"Lifeboat" by Louise Desalvo

Louise Desalvo

Louise  Desalvo

Louise DeSalvo joined the faculty of Hunter College in 1982, where she was awarded the President's Award for distinguished scholarship. Among her publications are the acclaimed and controversial biography of Woolf (named one of the most important books of the 20th century by The Women's Review of Books) Virginia Woolf: The Impact of Childhood Sexual Abuse on Her Life and Work, and the memoirs Vertigo, (winner of the Gay Talese Prize), Breathless, Adultery; Crazy in the Kitchen, and On Moving. Her book, Writing as a Way of Healing: How Telling Our Stories Transforms Our Lives, is used throughout the world by writers recovering from trauma.


Gather courage.

These are the words my father says as I cling to the gunwale of an ashen rowboat somewhere in the middle of Lake George. I'm in my teens; I'm swimming across Lake George; it's the late 1950s; my family is vacationing at a cabin on the shore of Lake George in Bolton Landing; my father has rented this old row boat to row beside me as I swim. (I'd wanted a new red one but he insisted on this old one. You can count on old boats, he'd said; they're trusty, tried, and true.)

The swimsuit I'm wearing is baby blue with a balloon bottom, all the rage this year, but entirely unsuited to long distance swimming. It's the only suit I have, so it's the one I wear to swim across Lake George. The bottom of the suit fills with water as I swim; when it does, it tries to drag me down, down, down with every stroke I take. I surface, gasp for air, slap the water out of my suit, start to stroke, start to swim again.

No matter how afraid I am, what I mustn't do, I know, is hyperventilate.So I'm paying close attention to my breathing. In, out, in, out. Slow, slow, slow, slow the breathing down. If I hyperventilate, my father has told me, I will blackout. Shallow water blackout, he calls it, even though now I'm not in shallow water. If I black out, I'll drown, I'll die, and I can't count on my father to save me. So I'm trying to control my breathing, trying to slow it down, counting my breaths, one, two, one, two, counting my strokes, one, two, one, two, trying to plow my way through choppy water, trying to swim across Lake George.

I've been doing the Australian crawl, the stroke my father swears by for long distances. But today the lake isn't calm so when I turn my head to breathe, I'm smacked in the face with a wall of water. There are foot-high swells in the middle of the lake. Not high enough to swamp a row boat to drag it down to the swampy weed-infested bottom of the lake. But high enough to make a rough swim even rougher. I'm struggling to keep the water out of my nose, out of my mouth, out of my lungs.

When the Australian crawl tires me, I switch to sidestroke, then to elementary backstroke. Neither the Australian crawl, the side stroke nor the elementary back are optimal for swimming across this body of water. Using them, I can't see the opposite shoreline so I can't pinpoint an object to make for. I can rest on the other side, my father said, before I swim back to my starting point. Because I can't see where I'm going, I can't be sure I'm swimming straight and true, so I've been zigzagging across the lake, adding distance to an already long swim.

Pace yourself, my father reminded me as I entered the lake. A mile on the water isn't a mile on land. A mile on water, he said, is longer, far, far longer.

The best stroke for this kind of swim, I know, is the breaststroke. The breaststroke would let me see where I'm going every time I surface to breathe. But it's the only stroke I've never learned, the only stroke my father couldn't teach me. It's a hard stroke with a whip-like kick, the breaststroke, requiring the kind of musculature and endurance I've never had. And so I gave up on it though my father warned me one day I'd wish I knew it, one day I'd need to see ahead of me while I'm swimming, and that time is now.I've been treading water, choking, gasping, spitting out water for the last few minutes. I'm spent. I'm angry. I'm wondering why I'm here. I'm staring at a purple stain on the water just beyond my reach. Is it an oil slick? A gathering of tangled sea grass? A darkening that indicates a deepening of the lake?

I know that it's as dangerous to swim in shallow water as in the deep. This, my father has told me often, whether to scare me or buoy me, I can't say. Yet reaching the dead center of the lake unnerves me. I try to forget that the lake is two hundred feet deep here, maybe more. That here, if I went down, currents would take my body through falls and chutes and rapids into Lake Champlain. One day, a boy casting a fishing line into the lake days, weeks, or months after I disappeared, would find my bloated body.I panic, scissor over to the rowboat, grasp the gunwale, elude my father's gaze. Holding on to the rowboat means I'm cheating, means that even if I make it to the other side, and make it back, I really won't have swum across Lake George. My father doesn't like cheaters; he doesn't like quitters; he doesn't like losers. He doesn't like taking the easy way out. The only person you're cheating, he says, is yourself.

This time, he surprises me, lets me clutch the boat for a moment, says, Gather courage, and move on.

And so I strike out again, pull myself, propel myself through water, even as I wonder what I'm doing here, wonder why I've let him persuade me to undertake this swim, wonder why I've given in to him instead of resisting him as I often do. No, no, no, I tell him, when he asks me to do something, even though it costs me, even though, in the end, he makes me do what he says. No, no, no he tells me, when I want to do something he doesn't approve of, and he doesn't approve of much of what I do. No, he says, over my dead body, no.

Now I'm moving ahead more easily and it seems as if the wind has veered, or backed, terms my sailor father uses, terms he's tried to teach me, that I can't or won't understand. Anyway, the wind's behind me now. And now there is no barrier to my forward motion. Now the waves urge me along as I slice a trail through the water to the safety of the other side.

My father taught me the Australian crawl the year before in the mud hole a few miles from our house in Ridgefield, New Jersey where we used to swim on summer weekends. I knew the sidestroke, the elementary backstroke—these he'd taught me years before when I was just a little girl. When I turned thirteen, my father wanted me to learn the crawl, the most important stroke, the one that distinguished good swimmers from amateurs.

Master the crawl, he'd said. Then you'll be a real swimmer.

My mother would pack a picnic. We'd set out for the mud hole for a summer's day. My father would get into the water with me, waist high. I'd stand on the mucky bottom, and he'd show me how to move my arms, turn my head, breathe.

Stroke, stroke, stroke, he'd say, as I'd turn my head right, then left, then right, then left again. He'd made me practice, practice, practice the crawl while I was standing waist high in murky water before he taught me how to kick. The flutter kick, he called it, and I learned it while he held me around the waist, and practiced it, practiced it, until I'd perfected it.

Near the end of that summer, after my father thought I was ready, he let me swim far out to the raft in the middle of the mud hole and back again to shore. Out and back. Then out and back again. He stood at the edge of the water and watched, too far away to help if I floundered. When I emerged from the water, he'd tell me what I'd done wrong, tell me my arms weren't in the right position, that I wasn't breathing right, that my kick wasn't as strong as it should be.

Even so, I had learned something hard, something my father wanted me to learn. Still, my father reminded me never to take chances, never to get cocky in the water. The water, he said, can be your friend. But the water, he added, is an element impossible to control, one you must submit to.

That summer, my mother sat on a blanket watching my sister play in the sand, watching her wade ankle deep in water. On these late summer days, I was my father's responsibility. One child was always more than enough for her to handle.

My mother had been a fine swimmer as a young woman. Now, though, she did nothing more than stand in waist-high water to cool off though she had swum in roiling seas off the rocky coast of Rhode Island every day on summer holidays before she met my father.

Once she'd ventured so far out into the ocean that her cousin, waiting for her on the sand at the water's edge, couldn't see her, and so, called the lifeguard. Help, her cousin had said. See that woman out there? She's my cousin. She needs help.

The lifeguard rowed out to my mother, threw her a life buoy, instructed her to slip it over her head and hang on, and dragged her back to shore. My mother insisted she was fine, she didn't need to be rescued. But her cousin thought she was crazy to swim out that far all by herself. And it made her wonder whether, on that day, my mother had wanted to make it back to shore.

Now my mother didn't venture into the water except to cool off. She sat on a blanket throughout most of a long summer's day, watching my sister, doling out sandwiches and drinks to us at lunchtime, burying her feet and flexing her toes in the sand, gazing out across the muddied water to the woods on the other side.

Before that summer was over, I could swim to the raft and back as many times as I wanted without my father watching me. This was bliss, this swimming. My head nearly underwater, my vision blurred, my ears stopped against sound, the force of my arms and legs pushing me forward through water. Here there was no father, no mother, no sister, no doors slamming, no crockery shattering, no oaths and imprecations, no tyranny, no strangling of the heart's desire.

See, my father would say, as I emerged from the mud hole at the end of a day of swimming, hands wrinkled, legs aching, see how little energy you use with the Australian crawl? The crawl, my father would say, and the dead man's float could save your life.

My father taught me the dead man's float that summer, too. And I'd practiced them both, the crawl and the float, though I never intended to get myself into a situation where I might need them, never wanted to do more than swim to a raft in the middle of a mud hole and back in deepest summer.

Still, I thought, there must have been a good reason why my father who'd taught me so little as I'd grown (or so I imagined), had taught me how to survive in the deep. Did he think that one day I'd need his lessons? Did he imagine jumping off a burning ship into churning water, stroking fast to get clear before a ship sunk, creating a whirlpool to drag me down with it? Did he worry that one day I'd be alone somewhere on a vast body of water, and that I'd have to save myself?

Still, before I tried to swim Lake George, I'd never come anywhere near danger on the water; never swum in the ocean; never swum in a lake. The mud hole was calm; it wasn't deep. There were lifeguards to keep people safe. You could count on those lifeguards; your parents didn't have to watch you while you were there.

There'd been that one time at Niagara Falls before I'd learned to swim when I wished I'd known how. My father, my sister, and I took a ride on The Maid of the Mist to get close to the falls. My mother wouldn't go, thought it was a stupid idea, didn't believe it was safe, what with the rapids and the currents and the whirlpools, even though the Maid prided itself on taking thousands of tourists to see the falls close up without incident.

I'll stay here, my mother said, just before we paid. You take the kids, Lou, she said. I'll stay here and watch. And so my father paid for the three of us, took my sister and me down to the boathouse where we donned oilskin slickers before boarding, then down the slippery wooden stairs to the dock where we boarded the Maid.

See why they call it The Maid of the Mist? my father asks, as the spray hits our faces. My father points to the whirlpools at the base of the falls, tells us how dangerous they are, tells us they could suck a boat as big as this one down, tells us about how a man who went over the falls in a cask got pulled under and drowned. See how the captain steers clear of the whirlpools, my father says; you always have to trust your captain.



So what was I doing out here in the middle of Lake George trying to swim across this huge body of water? Was this some kind of test my father devised for me that I acceded to? Did he want me to accomplish it so he could brag? Or did he want me to fail? And, if so, what would this failure mean? That what he suspected about me was true? That I lacked that special something you need to get through tough times? That I was timid like my mother? That I wasn't like him? A survivor.

My father learned the Australian crawl and the dead man's float when he was a sailor. The sidestroke and elementary backstroke, too, and more, he told me. He learned to swim underwater; learned how to abandon ship; learned how to swim through and under debris, dead bodies, oil slicks, fire.

Before he enlisted, he couldn't swim, couldn't float, even. He'd been to Coney Island a few times, down the Jersey Shore once or twice. And though he loved to wade in the water and jump the waves with his friends, he never ventured beyond where he could stand.

But when you joined the Navy, you needed to learn how to swim. But you didn't need to learn how to swim very well or very far. Which my father thought was stupid.

Imagine, my father said, a branch of the military where you spend most of your time on a ship in the middle of the ocean and you only require a man to learn how to swim fifty yards! Only require him to learn how to stay afloat until someone comes to rescue him! No wonder, my father said, we lost so many men at sea. Typical Navy bullshit, not insisting you know what you need to know to survive. Men in war are expendable, he said. It's up to you to know how to survive.

Though my father knew sailors who never bothered to become more than third class swimmers, who never learned advanced skills (like how to survive in cold water, how to surface dive, how to inflate your clothing so it could be used as a floatation device), my father believed it was his duty to learn everything he could to become a first class swimmer, and he did. You couldn't count on someone else to help you in a dangerous situation, my father said. You had to be responsible for your own survival.

Out there in the ocean, no matter what anyone says about team spirit, it's every man for himself. A man who doesn't know how to swim well will push you under, drown you trying to cling to you to survive. Which is why you find a piece of debris to cling to, swim clear of everyone. Better to die alone than be dragged to the bottom of the ocean by someone clawing at you because he was too lazy or too stupid to learn what he should know to take care of himself.

As my father taught me the dead man's float that summer, he'd tell me that a man could survive in the ocean for several hours without fatiguing if he knew this skill. Swim clear of a sinking ship and other survivors, do the dead man's float, my father's mantra for survival. But back then I hadn't asked him whether he'd ever needed to save himself. Back then, I didn't care.

Take a deep breath, he'd say. Float in a vertical position. Relax. Let your arms and legs dangle. Raise your head just above the surface when you need to breathe. Move your arms and legs slightly. Return to a floating position.

Oh yes, my father would say, the dead man's float can keep you alive. Unless a shark gets to you. Or an enemy plane swoops down and opens fire. Or no ship comes by to pull you out of the water. Then you're a goner, no matter how many survival skills you know.



I'm now more than halfway across Lake George. Gather courage and move on, my father had said when I told him I was tired, told him I wanted to give up, said I wanted helpto climb into the boat.

You'll make it, my father said.

I can't, I said.

Can't or won't? he asked. You'll have to make it, he added.

Why? I ask.

Because I'm not letting you in the boat, my father said.

I like swimming. But I'm no swimmer. My exercise, up until now, has consisted of riding my bike, playing softball, playing basketball, taking gym, jumping waves when we visit my mother's cousin in Rhode Island, swimming out to the raft and back to the shore all day long at the mud hole where I learned to swim in summers. I'm far from a jock. I'm healthy, yes. But I'm not in good physical shape. This is the 50s. Very few of us girls are in good physical shape; fewer of us are athletic.

But what if it's raining so hard tomorrow I can't swim the lake? I ask.

It won't rain, my father says. Look at the sky, look west. You can tell by the western sky that tomorrow will be a beautiful day.

I see a red-stained sky. Red sky at night, sailors' delight. Red sky in the morning, sailors take warning.

My father's figured we can drive a few miles due north where the lake is only a mile or so across and rent a rowboat there. He estimates it should take me only forty-five minutes or so to swim to the other side. Probably closer to an hour to get back. On the way back you'll be tired, he says. So the whole thing should take you less than two hours.

I've never swum that long before, I say. Oh yes you have, he says, only you don't know it. At the mud hole, you swim out to the float and back, all day long. Way more than two hours.

I want to tell my father to swim the lake himself. But I know what will happen if I don't do what he says. And he's been pissed at me since I talked back to him at Fort Henry.

Won't it be nice to say you swam Lake George? he asks. Won't you be proud?

Sure, I say. Sure.

I don't want to ruin this vacation. I don't want to battle my father. I don't want to swim the lake. And then I do. Not because my father wants me to. But because I want to. I want to swim the lake because my father thinks I won't so the only way I can win is to swim the lake even though it seems like he's getting his way. I tell myself he can't control me. That I've decided to swim Lake George because I want to.

Or maybe I really do want to please my father though nothing I do seems to please him. Yes, it's been a long time since I've pleased him. Years and years and years.

My mother looks at my father the way she always does when she doesn't want something to happen that my father has set his mind on doing. Climbing to the top of a mountain. Descending into a ravine. Flying his friend's plane because he doesn't have a pilot's license though he tells her he knows how to fly a plane. Like always, my mother doesn't try to stop him, doesn't say it's a bad idea. She doesn't try because she knows once he sets his mind to something, there's no stopping him.

Lou, is all she says. Lou. She sets her lips into that frown of disapproval she has. She turns away, nibbles her hamburger. Help, I think, help.

I know my father is testing my mettle. That's what he wants me to have. Mettle. Not courage. Mettle. He's explained the difference to me. Mettle isn't courage, isn't daring, which is foolhardiness. Mettle is something like courage, but it's more. It's grit, determination, pluck, endurance.

My father tells me about Winston Churchill and how he used the word “mettle” during one of his speeches. The only way you got through World War II was if you had mettle. Not courage. Mettle. Plus a heavy dose of good luck.

I'll never make anything of myself unless I have mettle. Mettle, I think, is what I need to survive having him as a father.



I swim across Lake George. I make it back. I swim two, maybe two and a half miles. It takes me an hour and a half, maybe two. I swim the Australian crawl. The sidestroke. The elementary backstroke. I tread water. I use the dead man's float, twenty, maybe thirty times.

And just like my father says, I get to tell everyone I swam Lake George. But I can't tell anyone that on the long swim back, when I cling to the gunwale of the rowboat for the second time, when I tell him I want to end this swim, to climb into the boat, my father takes the oar out of the oarlock and beats my fingers so I'll let go of the boat and swim free, swim far.

That's what they did, he says, as we're pulling the boat up onto the shore, when I ask him why he hit me. That's what they had to do when a ship went down, when one too many men wanted to climb into a lifeboat. Hit their hands until they slipped into the sea.