“Relax. Lay your head back on my shoulder. I’ve got you,” the lifeguard assured. Her efforts were about as effective as when I yell, “stop screaming!” at my kids. She continued to insist, but his physical body continued to resist trusting in her promises.

Elsewhere in the pool everyone seemed relaxed, elated, and in control. It was as if their ease mocked his panic. It was as if they knew something he didn’t… or, something he thought he knew that they obviously did not. No wonder he was confused and stubbornly tense. When all your instincts tell you to panic, it’s hard to trust those who are saying “relax.”

The pool for some might draw to mind lazy summer days. For our older son, it has always struck terror straight to the heart. While his younger brother’s middle name might as well be “Danger,” our older son’s middle name might as well be “Caution.”

He sees the pool for what it is–dangerous depths into which no sane boy would enter (and surely no loving mother would force her child). His inherent trepidation has only been made worse by having a mommy-youth-minister who has traveled too much in the summer to ever force the issue.

But this summer is different. I actually have a summer, rather than just living through a summer. I’ve wrapped up work, and we are preparing for our one-year “sabbatical” in Durham, North Carolina, for my husband’s job. This summer, our eyes are on the prize–the swimming pool.

I sit on the bleachers and look calm while my maternal instinct is on high alert. I can watch him, but I cannot help him. These are the “life boot-camp” moments that bring the greatest gifts. Like it or not, you’ve got to show up and try.

I sit in awe of the scene before me. There is nothing quite as powerful as watching someone be brave. In dangerous waters. To watch someone do something that they alone must do is like watching transformation happen.

He clings to the edge and waits for his greatest salvation to come for his turn–the girl in the red suit. She repeats over his shivering head, “Relax, relax. I’ve got you.” She trusts the water. She trusts his inherent ability. She trusts, even while he panics.

On the bleachers, I bow in gratitude for all those who serve as “the girl in the red suit” in my life. I give thanks for all those willing to hold me steady and yet give me enough room for my panic to transform to action. They are the ones who know that it is only through experience in the deep end that growth happens. They know that it is through the risk of independence that one learns how to stay above water and even to (eventually) relax.

Thanks be to God for the inherent swimmer self that lives deep within him.
Thanks be to God for the girl in the red suit who helps him believe that self into being.
Thanks be to God for the bleachers where I can encourage and keep my own fears in check.

For these moments, I simply pause and watch in awe as he learns how to be brave. I hold the moment in my heart and memorize the sight of his anxious spirit, his fast-peddling legs, and his bobbing head. I store it up for my moment when I must remember that bravery is almost always worth the risk.

Carol Harston has wrapped up her work as minister to youth at Highland Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky, and is transitioning to Durham, North Carolina, where she and her family will live for one year. Carol and Drew have two boys and are expecting their third boy due this Thanksgiving. Carol will return to Highland in fall 2017 to serve as associate pastor of faith formation and congregational engagement.