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Water Wings

June Men's Room Column

The little one has me around the neck in the shallow end, kicking up a churn as his yellow water wings dig into my shoulders. My task is to let his anticipation build, keep him in excited suspense while I set my footing against the swimming pool’s concrete floor. Then, just as he wants me to do, I rise like a leviathan and fling him, all 35 pounds of him, backward, and he screeches with delight as he flies through the blazing summer afternoon and splashes into the deep end, where he kerplunks underwater for a thrilling, uncertain second before those puffy wings buoy him to the surface.

As soon as he catches his breath, he comes at me again, ready for more.

His sister, meanwhile, is on her way, too, shouting and laughing so hard that she probably has a mouth full of chlorine. Together, these two will wear me out – grabbing me, dunking me, splashing me blind, and demanding that I launch them, over and over, into the deep water. It’s their job as niece and nephew. And, my job as uncle is to try to hang in there until they tire out, which they never do, or have mercy on me and let me climb out of the pool for a rest, which they also never do.

I am a much younger man in this scene – young enough to keep up with these two mischievous hooligans with their limitless energy and nonstop thirst for waterlogged fun. The only break I catch is that their older brother is off playing soccer with his buddies and telling them, falsely, that his real first name is Magnum, like on Magnum, P.I. That leaves me to handle only two-thirds of the challenge.

These are my sister’s children, and when they came along my parents went crazy with excitement and put in this giant pool, countless cubic yards of cement poured into a massive hole graded with a steep slope that somehow slipped past the safety inspector.

The kids visit for weeks at a time in the summers, and they spend most of their days in the pool, little amphibians diving and dunking, raising a ruckus for hours on end. We can’t keep sunscreen on them.

The girl is the loud one, the princess of the pool, and every day she leads some raucous game of Marco Polo or makes up a synchronized diving routine for herself and the four next-door neighbors, all girls. The little one, the boy, is a bit small for this. He’s quieter and badly outnumbered by the girls, but he hangs in with them, unafraid of the water, supported by his neon wings. His bowl of blond hair grows white in the sunshine, and his fair skin gives in to a slight tan.

Seems like only the other day that I watched him buzz around that pool, his little legs pumping under his blue swim trunks as he lunged at me, goading me, making me toss him, again and again, into the deep end.

Those summers resurface now from the depths of my memory, rising time and again, reminding me of those days of freedom and light and love, water and sunshine and boundless possibility.

We lost him last year, the boy by then a young man, pulled under the dark wave of the national epidemic. At his memorial service, I tried but failed to find words to make some sense of it.

I think now about those long afternoons in the pool, his life reaching out ahead of him like one bright, endless summer. I can still feel him on my back, holding tightly, his breath in my ear.

 

To view more of illustrator Mark Weber’s work, go to markweberart.blogspot.com.

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