Future Reflections         Fall 2009

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One Family's Experience with a Buoyantly, Ebulliently, Brave, Brave Girl

by Mary McDonach

Closeup of Elizabeth in a swimsuit, wearing goggles.Reprinted from <www.wonderbaby.org>.

From the Editor: Many small children, blind and sighted, develop fears of new experiences. It takes real courage on the child's part, and courage and steadiness from the parents as well, for such fears to be overcome. In this article Mary McDonach of Paisley, Scotland, describes how her daughter conquered her terror and learned to love the water.

With very little warning and even less preparation, a few weeks ago classes and kindergartens at some of our local schools were closed due to an outbreak of H1N1. It was a frightening time for many parents. Certainly my partner and I were terrified! To complicate matters we had a healthy five-year-old daughter with an unplanned vacation and a hankering for a good time. We didn't have the first idea where this good time might be hiding. We just knew it had to be cool, interesting, inexpensive, mildly educational, and with relatively low infectivity possibilities!

Our initial thinking was that on Monday we would go to the local public swimming pool. We hadn't been there for ages. If Elizabeth enjoyed it, we could go back.

Day One: The Vice-like Grip of Terror

We quickly realized that our idea that it had been a while since we went swimming with Elizabeth differed wildly from what her memory told her. Her mind ran more along the lines of, "I've never, ever been here before! What is happening?" At first her remarks indicated only mild anxiety and reluctance.

In the pool Elizabeth wore her sporty red swimsuit and her "brave face," that was pressed uncomfortably close to my "encouraging face." Any suggestions about loosening the choke hold from my neck or raising her bottom from my knee were met with a firm "No, thank you." For one and a half hours my partner and I took turns hopping round the pool with her attached--inconspicuously, we like to think! Elizabeth was terrified and enthralled in almost equal measure.

Afterwards, in the changing rooms, we had a difficult time encouraging her into the shower. "But I've just been in all that water! I don't need a shower!" We explained that chlorine was added to the water in the pool to keep it clean. The chlorine was what she smelled, and it was a bad idea to leave it on her skin. This was the last straw, the coup de grace, the insult, where previously there had only been (mental) injury. "GET IT OFF ME!" she bellowed (charmingly, of course).

Upon later examination, the backs of our necks turned out to have bruises just the size of five-year-old fingers. It was a rough day, but it was a start!

Day Two: "Can We Go Again? Today?"

Later, when my partner and I talked over the experience, we agreed that it must have been strange and dreadful for Elizabeth--possibly rating alongside immunization injections in terms of pleasure. So it was a bit of a surprise for us when she jumped out of bed the next morning with one wish, front and center in her mind: "Can we go again? Now?" We agreed, eventually, to go after lunch.

Some time later, when we went to investigate the drumming noise coming from the sitting room, we found Elizabeth on the floor kicking her feet. She explained that she was practicing swimming, but it wasn't working very well. The sitting room floor remained uncooperatively solid. This was a different girl, though--that was self-evident. She now knew what the challenge was, and she intended to give that challenge a good hiding!

Elizabeth's grip was much less fierce this time. We had decided at the first visit not to do any pretending about her safety. There would be no jokes that she might be dropped or dunked. We would be as serious as she was--and she was deadly serious.

Our approach was validated fully when we saw the amount of trust Elizabeth was willing to give us. Plainly she did not want to let us pull her between us to simulate the movement of swimming. She did not want to lie on her back with only her head and bottom supported. Nonetheless, she submitted. Grimly, she even made her way around the rim of the pool, holding on tightly. In retrospect, I realized this stage was a lot like the "cruising" she did, holding onto furniture, prior to walking independently.

I bet the lifeguards get to see some pretty dopey parents. At least they were discreet about our failings! With nothing said, a female lifeguard who had taken an interest in Elizabeth's progress walked away for a few moments and returned with two inflated armbands. Casually she threw them to us. Well, duh! I wish I'd thought of that! That little bit of added buoyancy was all Elizabeth needed to give her the independence she craved.

Day Three: The Siren Call of the Water Slide!

We decided to take a day off from swimming because Elizabeth was clearly exhausted, although she refused to admit it. That day we endured a million questions: "Why are there tiles on the floor?" "Why is the floor slippery?" "Why is water a liquid?" "Tell me more about the chlorine I can smell." "Why do we need to shut the door when we are getting changed?" (And what a huge question that is!)

Armed with the best answers we could offer, a different girl set off for Day Three at the pool. She wore a new two-piece swimsuit and a broad smile, and she had the confidence to hold onto the side and kick her legs. Most significantly, she brought up the water slide. She had known it was there, but she had not mentioned it before. It must have seemed like a silent, ominous dare to her. Now, with enough assurances to satisfy herself that she would be caught, absolutely and without a doubt, she climbed the stairs to the four-foot platform. She had watched other children on the slide and heard them scream with delight, but for Elizabeth this moment was not about having fun. This was something she felt she had to do. We put no pressure on her to do it; we just tried to be supportive of her attempt, regardless of the outcome.

Even though our outstretched arms softened the impact, she hit the water like a bomb! Once I swept her hair out of her eyes and helped her clear her nose, we saw the utter joy in her huge smile. She had beaten the challenge she set for herself! She shone with pride in her accomplishment.

She wasn't finished yet. "I want to swim underneath," she told us. She threw herself beneath the surface of the pool with the cheerful abandon of an inept seal. Every attempt to swim underwater (and we couldn't get her to stop attempting) ended with her swallowing pool water, choking and spluttering. She just could not get the concept of closing her mouth and holding her breath.

After a lot of thought, we found a solution. We asked her to do something that would be incompatible with opening her mouth and trying to breathe underwater--we asked her to hum. It worked! As she went under she pressed her lips together tightly and began to hum until she was back up. The air being forced from between her lips prevented her from swallowing water.

At the end of the day Elizabeth was chilled, shivering, and ready to collapse into sleep. But we were all radiant with pride on the journey home!

Day Four: "Don't Catch Me!"

"If I don't say anything, don't catch me."

We were not quite sure we had heard right. I stood at the bottom of the slide saying, "Do you want me to catch you?" and Elizabeth sat at the top of the slide saying nothing at all! What was I to do? I didn't catch her!!!

She emerged triumphant. When she could finally breathe again she asked every adult in the pool (all of whom were strangers), "Did you see that?" Everyone was most impressed (and they were all very graceful about being asked half a dozen times if they had indeed witnessed the beauty, bravery, and ultra-mega-splashy mermaidyness that had been her entry into the pool). And she was searching for more challenges:

Jumping in from the side? Done that!
Riding on a parent's back? Done that!
Floating on her back? Please! She's done that!
Going down the slide head first? I think you know the answer to that one!

Then the same friendly lifeguard did the same quiet routine; this time she tossed us brightly colored, weighted rings. This challenge was a tough one. The water refraction added to Elizabeth's dire depth perception, and she could barely see the rings when they sank to the bottom. Before going underwater to retrieve them she searched the general area with her feet. When we suggested that this was cheating, she told us firmly, "It's not wrong--it's different." She's right. We taught her that ourselves. Shame on us!

Of course, we didn't need to be told a third time about pool aids. The goggles and nose clips really helped! And when Elizabeth realized the buoyancy from the water wings was not assisting her in her dives, she began diving with only one of them on!

Reflecting on What We've Learned

Our daughter has albinism and is legally blind. She also has photophobia; sunlight glancing off water at random angles is painful for her. At the pool she had to adapt to an entirely new space and new set of rules. She accepted the distorted sound quality and the vulnerability she felt being wet and walking on a tiled floor.

Elizabeth has developed her own brand of stroke--flap, flap, kick, kick, kick, splash, laugh, spit out pool water, and repeat! She has a lifetime to learn classic moves.

She has even managed to categorize all this as fun--isn't that outrageous!

This story is not about Elizabeth's blindness or her intellect or any of the thousand other things that we, the parents of blind and visually impaired children, adapt to every hour of the day. This story is about my selfish and unstoppable pride in my child, who sets her own goals, meets them by her own timetable and standards, and judges herself as a person of worth. My daughter is the bravest person I know.

I am writing this for her.

My partner and I are both relieved that for the time being Elizabeth has no idea of the worlds this will open up for her--scuba diving, Air and Sea Rescue, Olympic sports, lifeguarding--to name but a few.

We intend to leave all that till she's six!

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