The first time I was aware of the fragility of life and of being a custodian, was when I came home from the hospital with my newborn son. Almost two years later, bringing my new daughter home, I again found myself reverently guarding life.
As June approaches each year, I remember my four summers at Camp Scatico. In 2001, in order to afford to send my children to camp, I became a hiking counselor. I had just turned fifty when Scatico hired me and announced that as part of the job they would train and certify me to be a lifeguard. I didn’t tell them I was terrified of drowning.
Two weeks before camp opened, I stood shivering on the dock with a dozen twenty-year-olds. Surrounded by bikinis, navel rings, some British accents, and raging hormones, I noted right away that I was the oldest and the smallest in the bunch. Before long, it became apparent I was the slowest swimmer as well.
The first aid and written tests came easily to me. Swimming the laps and hauling “victims” to shore were more challenging. I kept putting off the parts where I had to go under water or dive. But on one of the last days, we had to dive into deep water for bricks. When everyone else had completed this required task, treading in eight feet of water, I stared past my goose-bumped arms.
“C’mon, Robin. You can do this,” they all cheered in camp-style support. For the umpteenth time I drew myself up, flipped my head and arms down, and kicked my legs to reach the bottom. It took all my energy because every cell in my body and brain was screaming at me, “Don’t.”
After several attempts I was exhausted. It was past the time to stop for lunch and most of the group left. I knew I’d be able to swim the last lap on my back cradling the brick if only I could retrieve it. I knew if I didn’t pass the test, I’d lose the job. “One more try,” the instructor said. And said again after another failed effort. “You’re so close,” she lied, “try once more.”
I don’t remember what inspired me or how I suddenly, finally, found a last tiny snatch of energy. I remember taking a deep breath from my breathlessness, pushing with all my might through the water, straining and reaching frantically with flailing arms for the brick. I remember being surprised it was swaddled in white cloth. I think I cried when I reached the surface with it. “Put it on your chest and finish the lap,” they had to yell to remind me.
I passed. And the sweetest memory I hold of being a lifeguard is of the early morning swims on the still lake blanketed by clouds of fog. We splashed in, hooting about the cold, sending out ripples, and rousing a family of great blue herons. The herons flew low over us and the clouds wafted up as we swam across the lake. The oldest, smallest, and slowest lifeguard, I trailed the others, always in awe of all there was to guard.
What do you guard in reverence, with all your heart?