My four-year-old son quit swim lessons a couple of weeks ago. He had gone steadily through the month of July. On Tuesday and Thursday afternoons, while his older brother swam in the deep end, Stump sat on the side of the shallow end with four other preschoolers and waited his turn for the instructor to guide him through the water. The instructor was eighteen with an emerald green swimsuit, a ponytail of curls, and a bright smile. Stump loved her. He loved her so much that I was a little embarrassed about it. Anytime she asked who wanted to go first, Stump raised his hand and shouted “me, me, me!” Then he gazed at her with utter devotion, beaming as she supported his back and he floated.
Sometimes, at the end of a long day, he told me he didn’t want to go to swim lessons.
“You mean you don’t want your teacher to hold you in the water?”
“Oh wait,” he said. “I do.”
But then July ended and the instructors changed. At first I thought it might work out. His new instructor was also eighteen with a ponytail. But she kept insisting Stump dunk underwater when he said he didn’t want to. I tried to tip her off a couple of times. “He doesn’t want to dunk today,” I said at the beginning of a lesson. But it didn’t matter what Stump said or what I said. Each time she’d talk him into dunking and he’d be fine for the moment, but each time he walked away hating swim lessons.
We were halfway through August at that point, and I wasn’t feeling well. I’d been running a low grade fever that only came on in the afternoons. On a Tuesday, Stump told me he didn’t want to go—he just wanted to watch his brother swim. I also just wanted to watch his brother swim. I didn’t want to fight him. I said we could take a break if he promised to try again Thursday.
Promises from four-year-olds, I’ve learned, don’t count for a whole lot. On Thursday I still wasn’t feeling well—this fever, though mild, was persistent—and Stump still didn’t want to go. I was doing the math in my head. Three more swim lessons I’d paid for. What was at stake if we just stopped going? I’d feel chagrined about the wasted money, but I also wondered if these lessons were now only teaching him to hate swimming.
“So you just want to quit?” I asked him.
If I had known how immediately and deeply Stump would embrace that word—quit-—I’m not sure I would have offered it.
“Yeah,” he said. “I quit. I quit swimming lessons.”
That day, as we left the pool with his brother we passed a boy from Stump’s class. He had wet hair and wet swim trunks. Stump was in his dry clothes and sneakers. “We missed you today!” the boy’s mom said to Stump.
Stump lit up, delighted with himself. “I quit swim lessons,” he told her. “I quit them forever.”
“Oh, but you were such a good swimmer,” she said.
Stump’s smile didn’t fade. “Yeah, but I quit,” he said.
I worried that the boy in the wet swim trunks would now have his own ideas about quitting. (I had noticed he didn’t like dunking either.) I worried that I had just given this mom a new battle to fight with her own son, but this wasn’t on Stump’s mind. Apparently nothing filled him with more joy that the phrase “I quit.”
A few days after Stump quit, I learned I had pneumonia. I had spent all of August in a bit of a fog, moving through my world trying to keep pace. It wasn’t until the following week, once I started antibiotics and started to heal that the exhaustion kicked in. For the first time in a long time I couldn’t keep up and I couldn’t keep going. And so I had to figure out what things I could quit. I didn’t feel quite the same sense of joy about quitting as Stump, but I tried to draw from his determination.
I quit spending entire days on my feet, moving from task to task.
I quit getting glasses of water for people who can get glasses of water for themselves.
I quit thinking I would get anything done after the kids went to bed. I let the unfolded laundry pile grow and grow. I didn’t write anything.
I quit drinking a beer at the end of my day. I didn’t want it anymore.
I quit exercising. That sucked.
This week, I arrived at an in-between space. I can pretend to be well again. I can make it through a normal day of shuffling kids and dogs and picking up groceries and running to meetings. I can do these things, but my body nags at me insistently. It knows better. I take an ibuprofen. I drink a coffee. It’s hard to quit forever.