking away; it was already eight o’clock. I’m not in the water, I told myself. I need the water. The H2O Obsession was back, this time with a different victim. I ran to the ladies room and held my head under the faucet, letting the water cascade down my hair.

“What happened to your hair?” Flash asked, horrified, when I returned to the table.

“Hot flash,” I lied. “Cowboy, I thought you picked the hotel for its pool. Don’t you want to swim with me? We can always eat dinner tomorrow.” My desperation took precedence over motherhood.

Mr. Consistent shook his head again.

“Well, I’m going swimming.” He wasn’t swayed.

After years, our food finally came. I ate quickly, finishing my meal before Cowboy. Then Flash’s stomach began hurting, and he couldn’t eat his dinner. “I just need to lie down for a little while, when we get back to our room.”

“I’ll swim by myself,” I answered, compassionately.

As we entered our hotel room, I made a bee line for the phone, dialing the front desk. “How late is your pool open?” I held my breath, praying.

“Eleven o’clock.” It was 9:20. I sighed with relief.

“And what time does it open in the morning?” I had to weigh all my options for swimming opportunities before check-out time.

“Ten o’clock.”

“Oh, thank you.” I teared up. God had heard my plea.

I ran to the bathroom to put on my still damp swimsuit. It’s a powerful obsession that compels me to walk through a chilly hotel lobby while wearing a wet swimsuit. When I came out of the bathroom, Cowboy was wearing his swimsuit, too. I was thrilled, but not sure why he changed his mind after being so adamant for the last two and a half hours. Perhaps he was enjoying stringing me along. Or maybe he felt sorry for me. Either way, we got down to the water in record time.

As we swam, he laughed harder than I’d seen him do all weekend. He grabbed my hands and started hopping around the pool with me. He’s not too old to play with me, I thought, as I saw joy in his face. I remembered those long-ago days when I made up pool games for us. The days before I took on his obsession, when I thought we’d never be on dry land again.

“Cowboy, remember when we used to sit on the bottom of the pool?” I asked him.

Immediately, he sunk to the bottom, and came up like a rocket. Over and over, he sunk and shot up through the water.

As we floated down Memory Lane, I was grateful he taught me to love water. Whatever challenges I have, on any given day, melt away in the cool, blue ripples. I still have to temper my Water Obsession, to be fair to the family; it’s important for a mom to learn to compromise. But my obsession with enjoying Cowboy grows stronger with time.