My grandmother is ninety-three years old.
This is my mother’s mother, not my father’s. This woman is, as far as I can tell, afraid of one thing: falling.
I, by contrast, am afraid of many things. Fear is a major motivating factor in my life. I could try and count my fears, but I would quickly run out of fingers, toes, appendages, distinctive features, and quite possibly even freckles.
I am afraid of being unable to see things. This is a general category that encompasses things like the dark, pool drains, lakes, basements, closets, the space under my bed, empty houses, the woods, caves, there being empty space behind me, the other side of the shower curtain. If I can’t see it, I can’t well know if there are monsters there or not! And if you don’t know, there probably are monsters.
I am afraid of my feet not touching the bottom of pools or lakes or oceans because if your feet can’t touch the bottom, there might be a monster under you. But, swimming in places so shallow your feet touch the ground is boring, so I brave the pool. Incidentally, I’m also afraid of fish or other sea creatures swimming into me (because I am passionately afraid of parasites), so that makes the ocean and lakes especially bad.
I’m afraid of pain, which is a very silly thing to be afraid of. I should reiterate: I am afraid of unexpected pain. Pain that it might theoretically come, well, that’s the worst. I like pain I expect: inoculations, pulling a band aid off, piercings.
I’m also afraid of falling, but that’s a whole other mess.
Some time ago, I decided that, in spite of my multiple times over fear of the ocean, I liked swimming in it. When we decided to see my aforementioned 93 year old grandmother for our winter vacation, I laid out my plans for the trip
1) See family
2) Hang out with the dog (my parents have a dog)
3) Go swimming every day, in the ocean as much as possible.
We loaded up into the car and drove to the beach. (The beach is about five miles away from the house, but it’s not a five miles I would like to bike. I mean, I would like to bike it, but the horror of southern Floridian roads is quite overwhelming. See: unexpected, but anticipated, pain.)
The “Ocean Forecast” sign announced that there were jellyfish and man o’ war.
My dad reassured me that I would not get stung.
Gingerly, I creeped into the ocean. Step by step, foot by foot. Then, I was deep enough that I could tilt my body, lift my feet off the bottom (that was still easily reachable by righting myself) and swim.
I swum down the shoreline (because if I went too far out, I would not be able to easily reach the bottom). On my way back, my left hip started to hurt. Then I felt something brush past my shoulder and it started to sting. Then my right hand began to hurt more intensely than the other two.
Needless to say, I hightailed it out of that water.
The next day heralded the arrival of AA, my elder female cousin. She and I agreed to go to the beach.
The Florida beach was, as always, beautiful. It was also crowded, which surprised me as it was Christmas Day, but no one seemed to care. AA, with whome I often play the “well, that’s okay, but I don’t really care, so if you have a preference…” game, and I ended up, somehow, deciding on a spot. After some talking, setting things up, and her changing into a wet suit (she’s a mad scuba diver), we both trekked down to the water.
Nonetheless, the pushed forward into the water. AA raced ahead and I gingerly creeped in. Not seeing anything, I began to relax. The deadly trap on the shore could be an anomaly. I told myself that, with one there, it was statistically unlikely I would run into another. Lots of people were in the water happily paddling around. People were letting their kids frolic in the surf. Kids!
Just as I began to relax, I looked to my left and saw another jellyfish floating towards me.
As quick as I could make it, I was back on the shore.
When AA had a similar run in, we agreed that we should walk down the beach to look for shells.
After maybe two hundred feet, I gave up trying to look for them, and just made sure none were in my direct path. At some point, I channeled a ten year old boy, squatted down, and dared myself to poke one. It felt like agar-agar. I don’t know if I can ever eat that stuff again.
After finding a few shells, I dipped my feet in the water again, body tense and heart pounding. I forgot to breathe as I eased myself into the ocean as far as I could without being overwhelmed by fear of floating, stinging death.