We have a tug-of-war going on in my house. The Golden Boy with the beautiful butterfly stroke has rediscovered football and talk of Olympics and medals and national championship swim teams is becoming less and less frequent. I’d like to blame it on the Covid -- three months of closed pools and too much time on his hands to play Madden on the PlayStation. But it’s not the Covid’s fault. It’s not even the media’s fault for giving football more airtime than swimming, or his friends’ fault, who (under normal circumstances) can be found any afternoon of the week playing two-hand-touch, a boyhood event The Boy often missed because of swim practice. There’s actually no one person at fault. It’s more a matter of visionaries gone rogue.
When the change began, I, who might have already begun planning a Paris 2024 Olympic trip, did what was necessary to curb The Boy’s newfound football enthusiasm.
“Hey? Who switched my screen saver to Michael Phelps?” The Boy might have asked.
“Hmm? Not a clue.” I might have answered, hiding my wicked grin behind a paperback.
“Ugh...Mom! Stop leaving cryptic messages.”
“Mom, did you order those wide receiver gloves I asked you to get with my birthday money?”
“Not yet, but your new speedo came in.”
“Mom, did you know that Jerry Rice has scored more points than any other non-kicker in NFL history?”
“Interesting. Did you know that if the Olympics had happened this summer, Caleb Dressel would likely have crushed multiple world records?”
“Dad! Mom’s brainwashing me again!”
Of course, it is brainwashing, or, if nothing else, obsessive direction toward what I believe to be The Boy’s best narrative. Because the truth is, as much as I am a disorganized walking disaster whose spice rack will always include forgotten, outdated spices, and whose children will likely never wear matching socks for their entire childhood, I am a control freak. I’m not the OCD, Spic and Span type of control freak. I’m more of the “my vision looks so fantastic in my mind, I must do what’s necessary to get you on my level“ kind of freak. Don’t go on vacation with me. I’ll exhaust you. Don’t tell me your problem unless you want me to tackle it. And for the love of God, don’t get me so excited about an Olympic run that I start looking at french chateaus four years in advance.
Some of us are visionaries. And some of us are visionary overlords. Good people of the interwebs, meet your overlady!
But this freak’s intentions are good. I don’t want us to just visit a city. I want us to experience it. I don’t want you to download your problems on me. I want to solve them. And I don’t want you to only wish for big dreams. I want you to realize them. It’s just that I may drive you bat shit crazy in the process. And the Golden Boy has little room to complain. He’s mini-me only with more stamina and an even bigger drive. Don’t tell him we might be going to Disney World unless you are prepared for nonstop talk about the various customizable droids and light saber options in Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge.
This is why his recent obsessive football talk shouldn’t have surprised me. When this kid has a vision, he sees it hard. Like his Mama.
So there we sat in the car on the way to his first swim practice since the lockdown began in March -- parent and child, too much alike and too iron-willed in their narratives. He didn’t say a word, just watched NFL reels on YouTube , and I prayed to control my tongue.
When I received the email about USA Swimming restarting, I was relieved. Finally I could get the boy back in the pool and he could be reminded of all that he loved about his sport. But when I shared the news of the reboot with him, he just casually smiled.
“That’s great, Mom.”
That’s great!? A few months ago you had me researching the names of college swim coaches! That’s great?!
Something had changed, and it wasn’t time away from the pool. Something within him changed. In the fall, he’d won the state title in the butterfly stroke in his age bracket and division. That victory carried him to clinics and intensives run by medaled athletes, which then led to his pleas to join a USA Swimming club team. We agreed it was the next right thing for him and sacrificed time and money to get him there. And now, just a few months later, he’s spouting off wide receiver stats and asking me to talk to the coaches to see if he can fit football into his swim schedule? What the hell happened?
I parked the car at the natatorium. We were early -- a novelty, but at that moment, a godsend.
“Well…” I just said the word as a buffer, something to fill the space while I contemplated my next move. As parents, that’s often how it goes. Deep breaths and fillers before leaps of faith. What the hell do I know? I’ve never raised a teenage boy before. I’ve never raised a teenage boy whose ambitions are suddenly so fragile! Do I say nothing in the hopes that my silence gives him room to figure things out on his own? Or do I meddle in the hopes that my inner control freak does something right for a change?
But he spoke up first. To my utter surprise, The Golden Boy broke the ice and when he did, little golden boy tears streamed down his freckled cheeks.
“You know, I’ve always been good at catching the ball,” he mumbled.
“Yes, you always have been.”
Don’t blow this, Annie.
“I’m pretty good at throwing it too.”
“Playing football, I feel good about myself. You know?”
“And you don’t in the pool?” I winced.
His eyes settled into a look I’d never seen on him before, but one I’d seen on me too many times to count: disillusionment.
“Everyone here is so far ahead of me. Some of these kids started swimming on teams when they were five. Do you know how many seconds my Fly is from the state record in this league? Or how much faster I need to be to make it to the next group up? It’s impossible!”
The words toppled out of his lips in a rapid unleashing of despair. The winner with the bright smile of last fall was now a shell of his former ambition. He’d looked too far. He’d noticed the lane beside his, and in doing so, his lane had lengthened substantially.
“Well…” I said. Only this time, the word filled the space while I let it sink in that The Golden Boy and I were actually seeing eye-to-eye for the first time since Jerry Rice replaced Michael Phelps in his vernacular. We weren’t just two visionary freaks in a pod, we were two disillusioned dreamers, slipping from what once seemed a firm hold on our dreams.
I reached for my phone and opened Instagram to the page of an author my age, who writes the same kind of things I write, but who has three New York Times bestsellers.
“You see her?” I asked The Boy. “If I wanted to, I could start every day by looking at her page, her followers, her books, and how more accomplished she is than I. And sometimes I do. Sometimes I look at her and all the other authors for too long, and do you know what happens when I do that?”
“Huh?” a tiny Golden Boy tear dripped onto my screen.
“I stop writing,’ I said. “At least anything good.”
He was quiet for a few seconds, and then he looked up at me with the same overwhelmed expression as when I dropped him off at preschool for the first time.
“Mom? What if I never make it to the Olympics?” He said it so quietly, so pathetically, that I couldn’t refrain from pulling his big, teenage body into my arms.
“What if I’m never a New York Times Bestseller?” I asked, kissing his head.
“I mean, I’ll still love you and all,” he said.
“Exactly. And I’ll love you no matter how far swimming takes you. And you know what else? No matter what and how far we go, you’ll always be a swimmer and I’ll always be a writer. It’s just what we’re made of, Kid.”
“What if I quit swimming and play football?” he asked, turning to face me.
“I’ll still love you then,” I said, in spite of the visionary overlady inside me fighting to the surface. “But I’ll miss seeing you on that block.”
He was quiet again and then a new thought seemed to cross his face. His shoulders relaxed, and he said, “I don’t need to decide today, do I?”
“Nope,” I answered.
This time when he exhaled, it was like he’d let go of a weight he’d been dragging around for months. He wiped his tears, flashed that Golden Boy smile that fills the darkest room, and planted a big kiss on my cheek.
I know enough to know that nothing kills a dream like watching someone else achieve it before you. While my boy bemoans the fact that he didn’t start training until he was ten, I bemoan that I didn’t really start tackling a creative writing career until I was forty. It’s tempting to look in the lane beside ours and see how much farther we have to go. But, here’s the thing about looking too far out: All we ever see is the destination and the journey is lost.
It’s natural to focus on where our actions could take us because quite often, the process itself is tiring. But as any scenic route lover knows, the trip along the way can be just as thrilling as the final destination. One must only accept that it may take a little longer to get there. What interesting towns will you see on ambling highways? What fascinating characters lurk off the beaten path? And what glorious scenery waits just beyond the fast lane? And in life, we often pass over our character in a rush to the finish line. If The Golden Boy skips over the hard stuff as he chases titles, how much meaning will a medal, a touchdown, or any victory have? For that matter, if it’s too easy becoming a bestseller, how riveting, then, is my story? What about yours? How patient are you to await change in your own life? Are you listening to and learning about yourself, or are you too distracted by the destinations of others? Change is messy, and sometimes it seems like change sucks time away from us with disheartening greed. But change can also be a teacher, merciful, and even a life giver. We need only surrender our visions gone rogue to be the recipient of such fortune. I need to get better at remembering that.
After practice, The Boy plopped into the front seat, chlorine seeping out of his hair and pores. He smelled like his old self. Only, that swimmer had been altered, tested by waters with faster, bigger, and flashier fish. This won’t be the last challenge to his self-esteem and that day wouldn’t be his last words on swimming versus football either. I have to chill the hell out and welcome the journey as we both patiently await our final destinations. I don’t know how magnificent they will be. Will he set world records? Will Oprah interview me on Super Soul Sunday? Who knows?
It’s okay to care, but it isn’t okay to forget how we got there -- wherever there may be.
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