The afternoon air is sweltering as I do a cannonball and make a volcanic splash in the diving pool. I can feel the goosebumps on my arms expand like cones on an evergreen as I sink down into the frigid, dark, ominous water. I am taking my Junior Life Saver test, and I need to save my instructor from drowning. I am terrified that I won’t be able to capture the flailing instructor properly and swim her to the side of the pool. 

What was my mother thinking when she signed me up for this? My mother doesn’t even know how to swim! 

Somehow, I am able to succeed in passing, but the summer is almost ruined by my fear of failing the written and physical test of rescuing a “drowning” person. 

I always fear failing. I am never good enough. Tests, piano recitals, tryouts for cheerleading, trying to fall asleep, and, yes, even breathing. It turns out I have asthma, and to not upset my mother, I sometimes faint in department stores, church, and even in my own bedroom rather than tell my mother I cannot breathe. This will cause her to “lose it,” and I don’t want to inconvenience her because her wrath is not worth breathing.

The medication prescribed to me at age twelve is a stimulant, and the prescription bottle reads, “Take before bedtime.” I take this nightly pill for thirteen years and never can fall asleep before three or four hours in bed. I fail at everything, even sleeping. What the hell?  

A stimulant prescribed before bed is a set-up for drowning in sleeplessness. How could a physician, a pharmacist, or my parents send me into a childhood and adolescence of exhaustion and not throw me a life preserver? Even writing these words brings tears and anger.

“I have lived many decades of my life feeling like there is no rescue and no certainty of breath or rest.”  

Oddly, when I marry, my asthma disappears, and I quit taking those blue pills. I fall asleep easily. The goodness of breathing on my own without pills that cause my heart to race is a realization that today gives me goosebumps. One plus one equals two, but I never quit fearing that I might fail at everything. It turns out, messages of young years become skin that is hard to shed.

The deep end has been, often, just getting air. Strangely, people remark how calm they sense I am and how much peace they feel in my presence when, in fact, I feel like I am the one flailing for breath and calmness. The disparity between what is felt by others and what I feel sometimes seems like dark waters that hold scary contradictions.  

I have been a seeker of peace all my life, and often what I seek is very hard to achieve. The thought of failing is carved into my cells, and I do not know how to reshape my DNA. A friend that I had not talked with for 25 years called yesterday! She remembered four sentences that I had said to her during the years we lived in the same city. One sentence was spoken at my fortieth birthday luncheon. I had told the women celebrating me that in this new decade I wanted to get to know God better. This one sentence from 25 years ago lingered like a heavenly fragrance and prompted her to take in the Spirit of God with new intentionality.  

After the call, I covered my face with my hands and cried. I know she is not the only person my life has touched, but in that moment, she was all I needed as a reminder that I am in the deep end both as a desperate swimmer and a life-giving rescuer.  

My husband loves Marc Chagall and is fond of Picasso. He loves Chagall for the fabulist dreamscape of love. He is fond of Picasso for his use of two faces for many of his figures. We are simultaneously one while always another. Often it seems we are two-faced in our duplicity, but far more often, we are both broken and beautiful.  

I am a young girl barely able to breathe or tell her mother that I think I am dying. I am a young girl failed by a physician and a pharmacist who sent me to drown in exhaustion and inattention. I am a woman of peace and glory, full of contradiction, two-faced as one who dives into darkness to rescue another while longing to be rescued from the deep end myself.  


Originally published in Red Tent Living on July 3, 2023.