We had gone through it every summer.
Since Julia was two years old, we have fought the battle of the diving board. During the last day of swimming lessons, the kids were allowed to jump off while a teacher waited in the deep end to catch them. Julia would cautiously walk to the end of the board, a look of terror would darken her face, and she would cautiously walk back and climb off.
"If you just do it once, you'll see how fun it is," we would tell her.
"No way," she would say.
Julia has always been a fearful child. She's been afraid of anything that moves (from coin-operated rides at Mazzio's to our friends' boat), loud noises (I didn't vacuum or blow dry my hair while she was home alone with me for several years) -- anything that makes her feel like she's not in control of a situation. While other toddlers rode around on their dads' shoulders, Julia stayed at Chad's side, too afraid of heights for him to put her up there. Her fear of dogs, and even our own cat -- who we've had since before she was born -- has nearly driven us crazy. At amusement parks, she's even afraid of the baby rides that she's too big for.
We admit that since she is a firstborn, we, and especially I, may have fostered these fears. Maybe not. Regardless of how they came about, they are here now and we try to focus on how to deal with them.
Julia is now seven. It's summertime and she's living the good life -- swimming lessons in the mornings and playing with her friends at our neighborhood pool in the afternoons and evenings. Yesterday we were there again, and Julia's friends Natalie and Meagan decided to head over to the diving board. They beckoned her to come along.
"No way," Julia said. "I don't like those things."
"Julia," I said, repeating the same question I've asked her most of her life. "How can you know you don't like it if you've never done it?"
Her friends continued to plead, and, caving to peer pressure, she agreed to go. I knew what would happen. She would get to the end of the board, chicken out, turn around and walk back. That was quite literally the story of her life.
Dragging Julia's 21-month-old sister Jenna in a float, I swam down to the deep end as the girls climbed out of the pool.
"Julia, you go first because I have got to see this," said Meagan, an exceptionally fearless child who has also been frustrated at Julia's hang-ups.
Julia stepped onto the board, and, in her water shoes, slowly shuffled down to the end.
"Come on, you can do it," Meagan, Natalie and I yelled.
A boy stepped onto the back of the board, waiting his turn. A big boy who would probably have no patience with a terrified 7-year-old girl.
"This could get ugly," I thought.
Preparing to yell up more encouragements to Julia, I noticed a change come over her face. She bent over the edge of the board and threw her arms back. Suddenly swinging them forward, her feet left the board.
My mind's camera took a picture of what happened next -- one of those mental snapshots a mother forever stores in her heart. In that sliver of an instant, against a backdrop of blue sky and amid the mixed smell of chlorine, hot dogs and Exxon fumes from the nearby refinery, Julia hung in the air -- suspended between fear and freedom. The sounds of playing and splashing kids vanished and the wind seemed to stop blowing. Everything seemed frozen except that girl in the air.
Her splash washed over Jenna and me, and, even though I had been one of the ones yelling "You can do it!", I hung on to Jenna's float in shock. After years of us encouraging, pleading and bribing, Julia had actually gone off the diving board.
Then she surfaced.
"That was great!" she yelled.
"Julia!" I yelled back. "Doesn't it feel good to not be afraid of something anymore?"
I don't think she heard me. She was swimming to the ladder so she could get out and do it again.
Julia ended up spending four hours in the pool yesterday -- much of that time perfecting cannonballs, mid-air twists, and other diving board techniques. That night, Natalie's mom dropped her off. As she ran up to the door, I knew she was a different kid. Part of growing up is letting go and jumping into the unknown. Julia had grown up that day -- right before my eyes.