In 1976, I am a freshman at Ohio State University. I dangle my feet in a pool and listen to my swim instructor. I fall into the water. When I attempt the freestyle, panic grows—until I lift up my head to take a desperate breath.
Like swimming at the time, some things seem impossible.
Twenty-four years later, my son Ben is a freshman at OSU. Late one night, I drive home from his choir concert with my youngest daughter asleep in the passenger seat. I wake Beth in an effort to keep my eyes open, giving her a clear front-row view of the accident that follows. She is paralyzed from the chest down with a cut spinal cord at C6-7. Quadriplegic. I am broken in ways that cannot be seen.
One month post-injury: Beth, 14 years old, decides to put her hair in a ponytail. She fails, with fingers that don’t work and arms that tremble. At therapy, she lies flat on her stomach, unable to lift her shoulders off the mat. My guilt constricts; I can’t breathe deeply.
In the rehab pool for the first time, Beth is held up by two therapists. She decides to float. She fails when the therapists agree to let go. They catch her when she falls. They also demonstrate how to roll over to breathe, but she can’t do that or anything else in the water. When the water sessions end, she asks for my help in the pool.
Where she leads, I follow.
One year post-injury: Beth attempts a ponytail, again and again, before handing me the elastic band. On the mat, she lifts her shoulders several inches while a therapist leans on her back. At the YMCA, she decides to put on a swim cap. She fails, with arms that no longer tremble. Not a swimmer before the injury, she loves to float with her arms waving gently under the surface. She finds freedom in the water at a time when moving on land is difficult. Trying the backstroke, she sinks. I lift her up and splash my face to hide my tears.
Two years post-injury: Beth achieves a perfect messy ponytail on her own. When a therapist leans on her back, she nearly straightens her arms. At the pool, she tries to put on a swim cap before handing it to me. She swims slow backstroke laps, alone in the lane. At her first wheelchair games, she decides to learn the freestyle stroke. With legs that drag behind and hands that cannot cup the water, she pushes forward, panicking—until she lifts her head up to take a desperate breath, just as I did all those years earlier.
I worry that her perspective won’t survive this defeat.
Three-and-a-half years post-injury: Beth races with a sloppy freestyle at her high school swim meet. She decides to lift herself out of the pool at a corner and fails. In the locker room, she gets dressed in her wheelchair without my help for the first time. She struggles to put on loose sweatpants over her bathing suit and is the last one out the door.
A few months later, she swims her first mile in one practice. At a pool in Toledo, the nearest big city, she volunteers with preschoolers with a disability. To start, she demonstrates how to roll over in the water to breathe.
Her optimism lives on.
Six-and-a-half years post-injury: Beth wheels on the deck of Harvard’s Blodgett pool. Surrounded by teammates, she is the first member of her college team with a visible disability. She puts on a swim cap with the hands of a quad and swims two miles at one practice for the first time. At home meets, she races a smooth freestyle and sets new Paralympic American records.
She showers before getting dressed in the varsity locker room. She changes efficiently in her chair and takes an extra minute for the zipper on her skinny jeans. Another day, she swims beside a young girl with a disability. When I talk to Beth on the phone, I realize that I need her more than she needs me.
I try to be grateful for this.
Eight years post-injury: During a finals event at the Beijing Paralympics, women from eight countries parade toward the starting blocks. I hold my breath as the race begins. My daughter’s freestyle is a beautiful work of art. She finishes fifth in the world, smashing her best time along with an American record. My tears fall.
Ten years post-injury: Beth retires from competitive swimming with 14 American records. She puts a cap over her ponytail and swims butterfly laps at an outdoor pool near Stanford Law School. She lifts herself out of the water to sit on the deck, shining in the California sun.
I return her dimpled smile.
Because of Beth, guilt no longer defines me. My failures hold less power. No more panic attacks that take my breath away. No more tragic tears. I might even learn how to swim one day.