This essay first appeared on The Wireless on 12 February 2016.
You never regret a swim. It was our mantra, a code for the way we would live our lives and define our relationship. We preached it to others. I used to imagine giving interviews and being asked, “What’s one piece of advice you would give to a young person starting out today?”
“You never regret a swim,” I would say. “That’s something to live by.”
Practicing what we preached, we swam everywhere. Midwinter in the Marlborough Sounds, breath steaming as we ran down the hill to the pontoon. In Cook Strait at the bottom of our street when we lived in Island Bay, chests seizing up from the cold. In a park in Switzerland, floating down the river with naked Europeans before clambering out to do it again. I nearly lost my engagement ring this way (back when I still took it off); Dave did lose his greenstone. But we didn’t regret the swim.
We made others come too. When my brother stayed with us for a week before starting an Outward Bound course, Dave dragged him down to Petone wharf every morning and heaved him over the side, calling it “training.” We took part in the “polar plunge” in the midwinter carnival, joining a hundred or so others to run shouting and costumed into the harbour in a howling southerly.
After Dave’s 30th birthday party at Waikawa Beach, we led the late night stragglers through the dunes to go skinny dipping. After my 30th birthday party three years later we did the same at Petone beach. We added arbitrary rules along the way: three times under or it’s not a swim.
You never regret a swim. But what if you can’t even get onto the beach?
Last summer was hot. We live less than a minute from the beach. But I didn’t go once.
I had been excited about last summer. The year before, we’d had a newborn. The invisible cord between me and her was short. One night we walked down to the beach after dinner and Dave took her in the front-pack so I could have a swim. I dashed in, dipped my head under quickly three times, and ran back, imagining I could hear her screaming on the beach. I almost regretted the swim – a first. It will be easier next year, I thought.
In late spring I attended a La Leche League meeting where the icebreaker topic was what we were looking forward to that summer. “More time at the beach,” I said confidently. “Now that Esther is bigger and I can actually enjoy it.”
Miraculously, having a baby and breastfeeding had helped me shed years of unfounded self-consciousness about my body. I was proud of my curves, the belly that had borne my daughter, the breasts that sustained her. I bought my first bikini. I couldn’t wait to wear it.
But I couldn’t seem to get onto the beach.
Dave was sick. Six months earlier his previously benign neuromuscular condition had developed into chronic back and shoulder pain, probably as a result of hefting Esther around at home while I tried to keep up my duties as an MP. We spent our savings on a nanny while we waited for it to go away, but it didn’t. Eventually, we reached breaking point – not just financially – and I announced that I would step down from Parliament at the election.
By the time summer was in full swing, I had left my high profile job, but in many ways I was under even more strain. Dave was either in pain, exhausted, or sick from his painkillers most of the time. He barely got up off the couch. If I wanted to go to the beach, it was on me. I felt crushed by the weight of it. The idea of taking a toddler to the beach by myself, without another adult pair of hands to lift, chase, catch, change, wipe, spread sunscreen, make sandcastles and fend off overfriendly dogs terrified me.
Instead of being a source of joy and relaxation, the thought of the beach made my heart race and my palms sweaty.
I spent many hours walking parallel to the beach with Esther asleep in her buggy, protected by the shade cover. It was beautiful. Families played together in the shallows, shared picnics and fish-and-chips. Couples snuggled on blankets, beers in hand. I so desperately wanted to join them, to be them, but I couldn’t cross from the concrete path beside the sea wall onto the sand. I could actually see a force field stopping me, shimmering like a wall of heat between the path and the sea. Behind it, my peers enjoyed the record-breaking summer. On the other side, I trudged on, waiting for my baby to fall asleep so I could put on another podcast, sweat trickling down my back.
I did make it to the beach once. Between Christmas and New Year I took Esther to Nelson overnight to visit family and catch up with some friends. The friends had a baby six months younger, and they were already in the habit of taking her to the beach for early evening swims. I was insanely jealous, but intoxicated with the idea that maybe if I went with them, I could break through the force field.
I could actually see a force field stopping me, shimmering like a wall of heat between the path and the sea.
We drove to the beach. Outside the car, I became paralysed with indecision, trying to figure out which bags to carry, where Esther’s hat was, and whether to bring my togs, or change into them later. My friend gently suggested that while it might be reassuring to have everything with me, we weren’t going far and perhaps I didn’t need to bring it all. Flustered and embarrassed, I left the lot in the car.
By the time we had walked several hundred metres and chosen a place to swim, the idea of walking back, getting the gear, and changing myself and Esther, only to end up in wet togs with a sandy baby, had become insurmountable. I demurred at my friends’ offers to keep an eye on Esther and watched them play in the shallows with their daughter, hovering nervously over my own child as she toddled on the sand in her singlet and nappy. I wanted to cry.
You never regret a swim. But there’s plenty else to regret.
As the summer went on, I thought the force field might recede. It didn’t. My mum came to pick Esther up one Sunday morning. “I thought I might take her to the beach,” she said. “Your sister can come too. It’s easier for me to take her out when I’ve got another pair of hands.”
“Great. She’ll love it,” I said, though it felt like salt in a wound.
Dave’s mum was looking after Esther when I came home from work one hot Friday afternoon. “You two should go for a swim,” she said. “I can stay a bit longer.”
Dave and I looked at each other. “It’s ok,” I said. “It’s not that hot anymore.”
One Saturday morning in March as the summer was drawing to an end, we went out for breakfast first thing. We often do this when Dave wakes up sore. It’s a distraction for him, and means I don’t have to try to entertain a toddler and prepare a meal by myself. Afterwards, we drove to the park by the beach. “I’d like to see what she can do at the playground,” Dave said. “I think I’m up to it.”
We got out of the car. Esther charged off, overjoyed. She went down the slide a few times, crawled through the tunnel. Dave was amazed with how much more she could do than last time he’d seen her at a playground. Then she took off towards the steps that led up the sand dunes and down to the beach. We followed. She climbed to the top of the steps. The beach unfolded in front of us.
“Wowowowow!” She ran onto the sand. The wind caught her curly hair, whipped it around her face. She laughed and squealed with glee. She ran towards the water, stopping to pick up shells and sticks, poke fat fingers into grey sand. We followed.
I winced. She was so close to the force field. But she didn’t see it. She ran right through it.