Holly Go Lightly, my water dog
When I was six years old, my father tried to drown me in the Atlantic Ocean. He picked me up in his arms at Brighton Beach, walked into the water waist deep and threw me out into the ocean, shouting, “Swim!”
I didn’t know how to swim. The waves rolled over me as I went under. Unable to breath, I felt the desperate panic of gasping for air and swallowing water. “So this is what drowning is,” Finally,his hands appeared and scooped me up. Coughing and sputtering salt water, I didn’t get into water for another thirty years, even keeping my face out of the shower spray. He had said that it was time for me to learn how to swim. This was the way he learned.
He fell, or was pushed, into the East River in New York City. He was also six years old. He would have drowned if not for his dog Spot, who jumped in with him and paddled next to him, encouraging him to stay afloat. My father struggled to keep up with the swimming dog and followed him to shore. Sink or swim, he always said. My dad was born at the turn of the century on the East Side of Manhattan, became a gang kid, and a survivor. He thought I should get over my fear of deep water by being thrown headlong into it. Sink or swim. I sank. I didn’t have a dog to save me.
Golden Retrievers are natural swimmers. They don’t have to be taught. Just offer them deep water and they will swim. When Holly was eight months old, I decided it was time for her to have this fulfilling experience. I took her to the beach in Malibu and tossed her obsession, the yellow tennis ball, into the ocean. She happily chased after it as she did on grass, cement, and dirt trails. She ran into the surf, but when the rush of turbulent waves rose up in her path, she turned away from the roar and thunder of this unknown predator and ran back to the beach without the prize in her mouth. When the tide receded, she followed it out, but the next swell had gathered its force and she retreated to the beach. Back and forth she ran all afternoon, as if the tides were chasing her, frothing at her heels, waves crashing behind her, carrying nothing in her mouth. Each time the tide lost its fury and was sucked back into the sea, she turned to face the enemy, as if she had won the battle and vanquished the attacker. She ventured into the safety of shallow, still waters determined to find that floating elusive prey. She chased them until the next breaker started to build. Then she’d submit respectfully to its power and retreat once again. The balls were carried back to shore by the tide, and in the benign shallow water, she’d scoop them up in her mouth and bring them to me triumphantly. But she had not conquered this ocean yet. She was running, not swimming.
One day I took her to a small placid lagoon where there were no waves and threw her ball as far as I could. She chased after it, splashing into the still water until she reached the spot where she could no longer touch bottom. She turned her head to look at me for direction, brows furrowed, mouth closed, ears cocked. I yelled, “Get it, Holly.” There was no roar, or threat of high tides to deter her this time. She turned away from me, eyes on the floating ball, and let go of the safety of the muddy floor beneath her feet. Her retriever instinct took over, and those wonderful legs born to swim became paddles and cycled her through the calm water. She was swimming for the first time in her life.
She seized that tennis ball, turned and swam back to me holding it in her mouth, offering it to me, tail wagging wildly, as happy and accomplished as someone who just completed swimming the English Channel. After shaking off her wet body, she looked at me for a response to this amazing feat. Her mouth curved in that retriever smile, her eyes bright, tail wagging with pride as if to say, “Did you see what I can do? Did you see me swim?”
My joy matched hers. “Good girl,” I told her. But she knew. Swimming to retrieve prey was in her DNA.
Now it was time to go back to her nemesis, the ocean, and face her fear of moving water and crashing waves. It was a sunny clear day, but the tides were high and noisy in their descent. I threw the ball. Holly bounded after it, dove under the whitecapped waves, and disappeared. I heard the thunderous water explode over my last glimpse of her, and looked out at the vast expanse of white caps, gulls flying overhead, blue sky, open sea. There was no sign of my dog. She had been sucked up by the ocean. Had I sent her down to the bottom of the sea to drown? I held my breath. I was going down. I felt the water closing in over me. I couldn’t breathe. I was drowning.
I prayed she’d be there when the wave completed its ride to the beach. I prayed I wasn’t being punished. I prayed I had not become my father.
“Dear god, where is she?” Suddenly a scraggly wet golden head bobbed up, holding something in her mouth. This dog bred to retrieve ducks shot out of the sky, bred to swim out and bring them in unscathed in a soft mouth, bred to be a fearless and confident swimmer, had just earned the title “retriever.”
And in that instant she was no longer a scared puppy; she was doing the work she had to do to fulfill her life. And I had faced my worst fears along with her. My catastrophic fear of losing someone I loved, and my fear of drowning were both re-enacted through Holly’s ultimate triumph.
My first attempts at swimming wearing the “Esther Williams” smile, head above water, face and hair dry reflected my life long fear of “going under” in water as in life. In helping Holly to find her courage, I began to find my own. Holly and I both conquered our fear of water. We had not drowned. We were still here. And we were swimmers.
Playing on the beach and chasing the surf to retrieve her ball were the most joyous times of her life, and lifted me out of the depression of my life into what must be called happiness.
Eight years later, after her diagnosis of terminal cancer, I knew what I needed to do.. I gave her everything she loved, let her dig for gophers, chase the squirrels, and took her to the beach to swim and retrieve her beloved tennis ball in the ocean.”
With my digital camera I recorded Holly’s last beach day. My dog came loping, with a slight limp in her hind leg, flinging sand, burying her tennis ball, then digging it up again, placing the muddy thing in my hand to throw, and chasing after it until she couldn’t walk anymore. Even then she hobbled after her ball, holding one leg up and running on the other three, then swimming as if she had no pain. Again, and again she’d carry the ball back to me, and drop it from her soft mouth into my open hand, her eyes looking into mine, watching my face for approval.
Yes, you are my water dog.
I go to the beach alone now. Dogs dig holes in the sand, run in and out of the surf, tails wagging in sheer joy, and I smile and live a thousand lifetimes with Holly all over again.