In addition to visiting the Great Wall of China, I desperately wanted to see the Water Cube where the 2008 Olympic swimming events were held in Beijing. Once I got there, it all came flooding back; all those emotions that overwhelmed me during the Olympic Games. My husband likes to accuse me of being in love with Michael Phelps, but that’s ridiculous. I’m old enough to be his mother. Which is kinda the point.
Like most of America, I did fall in love with Michael Phelps during the 2008 Beijing Olympics. I enjoyed watching him swim, but even more, I craved watching his interactions with his mother, Debbie. I lived vicariously through them and felt her joy each time her son broke another record or won another Gold. They were my substitute mother-son relationship that summer since I couldn’t watch my own son pushing himself to his limits. While Michael swam in Beijing, my son Mac was completing USAF boot camp in Texas. But that wasn’t televised.
I have to mention that Mac and Michael look quite a bit alike. I think Mac is much handsomer, of course, but their height, build, hair, and facial features are pretty similar. So while I watched Michael Phelps swim, it was easy to picture Mac. They have another strong commonality: they were both raised by single mothers, and that changes boys in a way I can’t explain. Mac and I shared the same close bond that Michael and Debbie shared. I truly believe that if Mac had been swimming in the Olympics and won a medal, he, too, would have jumped out of the pool and sought me out in the audience. I don’t think I’m fooling myself. It made so much sense to me. Debbie had witnessed every other event in Michael’s life; naturally, he would want to make sure that she’d witnessed those, too, and wanted to share his triumphs with her. I was mesmerized by that, and so, so envious.
Like I said, I lived vicariously through them. I couldn’t even imagine what Air Force boot camp in Texas was like that August. I knew the heat was suffocating. I knew the intent of basic training was to break the men down and build them back up. I knew that Mac’s individuality would be snuffed enough to make him a uniform airman. But I didn’t know how he was handling it all. Was it as grueling as the movies made it out to be? Was he being pushed to his limits? Had he succeeded? Had he failed?
I didn’t know. I only got the briefest of letters from him that the Air Force mandated they send. Index cards, actually. And they told me nothing. So I turned to Michael and Debbie and dreamed that Mac was proving himself to the United States military and himself. When the anthem played for Michael, it also played for Mac. When Michael hugged his mother, I mentally imagined Mac hugging me. I fell in love with Michael and Debbie that summer.
Mac did succeed in boot camp. In fact, he loved it. He even considered becoming a drill instructor himself someday. At the end of August we flew to Texas for the graduation ceremony. He stood proudly in the Texas heat and earned a coin that I equated to Olympic Gold. I watched him and knew exactly how Debbie felt: that she was proud of her son for achieving something great, but was even prouder of the man he had become. I felt that, too, as the anthem played and my son was honored. Then they released the audience. Mac found me in the crowd and just like Debbie, I got my hug.
Standing in front of the Water Cube brought it all back.