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How swimming healed my heartbreak when my daughter left home


It is July 2018, and I have just got my dream job as writer-in-residence at a theatre I admire. I am feeling lucky: as a playwright, such jobs are few and far between. But something is not right.

My daughter is going to university in two months and I am not ready for her to leave. As a single-parent family, our household is small and tightly knit. Just the two of us. I am excited for my daughter to find the independence for which I hope I have prepared her. But no one has prepared me for this. I don’t know what losing my righthand girl will feel like. I am panicking. I feel as if I am drowning in my conflicted and unexpressed emotions.

Somehow, this feeling of drowning becomes the thing that saves me. One day as I’m walking home, I notice the university pool, which is not far from where we live. I must have walked and driven past it a million times. Swimming is not something I do. I mean, I can do it, thanks to slightly traumatic swimming lessons at school.

But the way I feel about swimming is that I’ll probably drown if left in any body of water for too long. Childhood stories about Mami Wata from my Nigerian culture make you respect how powerful water is from an early age. The fear is real.

And yet something compels me to walk in to the pool. I pick up a leaflet and am impressed by how relatively affordable this is compared with my usual yoga classes. I sign up to a six-week taster membership. My daughter reacts with shock but a kind of relief. She knows.

The next morning, at 7.30, I don a swimming costume. For a non-swimmer, I have quite a collection. Memories of holidays spent sunbathing while watching enviously as people jump into the blue sea come flooding back.

The changing room alone feels like a strange new world. The bright lights and almost empty space seem to be shining a light on how out of place I am here. I walk to the side of the pool. At this time of the morning, there is barely a handful of swimmers. I head over to the shallow end, reserved for nervous swimmers like me. I walk down the cold, grey, aluminium steps into the pool and all of a sudden, I’m in.

I can touch the floor, and that is reassuring. I look around to make sure the five other people and the lifeguards aren’t watching my awkward strokes, sniggering at the non-rhythmic kick of my legs. Noticing the fear of my head going under.

“No one is watching,” I repeat to myself. No one cares. No one cares if you look like a baby elephant swimming for the first time. No one cares if your heart breaks when all of her things are packed up and she leaves. Somehow, in that moment, this is reassuring.

I swim slowly from one end to the other. Each short length feels like it is releasing something in me. I cry. It is such a relief, partly because no one can tell my hot tears from the cool, chlorinated water running down my face. Half an hour later, I am out of the water and walking towards the changing rooms. Smiling hard. Proud that I can face this small fear and maybe even learn to love it.

By the time I get home, my daughter is up and making breakfast. She says I look happy. I am beaming. The next day, I am up again at the crack of dawn, swimming bag in hand. And every morning that I am not working or travelling, I swim. There is no fear of drowning, now. I am breathing better. I am feeling better.

The first morning that I wake up knowing my daughter is now living her new life as a student miles away from me, I walk into her bedroom to find a clean towel. I feel sick. I put on my swimming costume, and head out to the pool. I swim for longer. Harder. Afterwards I wring out my costume, feeling lighter. Almost smiling, I send my daughter a text to say I went swimming again. She is proud of me. I walk back into her bedroom, ready to face another fear.

Having “an empty nest” is an easy catchphrase for something that is impossible to describe. It is not just an empty room. It is a missing part of the jigsaw of who you think you are. These early-morning swims are now a part of who I am. And swimming fills a part of that daughter-shaped hole. The fact that I can now swim underwater and do breaststroke like a pro is just an added bonus.

Source: TheGuardian