It figured to be a big afternoon.
Our son Scott, a junior in high school, was competing as a high school diver, with a chance to win a medal in a district-wide competition. There was even a remote chance he could move on to states. He was skilled at this and my wife and I were lucky enough to be able to watch him, as well as our other sporty children, compete on many occasions.
This time, though, would be special. My parents, who rarely saw the kids do sports, would be able to come. They would get to see their grandson in the spotlight, to show his expertise in a sport that took practice, skill and a measure of grace.
I was especially proud sitting there in the deck above the pool, my mom chattering about how excited she was, my dad just taking it all in, asking a question or two about the specifics of the competition.
Swimmers raced in several rounds before the divers did their thing. Watching the kids kick and pull through the water took me back to when I swam, in high school as a junior and senior. As the 100-freestyle race started, I pointed out to my wife and parents that I used to compete in that event, and that — if I remembered correctly — I had a respectable time and a couple good showings back in my day.
My parents didn’t respond, making chit-chat or staring down at the pool, trying to see Scott. My wife had heard enough of my swimming tales to try to get a second opinion on whether I was actually any good.
She said something like:
“Was Dave impressive as a swimmer in high school? I saw the photos and he looked pretty skinny.”
Neither parent answered her. I chimed in to break the awkward silence. Back then, I explained, parents didn’t go to as many kids’ events and, remember, I was a middle child of six. Again, my mom and dad remained silent.
Suddenly, it hit me like a face-plant in the water after a failed double somersault: Had they gone to any of my swimming meets?
My high school, a big-city school, was miles from the actual neighborhood where I grew up. I wasn’t good enough to make the teams for the more popular sports, like baseball, basketball or football. Swimming was it for me, but I actually did well enough to help win some meets and was awarded a letter, a big yellow “C” for Carrick High School.
We had time before my son’s rounds of diving began, so I got my mom and dad’s attention to ask, seriously, if they had actually ever seen me compete as a swimmer.
“When, honey?” my mom asked, as my dad looked over, also curious to what I would answer.
“In high school.”
“We saw lots of baseball games when you and Bobby were little,” mom answered, deflecting by launching into a detailed recounting — I had heard this one many times before — of how they had to choose one summer day between seeing me play pony league ball and my little brother Bobby at little league. I won their attention, but lost in the end. I played poorly and he ended “nearly pitching a no-hitter” — with no parents there watching.
I interrupted. “You do remember that I was a high school swimmer, right?”
Neither of them spoke. My wife looked at me with eyebrows raised and mouth open. She waffled between consoling me and laughing out loud.
I couldn’t believe it. So, I decided to press.
“You have no memory of me swimming? Well, where the heck do you think I went after school on all those days? Sometimes I didn’t get home til after dark.”
My dad shrugged; he had an out. He could always claim he had to work long hours.
Mom tried for cover. “Oh, who knows? You were always going somewhere. There were six of you. I was lucky to keep you all fed and out of jail.”
“But, don’t you remember how my eyes were always bloodshot?” It seems bizarre now, but I swam quite a long time before I got goggles. “How my hair was wet — sometimes frozen — when I got home?”
Mom saw a real opportunity for deflection this time. “Bloodshot eyes? You really want to talk about bloodshot eyes? Yeah, I remember lots of bloodshot eyes …”
Her complaints of pot, beer kegs and drunken friends ensued, with a couple verbal whaps for my dad for not doing enough to keep kids sober when they hung out at our house. Forget that she was recalling college-day activities and later, not high school.
I gave up. My wife held off saying anything. The diving competition, luckily, pulled my head out of the past.
Scott was doing well.
The competition involved a series of dives, and his scores had him in a good spot to possibly win a medal — at least. State qualification was still a real longshot. Still, this was a big deal for him; this year was his first as a diver. The previous two years he had wrestled, like his older and younger brothers.
My wife and I watched proudly but quietly. Silence was the rule with this sport. It was very different than wrestling. During those matches, you could yell as loudly as you wanted, and many people did. My wife’s vocal chords were legendary.
When Scott went to the board again, something went wrong. As he hit the water, a murmur started in the crowd, and he came out of the water shaking his head. It was a failed dive. It was an attempt at a two-and-one-half forward somersault. I could tell he hit the water poorly.
The next time, a similar result. It was a reverse double flip. Again, that murmur and this time Scott got out of the water obviously upset. Surprisingly, though, he grabbed his towel and stormed out of the pool area.
This was not like him at all. Our kids hated showy and pouty athletes. They had seen enough spoiled kids making scenes that they had vowed never to act similarly.
My wife asked me what happened. I said it looked like another failed dive, but his other scores were still strong, and I was certain that, with more dives to yet perform, he still had a chance to end up among the top scorers.
He didn’t return from the locker room. I headed down to make sure he wasn’t hurt.
As I walked in, he leaned up against a wall with both hands near a hair dryer, mounted above him. Just as I called to him, he punched the dryer with a closed fist.
“Whoa. Whoa. What’s going on?” I shouted. “This isn’t like you Scotty.”
His eyes were red; his nose was runny. He buried his face in his towel.
He said he wasn’t hurt and I tried to console him, spitting out a soliloquy quickly, but softly, reassuringly.
“You don’t walk off like that. C’mon pal. You were doing great. You’ll do better, you have a few dives left, there’s a chance to catch up and maybe get a medal. Don’t get down on yourself. Those were hard dives. Your next ones aren’t as difficult. You’ll nail them.”
He finally spoke. “Can you please stop talking.”
I didn’t understand and started getting angry. Then, he broke the news.
Two failed dives means no more chances, he said. It was a dreaded rule in district competition that, had I been an attentive sports dad, I would have been aware of.
I felt like a true idiot. All I could do was give him a hug and tell him just that: I feel like a true idiot.
He regained composure and said he would be fine. I gave him another hug and said we’d see him later.
Upon return to the upper deck, I explained the problem, though I didn’t admit my lame attempt at cheerleading that had gone so embarrassingly sour.
I didn’t want to give my parents any ammunition to fire back at me.
I wasn’t done giving them grief over how they missed my entire, illustrious swimming career.
I wondered how hard it would be to find my high school yearbook.
It figured to be a big afternoon.