Janet Combs

Janet Combs

In the ocean last week with one of my grandchildren, a memory crashed over me; one that was more jarring than any of the waves that knocked me around in the choppy Fourth of July Atlantic of 2019.

I remembered how much courage it took to learn to float.

We take it for granted as adults, that at any moment we can arch our backs slightly and push off the ocean floor, drifting blissfully—face, torso and toes skyward—with no effort whatsoever.

Floating is the go-to activity whenever you grow tired—and absolutely necessary if ever you are caught in a riptide and need to wash out into the deep until the tide’s run its course and slings you back to shore a few miles down the beach.

Floating is not really swimming, but it’s an essential life-saving skill in the water. And because salt water increases your buoyancy, it’s easy to learn in the ocean, provided someone you trust has a gentle, guiding hand under the small of your back.

That hand’s not really doing anything, not actually holding you up at all. But the minute my Dad or Mom would take that hand away, I would flounder and sink, swallowing gulps of salty seawater, faithless in myself. I remembered this suddenly and vividly, when I saw the curious mixture of panic and exhilaration in my granddaughter’s eyes as she first learned to float in the ocean.

We were jumping the waves together. She clutched my upper arm so tightly that it left a fingerprint bruise, which I look upon as a badge of oceanic honor that will soon fade, though its associated memory never will.

“I’m not a really strong swimmer,” she said, parroting no doubt what she had heard about her seven-year-old self.

“Maybe not yet,” I said, “but can you float?”

“No,” she said.

“Of course you can!” I said. “Everyone can float.” I demonstrated. It sure looked easy.

We waited until a calm spell, and I told her to arch her back, tilt her chin up, keep her mouth closed and spread her arms wide. I held my hand under the small of her back, the way others had taught me.

“Don’t let go!” she commanded.

“I won’t,” I lied, keeping my hand there for a good five seconds before I let go.

Immediately she faltered and sputtered, and I pulled her up. She told me she couldn’t do it, and I insisted that she could. I referenced her stellar athletic skills on the soccer field and engaged her highly competitive nature, telling her I had counted the seconds during the time I removed my hand before she stood up, and that she had floated for about two whole seconds. I told her I bet she could float for five, maybe ten. We waited for the next round of breakers to pass, and to her credit, she tried again.

“One…two…three…four…FIVE!” I shouted. She jumped up, thrilled.

“I floated!” she shouted out excitedly to her father, who was out in the deeper waters, riding the waves with her brother. “Daddy, watch me float!”

“She floated!” I shouted, as if she had discovered a new planet. “Watch her float now!” I shrieked. “She’s floating!”

It was hard to tell who was prouder of the floating. Strangers on the beach nearly applauded. We floated every subsequent day of her visit, sometimes holding hands, sometimes making a chain with the other grandkids, often taking in mouthfuls of ocean because we’d be smiling for no good reason when an unanticipated wave would crest over us.

I hope my granddaughter remembers our Fourth of July float, and that she processes the experience eventually in the way I did, which is this: the hand that supports and guides you through challenging waters is always there, whether you feel it or not. So whenever things get rough and you need a break, just keep the faith and float.

Janet Combs is a freelance writer living in Georgetown County. Her column is published regularly in the Georgetown Times. Contact her at https://janetfrickecombs.wordpress.com.