I have little to no recollection of a single word of praise from my parents.
From the outside, we were an average middle-class family. My dad was a salesman for a large corporation, which meant we moved around a lot. Although he always provided for his family, his career was otherwise quite unremarkable. Every morning, he’d put on one of his three suits and a freshly laundered white shirt and a tie. He’d eat breakfast while reading the newspaper and then head to work. In the evenings, he’d return home to a hot dinner, clean clothes in his drawers and closets, and his children bathed and well-behaved. He’d watch television after dinner and promptly head to bed at 10 pm so he could start his monotonous cycle all over the next morning. My mom was a stay-at-home mom and wife during my childhood. When I reached my teenage years, she worked in the banking industry, rising to a VP level, but even then, her domestic roles were clearly defined. It was the early 70s, and household duties were parsed according to gender. In short, my mom did all the work inside the house; my Dad and I took care of the yard, house repairs and other general maintenance on the outside of the house.
We celebrated all the holidays that American families typically celebrate. Christmases were chock-full of colorfully wrapped presents piled under a tree adorned with lights and sparkling tinsel. Grandparents, aunts, and uncles filled the house; the food was plentiful, the endless assortment of desserts dazzling. But there was a brokenness amongst us. We shared nothing of significance; we were strangers, all gathered because of our common DNA. The absence of any real joy left me reserved, with a feeling of isolation that ran deep. Similarly, when we spent our summers with my maternal grandparents on St. Simons Island, I spent my time fishing or walking around the island. We kids were shooed away to do whatever it is that kids do, so that our parents and grandparents could do their own thing. Longing for family connectedness, I developed surprisingly strong feelings for my grandparents. Thirsty for tenderness and appreciation, I drank up their attention, and my gratitude manifested itself in a keen sense of responsibility that caused me to look out for them when I became a young adult. It would prove to be the single-family connection I sustained.
When I was in fifth grade, I began what would become a long and passionate career as a swimmer. Aware only that I felt alive in the water, I wasn’t aware of the life-long lessons I would learn through the sport. Almost immediately, my coaches demanded what felt like perfection from my body that, although long and lean, I was somewhat scrawny in strength. My efforts, however, began to pay off, and it wasn’t long before I itched each day for the moment I could return to the pool. Leaving behind the dull colors of my home and the cold world of my family, the water gave me a place to focus completely on something else. I only had to concentrate on the correctness of each stroke, the width of the lane, the nearness of the next wall. The energy of my movements brought out the unpredictability and violence of the water, creating turbulent waves that crashed against the ropes. But below the surface was a stillness and serenity that fully enveloped me. Submerging myself, I existed alone; I became alive and free. These feelings fueled my passion, and even though swim practice was grueling, the water did not ask me to rely on anyone but myself to succeed. Competitive swimming offered a way to measure personal progress; I desperately needed to succeed. In the water, I knew exactly what was required of me. While continuing to push me, my coaches and teammates also praised my achievements, and this nourished me. But nothing satisfied me as much as the pure feeling of putting my shoulders under the water, lifting my feet to connect with the wall and pushing off. Surrendering my body, focusing my mind on the end, doing nothing but experiencing, engaging, pushing myself. Being fully in the race. Being in the moment.
Swimming consumed my life, leaving little time for anything else. My parents threatened to take away the privilege of swimming if I didn’t keep up my grades or complete my household chores. I remember studying for exams by putting notecards full of facts inside plastic baggies and attaching them at the end of the lane where I’d look at them, memorizing them as I swam back to the other end of the pool. It was the only way I could manage both decent grades and swimming. Even though I was on a team, I had no real friends to speak of; if I wasn’t in the pool, I was at home studying, sleeping, mowing the lawn or doing some other assigned chore. I was reliant on my parents both for transportation and for their financial support. They never let me forget that I needed them and held this power over my head as a way to get what they wanted. Although they always pushed me to do more and better, I wonder what my success really meant to them. Whatever I did, however much I succeeded, they were never satisfied, and they never failed to remind me that there was always room for improvement. This dissatisfaction would have lifelong effects of things “never being good enough.” Winning one of my first races, I recall my Dad’s words: “You had a slow start.” I learned not to look to them for encouragement or affirmation. Branded in my brain to this day is the memory of one of my final wins. There was the euphoric moment I pulled up from the water and, searching the leaderboard, saw my name at the top. Ecstatic, I began pumping my fist in the air. My parents were watching in the stands. When I came out to meet them, my dad said, “You could have done better; it wasn’t your personal best.” With those words, something died inside me. In its place, a defiance was born, with the knowledge that pleasing myself was all that really mattered.
When I was sixteen, as a fairly new driver, I was on my way to swim practice on a dark March afternoon. It was damp and foggy outside. A dog ran into the street; swerving to avoid it, my car instead hit a telephone pole. Fraught with terror that I might have killed someone’s pet, my heart racing and my stomach sick, I didn’t immediately know that I also had a broken elbow and jaw, a fractured knee, and a severe concussion. Later that day, my dad met me at the hospital, furious. Not asking how I was, he said only, “Why didn’t you hit the f****** dog, this was a brand-new car.” Those were the last words he spoke to me for six weeks. He took away my license and made me sit for the SAT exams the next day, concussion and all. I retreated further into myself and endured.