Learning To Swim

“How do butterflies know to fly to flowers for food, Momma?” Nora asked as she flapped her arms around our kitchen island. The wings she was wearing that day were about the size of her body, and pink with gold piping. A unicorn headband with ribbons bouncing from the back of it crowned her head. I noticed that her question was not about why butterflies fly to flowers for food, but how they know to do so. I suggested that she asks her father. “He’s a scientist. He would know.” I truly did not have the answer (the PBS show that she, Erin, and I had viewed that morning only explained the reason flowers were colorful: to attract butterflies).

Sometimes, Nora inquires about fairies. “Are they real, Momma?” I enjoy this type of question the best. 

“Do you believe that they are real?”

She would tilt her head to one side. “Yes.”

“Then they are, my love,” I would reply. In her young world, fairies with magic wands, mermaids with glittery fishtails, and unicorns with shimmering hooves exist even though she has not laid eyes on one yet.

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However, many of her questions require me to not only take deep breaths, but to count them, as though I am back in the third grade in Florida, where swim class was a requirement. “Take three deep breaths and then jump in,” the instructor would command as I stationed myself at the end of the low diving board, feeling as though I could throw up.

Several months ago, Nora gazed out our car window and asked about the gray stones that sat atop a hill. I wasn’t prepared to explain what a cemetery was, so I answered that I hadn’t seen what she was pointing at. The lie was a better response than the one I had given in a bumbling attempt to explain who Jesus was. Lately she wants to know why baby birds come out of an egg whereas a human baby come out of a body; if we all would be killed by snow and ice like the dinosaurs were; and when we would be able to go to heaven to bring Pluto back home.

Nora knows about heaven because one day Danith explained to her that Daffy and Kiri were there. When he and I were prepping for bed later that night, I asked why he would introduce a concept such as heaven to a four-year-old.

“Because,” he started, “she asked me where her brother and sister were.”

I groaned under my breath.  He wanted to know what the problem was.  “Now she’s going to ask more questions about it,” I retorted. 

“Just tell her,” he said, shrugging. Like it was that easy.

“It’s not that easy!” I hollered. Then I added that I didn’t want to talk about the subject any longer.

I was not wrong. Nora began to ask me what heaven looked like, whether it was far, and how we could travel there. I kept my answers basic but truthful, and I was actually beginning to get the hang of it. I only needed to remind myself not to expound on anything. “People say it is pretty.  And it is very, very far.” 

But Nora’s satisfaction with my brief answers was short-lived.   

“When can we go to heaven to get Pluto?”

“We can’t.”

“Why not?”

“He does not want to come back.”

“Why not?”

“He likes it there.”

“Why did he go there?”

And that was when I became eight years old once more, balancing myself at the edge of the diving board at the community pool that stood opposite my elementary school. As part of physical education, the abhorrent swim class ran about two weeks each spring. I remembered the drip, drip from my wet ponytail wetting my back and goosebumps puckering on my arms. I remembered watching my classmates climbing out of the pool and their feet slapping the ground, leaving dark marks in shapes of a crab or something more nebulous. They were all eager to return to the line at the diving board. I remembered peering down into the clear blue water, fearful of the burn and sting it would cause me as it rammed up my nose and into my eyes. I remembered, too, gasping for air as I scrambled to find my way up from the bottom of the pool; it always felt as though I would never make it. Come on, sweetheart, your friends are waiting. Take three deep breaths and jump in, the swim instructor would shout from below. I remembered the red whistle she wore around her neck and how dry her clothes and hair remained every day.

“Pluto was sick,” I said to Nora.

“He was sick?”


“Did he have a cold?”

“No, he hurt his back.”

“Did he see a doctor?”


“And he was still sick?”

“Yes.” As I braced myself for subsequent questions that would inevitably be about her passed siblings, I quickly added, “Hey, why don’t you go play!”

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It is the end of August. Earlier in the day I visited Whole Foods to pick up a small bouquet of flowers. And now we are at the river. The water is high, but the waves are only strong enough to smack the rocks. I gingerly sit at the edge of the boardwalk with Erin secured on my lap and Nora hip-close to me. With my nose and lips planted on Erin’s head I inhale the sun from her hair. Even though these visits to the river are not new to Nora since we return here each August to commemorate the anniversary of Daffy’s and Kiri’s passing, on the way here today she asked why we would be throwing flowers into the water for them. While I unwrap the bouquet, she asks it again.

“To tell them that we love them and miss them,” I say.

She buries her face in my arm and then cautiously peeks up at me. “But they can’t hear us.”

Many children around Nora’s age are asking similar questions about death, so she is not exceptional in that regard. And I know that I am not exceptional, either. What parent wants to teach her children that death exists? That it is real? That it will happen? To everyone, including their family members? Including themselves? Why must children have to fear the reality of death before they even stop believing in pear-sized beings that flutter around spreading magical dusts and granting wishes? I kiss her head and say, “I know.”

“Momma,” she whispers, “are they dead?”

I am scared of all the questions that will follow, but without hesitation, I forego breathing in deeply. And I forego counting my breaths. It has dawned on me that the swim instructor’s tip never helped. In the end, when I did jump from the diving board, it was hurried and messy. All so I could get it done and over with, all so I could scramble up from the bottom of the pool and learn to swim. “Yes, my love,” I say to Nora.

“Are they in heaven?”


“How did they dead?” I notice that she did not use the word die.

“They were very very sick.”

Quietly Nora accepts the white mum I hand her and throws it into the murky water. The flower floats in the river almost like a star in a night sky. Erin wants to offer the river something, too, so I pluck off a miniature coral carnation for her, and as I hold her hand so that we could throw the flower together, I teach her to say Daffy’s and Kiri’s names. “Bong Daffy, Bong Kiri,” Erin repeats as the three of us continue to take turns tossing roses, mums, and carnations.

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