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Time to sink or swim

Posted: May 4, 2014 - 12:07am

Life shapes us in remarkable ways. I’ve lost a lot of things since I was 6 years old, but I haven’t lost another toenail. In June of 1975, I made a pact with myself that I would never, ever, if I could possibly avoid it, do anything to my big toe that would cause the nail to disassemble itself from its bed.

Such a rash decision might have been avoided had my toenail been quick about its departure. But it wasn’t. It clung to me with all its might, fighting the gradual loosening of its grip with disturbing tenacity. In all my six years I had never witnessed an ungluing of this nature. It opposed the bursts and fits by which everything else in my life – except Christmas – seemed to manifest. As much as I hated losing a toenail, I hated a long goodbye even more.

On that June Monday, when the liberation of my toenail and its reluctance to leave went head-to-head with my swim test at JCC day camp, my opinions about toenails and goodbyes were cemented. It was the first day of camp and no one had yet peed in the pool. Campers lined up, eager to enter the pristine waters and demonstrate their ability to sink or swim. Depending on his or her success, each would either be relegated to the shallow end of the pool or permitted freedom to paddle beyond the rope. Going beyond the rope was a coveted privilege amongst day campers. It was our first taste of status and prestige.

The problem for me was that I was growing up in a house without Band-Aids. My mother didn’t believe in them. She believed in letting air get to hurts for faster healing. I still trusted her wisdom about Band-Aids when my swim-test turn came and I wrapped my toes over the edge of the pool. At the lifeguard’s whistle, I jumped in.

My half-attached toenail lifted from raw skin. It slowly waved up and down under the water. At the fresh age of 6, I decided that my mother was not right about everything. I needed a Band-Aid.

Too disturbed to continue, I climbed out. My toenail settled into place and returned to exiting the scene at its leisure, while I sat cross-legged on the concrete.

Kids splashed and laughed and played Marco Polo. A few taunted, “Why aren’t you swimming? They won’t let you get in the shallow end?” I attempted to tell my pathetic story, but before I could reach the climax of my unfortunate circumstance, my listener ducked under water.

Embarrassment nagged me to devise a plan. That night I restrained my toenail with a strip of Scotch tape.

The next day, I dove into the pool with confidence and began swimming the length of it. My arms and legs moved with a fury. Almost immediately, the water dissolved the tape’s sticky and my toenail flap-flapped, flap-flapped with every kick. The sensation haunts me to this day. There I was in the deep end with no choice but to keep going, the lagging flap-flap, flap-flap, flap-flap of my toenail going, too.

When the lifeguard pronounced me skilled enough to go beyond the rope, I promised myself that I would never, ever lose another toenail. I developed the decency to not drag out good-byes. And I once again decided that my mother was right. A Band-Aid won’t cure adversity.

But putting a piece of tape on it gives me the courage to get started so I can gut it out and get through it.

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