How a grandfather and granddaughter turned an afternoon at the lake into a life-lesson on courage.
by Peter Lewis
This week, we welcome a new voice to Grandkids Matter. Peter Lewis tells stories out of a passion to warm your heart and spur you on to wondrous adventures in grandparenting. Enjoy!
Can you imagine learning to do something completely amazing, something new and totally outside of your comfort zone, in a single afternoon? No, I’m not talking about learning how to program your new TV remote control or change the oil in your car, I’m talking about something a little bit scary, something you were not sure you would ever do, something with real consequences, an event so pivotal that it might be etched into the very substance of who you are and change the way you think about yourself for the rest of your life.
Unfortunately, as we age, our learning curves tend to flatten, our bravery wanes, and time spreads out (even though there is less of it every day). Sure, most of us learned to parallel park over the course of a few brief teenage days, and it may have seemed a bit scary at the time, but not many truly bad things happen at one mile per hour. My mom taught me how to twist and turn our old Ford into tight spaces back in the summer of 1975, shortly before she started seeing a therapist. But no one ever stood on the lectern at a fancy college wearing a borrowed robe and gave a commencement address that began, “I wouldn’t be standing before you today, a physicist and the inventor of edible insect repellent, if my mom had never taught me to deftly squeeze our 1973 Chevy Vega in between a dumpster and a fire hydrant.”
And as our anecdotal years approach, we watch most of our big life events in the rearview mirror, and the new and the novel and the incredible become things that other people do. And those people are usually much younger and braver than we are. While we’ve slowed to a trot, they’re somehow still sprinting. We’re pretty much stuck being who we are, and if it takes us six months to get reasonably good at corn hole, well, that actually seems pretty quick and perhaps even a bit reckless. We still learn, of course, but things often move glacially compared to when we were small and we could master a vital new life-skill after lunch.
Sometimes it’s just enough to witness a sudden metamorphosis in someone else’s life, to be there on the sidelines at the key moment. Just imagine the tingly vicarious wonder of being the person who pops open the chute at a rodeo so an 87-year-old dentist from Cleveland can get the thrill of riding her first angry bull?
But I think the better thing is not just to be there when someone does something they never thought they could, not just to see it happen and then applaud loudly, but to play an active, purposeful role. And I think the very best thing is to seek out those roles, to watch for the approach of those fleeting moments, seize them, and provide an encouraging boost. As grandparents, our greatest joys, and, yes, I believe our greatest life triumphs, often come in those short seconds of new opportunity when someone we love asks a tiny, seemingly inconsequential question, like, “Can you take me down to the lake?” and that when we say yes, it changes everything. And our answer should always be yes because we just never know what wondrous triumphs lie on the other side of the next few minutes.
On Saturday, August 22, 2020, at 2:47 p.m., Sophie Emalyn Lewis, age seven, wearing a fetching, yet sensible, pink one-piece bathing suit, and sporting a flaming red life jacket with the words Full Throttle emblazoned on the back, stood still as if welded to the second step of the galvanized ladder bolted to the shoreside dock at Highland Lake in western Maine. Warm summer water lapped at her knees. Children laughed and splashed in the shallows under tall pines. A dog barked far off. White-knuckling the metal safety rail, Sophie looked down into the water, furrowed her brow, and cringed. Her grandfather, Peter, age 60, stood waist-deep just four feet away, gently splashing the water about him with his hands, smiling, and waiting. Sophie’s glare moved from the brooding water up to her grandfather, whom she called “G-Pa,” and for several seconds she dared not even blink.
“Can I touch the bottom here, G-Pa?”
“Will my face stay above the water?”
“Will you catch me?”
A cold minute ticked by as Sophie counted to three several times but didn’t budge. Finally, she uncurled her fingers from the railing, pinched her nose, bent gradually at the waist, stepped off the ladder, and slid slowly into the lake with nary a splash. Her grandfather caught her immediately.
Sophie comes from an aquatic family. Her mom, Jen, grew up on a finger-thin peninsula on the Maine coast surrounded by the ocean, and her dad, Jeremiah, works as an engineer far out on the sea, once built his own high-tech one-man submarine, and has been waterlogged most of his life. Both parents move effortlessly through air to water and back again, so it was utterly natural for Sophie and her younger sister Lexie to be raised soggy, dripping, and occasionally blue-lipped and shivering. All during the hot summer of 2020, Sophie had been immersed regularly out at the lake and dunked repeatedly from the sides of the family boat. Treading water led to dog paddling, and as the warm days and parental encouragement flew by, both duration and distance increased at an impressive rate. She once hovered in a lazy river, way over her head and without her beloved lifejacket, for 26 seconds.
After a fun sleepover at her grandparents’ house, when the evening before the entire family had all run around in the yard until darkness and exhaustion overcame them and they had to make ‘smores over a campfire, the next morning dawned bright with promised warmth.
“Can you take me down to the lake, G-Pa?” Sophie asked, after lunch. “I have plans,” she added.
“Sure!” he said.
Arriving at the beach a while later, Sophie pointed out the car window toward the floating dock, a short dog paddle from shore.
“I’m going to swim all the way out to that,” she proclaimed.
“Of course you are!” her G-Pa agreed.
In the hour or so following the previously-described white-knuckle episode on the ladder, and with her grandfather’s encouragement, Sophie became increasingly brave. She tossed her life jacked onshore and practiced treading water by lifting her feet off the sand and wiggling pretty much everything. She waded out toward the deepness until her eyeballs, nostrils, and lips were the only parts of her above the surface film, and then she dunked herself.
“It’s good practice,” she said, once she finished coughing and sputtering.
She asked her grandfather to fling her into the air several times, and each time she laughed and then dog-paddled back and hugged him.
At about half-past three, gaining much confidence in being in water over her head, and learning that getting splashed in the face and even being dunked briefly underwater was fun after all, Sophie returned to the shoreside dock and began carefully experimenting with jumping. Hopping from the bottom rung of the ladder soon turned into hopping from the dock itself, which then morphed into walking briskly along the planks and making actual, if slightly tentative jumps into the lake. All this was done with her Full Throttle life jacket on, “Just in case,” she said. Her grandfather caught her every time.
Once she had conquered jumping into shallow water from the low dock at the shore, Sophie pointed toward the floating dock anchored out in the deep water.
“Time to get out there, G-Pa,” she said.
“You’re ready, then?” he asked.
Sophie sloshed up onto the beach and turned to look out toward the distant dock, bobbing gently in the waves of the lake seventy-five feet away. Never taking her eyes off her floating prize, she slowly unfastened the buckles on her life jacket, wriggling each arm out one at a time, and then she laid the life jacket carefully down on the damp sand and waded back out to join her grandfather.
“You’ll have to stay very close to me,” she whispered.
“I’ll never leave your side,” he whispered back.
He breaststroking and she dog paddling, G-Pa and Sophie swam northwest, the distant mountains in sharp relief at the far end of the long lake. Sophie stared at the floating dock. G-Pa stared at Sophie. In short order they were there, and then she was quick up the ladder and standing dead-center on the float, smiling and dripping, hands on her hips, scanning her new horizon.
“We sure swam a long way, G-Pa,” she said, waving her right arm in a wide arc.
“We sure did,” he said.
Sophie walked carefully to the edge of the floating dock and looked down. The dock dipped slightly as she neared the brink, but she kept her balance easily, like an athlete. She stared past her G-Pa and down into the dark water.
“Can I touch the bottom here?”
“Will my face stay above the water if I jump?”
“Will you catch me?”
Sophie frowned. “Why won’t you catch me, G-Pa?”
“You don’t need me to catch you anymore, Soph. You’re practically a fish now,” he said.
Sophie bent gradually at the waist toward her grandfather and braced herself with her hands on her damp knees. “Will I be okay?” she asked, softly.
“How do you know?”
“Because I’m your grandfather. I know about this stuff. And it’s my job to keep you safe and help you do brave things.”
Sophie looked into her grandfather’s eyes for a very long time, then released her knees, straightened, and walked back to the far end of the floating dock. She turned back around and scanned the shore and the old dock where long ago she had learned to jump into the lake without getting water up her nose. Seeing her life jacket lying in the sand, Sophie looked at her grandfather, bit her lip, and pouted slightly.
“You don’t need your life jacket anymore, Soph,” G-pa said.
Sophie looked down at her feet and then her stare moved slowly along the boards to the lip of the dock and then out over the water, her eyes narrowing as if she were calculating something.
Treading water effortlessly, the older man watched the young girl as she stood in the glaring brightness of summer, the sunshine dancing in reflected golden waves across her face, and his heart quickened as the wonder of the moment approached.
And at precisely five minutes past four o’clock on a hot summer day, Sophie Emalyn Lewis took a very deep breath and ran full throttle across the floating dock and threw herself into the air.
Peter Lewis (“G-pa” in the story) is an author, photographer and graphic designer with a passion to tell stories that encourage parents and grandparents to fall in love with the best job they will ever have. Read more and listen to his podcasts at thedadstoryproject.com. Peter and his wife live on a farm in western Maine and have two grown children, a son and a daughter, and two adorable granddaughters.