Once the water was above my waist, I looked Mel, who was sitting comfortably on a beach chair, a book in her lap. I mouthed, “It’s so cold. I hate you right now.”
She blew me a kiss.
We were in the Oregon mountains, renting a house for the weekend, which was part of a homeowner’s association with a pool. My wife, who conveniently “forgot” her swimsuit (well played, Mel) told our children – most importantly, our four-year-old – that we could go swimming.
According to the thermostat on the van, it was 55 degrees. That was in the sun. The pool was in the shade. The owner of the house said the pool was heated, but, unless she was from Siberia, she lied. For me, a 30-something father of three used to Oregon weather, each step deeper felt like Alaska.
The tall teenager checking people into the clubhouse was in a hoodie and long pants. As we had walked past him, he had a somber look on his face that seemed to say, “Are you sure about this?” There were three people in the pool when we arrived: two skinny, freckle-faced kids with chattering teeth and some gray-haired lady swimming laps as comfortably as a polar bear.
Before we hit the pool, I made suggestions. I said we could play hide-and-seek in the rental house. I said we could go for another hike. I even offered ice cream.
It didn’t matter. There was no changing their minds.
But to be truthful, it wasn’t the older two children who really pushed me to get into that pool. Over the years, I’ve told them “no” to a million things, a million times. It was Aspen, my four-year-old, my last and youngest child, in her little red, white, and blue Popsicle swimming suit and purple armband life preservers, who ultimately got me into the pool.
It was her bright blue eyes and blonde pigtails tugging at my every instinct to make her happy. It was her excited dance, her flapping arms and the way she lit up the moment swimming was mentioned.
Everything about her, from head to toe, was more excited than I’d ever been in my life, and I knew without a doubt that if I turned her down, I’d never hear the end of it, because when you’re 4, swimming is a huge deal. Every day when I came home from work, regardless of the season, Aspen was in a swimming suit, goggles attached to her forehead.
Sometimes I just filled the bathtub and let her splash around because I knew it was the only way to keep her from asking to go swimming over and over again, as if we had nothing better to do than drop everything and take that little girl to the pool.
Mel went to great lengths to hide Aspen’s swimsuits to keep her from insisting on wearing them to day care, or to church, or to the store, or outside in a snowstorm. When she knew there was a pool available, there was no changing her mind. The pool could be 55 per cent urine. It could have a glacier. It could have the man-eating fish dinosaur from Jurassic World waiting for a hot meal. We were going swimming.
Don’t get me wrong – I was comfortable with my decision to end my child-making days, but it did make me pretty sentimental.
She was my youngest. She was my last. I’d gotten a vasectomy about a year after her birth, and while I wasn’t all that keen on getting the procedure done – most men aren’t – I did it because my wife had handled the heavy lifting of birth control for long enough, and it was time for me to step up. But I didn’t realise I would start to look at my youngest and realise that I wasn’t going to have any more children and that I needed to jump on every moment.
A week before our trip to the cabin, Aspen fell while running to the playground, scuffed her knee and cried. So I swept her up into my arms and carried her back to the van, her head buried in my chest, her body all tears and boogers and heavy breathing, and all I could think about was how many of these moments we had left.
I hated that she was hurt, sure, but there’s something so wonderful about having my littlest one cling to me with her arms around my neck, crying into my chest, clearly knowing that I was the source of all comfort and protection.
How much longer would my kisses mean something? How much longer would she be small enough to be carried, and how much longer would she allow me to carry her?
As I tended to Aspen’s knee, I tried to remember the last time my other two, Tristan and Norah, needed help with a cut, or needed to be carried or kissed or allowed me to hug them in front of their friends.
And I couldn’t. It happened so gradually, yet it happened. And there I was, knowing that it was happening with Aspen, right there, right then. So I gave her an extra kiss and carried her back to the playground even though she didn’t need me to, savouring that tender moment.
As crazy as it sounds, I had a similar feeling holding Aspen in that freezing swimming pool.
Was I playing favourites?
Gosh, I don’t know. Maybe? But I don’t really think so. It was more about my being just a little more sentimental in my mid-30s, knowing that Aspen was my last. And it was the simple power of her being an adorable little kid that made me more willing to do some uncomfortable things I wouldn’t normally do.
Aspen laughed and splashed me.
I cringed. She hung from me. I caught her as she jumped from the side of the pool, each time dreading the moment her body hit the water because I knew it would throw a freezing splash into my face. I looked over at Mel, snug in her jacket and dry pants. Sometimes she winked at me, but mostly she buried her nose in her book. I glared at her.
I finally dragged Aspen out of the clubhouse kicking and screaming, knowing that by the time I got all the kids bathed and it was my turn for a shower, we’d be out of hot water. I don’t know how long we spent in that pool. Twenty minutes? Thirty minutes? A lifetime?
After bath time, as I tucked Aspen into bed, I asked if she’d had fun on our vacation. She smiled and nodded. And when I asked what her favourite part was, she didn’t mention the hike. She didn’t mention our drive or all the amazing animals we saw. All she talked about was the pool, about how awesome it was. How much fun she’d had, and how she wanted to go back first thing in the morning before we left to go home.