I have a fear of large mammals in the water. I started to write that I used to have a fear of large mammals in the water, when I was a child, but I got so squeamish putting the words together that I realized it is still very much alive.
The summer after second grade, I went to an all girl's sleep-away camp for two months on a lake up in Maine. In the final week, we were treated to what was billed as the camp highlight, swimming on horseback. I think it was just a single horse and each of us waited and took turns, I know it was brief. I sat on the horse bareback while an instructor lead him into the water. I remember my legs getting wet as we moved deeper into the lake, and feeling slightly nervous but also delighted. Then came this moment, when the horse made the transition from walking in the water to actually swimming in it. His whole body shifted and grew long beneath me. His breathing became heavy and labored. It was only a few seconds, a quick loop and then suddenly he was walking again, but I was completely unnerved by the whole experience. Terrified actually is a more truthful description.
However ridiculous, nearly thirty years later, I am left with this fear. Almost every time I am swimming over my head, even in a clear blue pool, the image of a big horse or mammal coming up from below me is at least a passing thought. I don't really enjoy being over my head in water for this exact reason, although I typically don't confess to the root. Little Smith loves whales, and I have to push back my discomfort. I'm fine with the actual whale, because they don't have legs, but I've seen the skeletons in the museums with those long fingers inside the fins, and I've read about cows evolving from whales. It's just so horrifying to me. I'm freaking out even going into this much detail. Is it freaking you out too?! I know. It's just me.
I must have had dozens of passing childhood fears, but I barely remember most of them. Now as I watch my own children, I do wonder what causes some worries to become indelible, while others just fade away. At three and a half, Little Smith has turned that corner where linear memories are possible. I'm fairly certain that his passion for trains will not be sustained into adulthood, and I know he will outgrow his disdain for silverware, but each time a fear emerges, I wonder if it will stick.
After writing about our struggles with leaving behind diapers, I took a step back this week-end and tried to engage in a more casual conversation, hoping to understand where this hesitation might be coming from. Eventually we started talking about drains, and it all clicked for me. Little Smith has been nervous about the bathtub drain for some time. If I lift the plug while he is still bathing, he practically leaps out of the water with his arms full of tub toys. I have tried to explain that he is too big to be sucked down the drain, but I suspect that is his worry. He often inspects the pipes below the sink and is full of questions about where they are coming from and going to... and wouldn't you know, once I explained that his plastic potty chair didn't have a drain and was just a bucket, he agreed to sit on it.
I have no idea how we will make the next leap towards something that is hooked up to legitimate plumbing. Maybe it is because he is my son, and I imprinted him with my own special brew of neuroses, but this anxiety actually makes perfect sense to me. I keep picturing scenes from the film Delicatessen and wondering what he imagines is happening inside all of those pipes. My instincts are split between minimizing the topic, hoping he just grows out of it, versus delving in further. I am tempted to get out some books on plumbing and go into detail about the technicalities of how it all works. He has the kind of mind that could very well be fascinated by all of that, and it might allay his fears... or it might just guarantee that this becomes his swimming horse.