Since I can remember, my relationship with water has been a precarious one, rooted in fear, confusion, and overall apathy. One hot summer day in Colombia, when I was 7, my family and I were visiting the community pool. While at the kiddie pool, a young boy playfully, but violently, shoved my head under the water. As I thrashed and throttled like a mermaid on steroids, he laughed, convinced I was having a good time. When the little menace finally let me up for air, I was manically coughing, my eyes full of tears and insult. With not a family member in sight, I remember staggering back to my mother as she casually sat by the adult pool, clearly oblivious to the trauma I had just undergone. Vulnerable and exposed, it was probably then when I began to harbor a phobia of water. Suddenly the summer trips to the pools and rivers seemed like a punishment and were met with drudgery. It became something I needed to brave through for my cousins and sister, who now seemed so much more courageous than I could ever be. And so my childhood years passed before my very eyes, with this fear of water never relenting.
Fast forward to many (yes, many) years later, and I found myself on the shores of Calabria, in a picturesque beach town called Tropea. At the age of 37, and with the same fears and trepidations of water still plaguing my psyche, I had one more fear to conquer. This trip would be the first time I took off my prosthetics and wore a bathing suit in public; the first time I would sit on a beach chair, the first time I would tan in the company of others, the first time I would put my body out there for the world to see. Needless to say, this was big.
After a hearty Calabrese breakfast, my friend and I made our way to the beach, a 10-minute descent from the hotel. With the 33-degree sun beating down on our backs, we got to the chair lift and were greeted by two very bronzed and fit lifeguards, who escorted us down to the boardwalk. They were effusive in their typically charming,
Southern Italian way, and clearly had been under the sun for most of their lives. I started to wonder if my tan could ever be as good as theirs, but all thoughts of vanity and image diminished the closer we got to the beach and our designated hotel spot.
Now, their glistening hairy chests were the least of my concerns, with my nerves rattling in the pit of my stomach like a bird in a cage. From the boardwalk I stood up, left the wheelchair behind, and held on to my friend’s arm as we steadily made our way over the sand and to the comfortable orange beach chairs. Our hotel neighbors looked up from their sunglasses and nodded, before returning to their regimen of self-indulgence. I sat down and looked out into the sea, the cacophony of waves both unsettling and alluring. Everyone around me seemed immersed in their own beach-time ritual; children collectively splashed in the water, women flipped over on their beach beds like golden pancakes, and men sleepily read their papers. Beach vendors paraded the shores with brightly colored tunics and necklaces, lugged around on portable racks. There was a stillness to it all that was both comforting and yet grating in a way I could only understand.
There I sat, my jaws clenched and shoulders caved in, unsure of where I fit in to all of this. I couldn’t do any of the things everyone else was doing. I couldn’t swim, and I could barely walk in the sand, let alone run or play like everyone else. The last 15 years came crashing back almost as roughly as the waves in front of me. How could I expose myself this way? Could I remove my prosthetics in front of everyone and not feel like a museum piece on display? Over the years, I have grown used to the stares and the occasional pointing, but this was a level of vulnerability and rawness that shook me to my core.
….and then I drowned. Not in the crystalline waters that surrounded me, but in my own self-pity. My fears took hold and morphed into bitterness and sorrow, and all my heart could carry in that moment were the fears of my past. What was meant to be a pleasant summer getaway turned into the dreaded childhood trips to the pools and rivers of so long ago. I sat there in my long tunic, with my prosthetics still attached to what was left of my limbs. My friend, Jessica, patiently waited for a signal to help, as I sat there in complete silence, squinting at the memories that still flooded back.
As she ventured into the water on her own, I sat back and dipped my hand into the grainy sand, gently poking and patting the mounds that formed. Occasionally a small stone or pebble buried in the depths would surface and be stored away in my tote bag like newfound treasure. A cold, misshapen stone, buried by the umbrella pole, made its way through my fingers. Like an archeologist with a fossil brush, I curiously wiped it clean and noticed it was not a beach stone at all, but the remnant of a mosaic tile; flat and maroon colored with beige wrapped around its edges. As my fingers studied its proportions and texture, I realized this tile didn’t really belong there, and yet somehow there it was, staking its claim to the sea, at one with its environment. And then it hit me: I was also different. I didn’t necessarily belong, but I too was there to stake my claim, to be a part of the world unraveling before me. The only person that I was punishing with my self-pity was myself. I was the only victim in my drowning, and I could either let this weight sink me, or be free of it.
I turned to my prosthetics, ready to let them go. I clicked the arm’s release button, pulling it away, and then unstrapped the Velcro strips from my waist, opening the upper half of my prosthetic leg that binds around me. Jessica took her cue, gently wrapping the prosthetics in an oversized towel, placing them on the sand. It was a sight to be seen: a foam leg with a pastel blue converse sneaker peeking out of a towel, and dainty silicone fingers protruding like something out of a horror movie. A little bit of ketchup in the wrong places and people would definitely have something to talk about!
As expected, the tension was palpable. Heads turned and eyes darted in my direction. Yet somehow and somewhere in the depths of me, I realized that in letting myself be completely vulnerable I now had nothing to protect myself from. I was free to be me, to be seen. Regardless of what was missing, I was whole. I knew I had just one more thing to do.
Jessica dragged an inflatable raft over to my beach bed and I instantly plopped myself over it, snuggling in to its warm rubbery embrace. The raft was hauled to the water, and without hesitation I jumped off and sat at the tip of the shore, letting the waves engulf me. The cool water was a much-needed reprieve, as my skin was drizzled with the cool ocean spray. We both sat there, inching our way closer and closer to the water’s depths until I decided it was as far as I could go. In that moment it’s as much as I could do, and I was ok with that. We sat there, feeling the sun on our moist hair, and smiled. We had come a long way.
Calabria was a game changer for me in more ways than one. It opened a door I had long ago closed, and now I don’t think I ever want to close it again. Feeling that vulnerable helped me realize my fear was a symptom of a deeper reality: the only outcome to fear is continuous loss, and the only ones that stand to lose are the ones that are consumed by it. I think of how liberating we must all feel when we choose to expose ourselves for who we are and not for how we think others want to see us. In the end, each and every one of us carries a deep-rooted fear, an insecurity, in a place we wish we could keep tucked away.
But we get so caught up in belonging and appeasing the masses that we forget the value of standing out. We forget that our uniqueness, while personal in nature, is a universal component to everyday life and living; and accepting that is, in essence, what makes us belong. When we embrace the things we fear most, we take away their power and relinquish their control over us. They become an obscurity – a relic of the past that occasionally washes ashore but is eventually lured away by the current once again. Like that mosaic tile, we find that strength naturally holds a place within us, a place that embodies truth despite fate’s disparities. While I may not have gone deep this time, I know for certain that my next summer getaway will be different. I know for certain that despite my limitations, what buoys me is having a purpose – an experience to call my own – and those fears, while crushing and breaking at times, will no longer have a permanent place.