So you’re going along, leading your new life, adapting to the fact that your partner of 45 years died and has been gone for over a year. And you’re really working your tail off at building positive experiences and living the way you want and facing reality like a totally evolved adult. And then, wham! Without even the tiniest hint, you are instantly stunned, bowled over by the fact that your person is never coming back, that you will never lay eyes or hands or anything else on your lover, your best friend. Now how the hell does that happen?
I get it when you suddenly hear a song that was meaningful in your relationship or you’re looking at photos that bring back memories. Then the progression of remembering turns to wondering why and what if, and there’s some kind of logic there. Something you can understand. But this minding your own business, thinking about what you have to do today thing, when there’s no direct stimulus that would reasonably help explain the sudden shock and desolation is pretty unnerving. And unfair, I might add. Ambushed. What a dreadful feeling.
I’m always trying to face things head on-that’s my style. The first thing that popped into my head when this most recent hammer dropped? A few quotes from one of my favorite books. When I read it years ago, I had no idea how apt these two passages would be for me at this stage of my life.
“..The girl raised her eyes to see who was passing by the window, and that casual glance was the beginning of a cataclysm of love that still had not ended half a century later.”
“She was a ghost in a strange house that overnight had become immense and solitary and through which she wandered without purpose, asking herself in anguish which one of them was deader: the man who had died or the woman he had left behind.”
Although the words move me and reflect me, for now, they won’t do for providing solace and a path forward. Instead, I find myself pursuing a different direction. I’m thinking about the phrase “taking the waters,” and how that applies to me at this point in time.
Taking the waters is an ancient concept, positing that immersing oneself in mineral springs, pools and the like would provide healing and rejuvenation. The practice and reference can be found in literature from multiple cultures and eras. For me, water has been a go-to place since I was a child. And now, I’m looking back to where that attraction began and contemplating that comforting reliable space.
I discovered swimming when my parents moved back to Chicago from Sioux City when I was seven. Lake Michigan was inexpensive entertainment. Our spot was Rainbow Beach which was relatively close to our apartment. We carted lawn chairs and blankets to the grassy area west of the beach. No one in my family was much interested in the water but me. My mom wore a bathing suit but my dad sat on a chair wearing long pants and sometimes, even a lightweight sport coat. They’d both grown up in the city on the edge of this gorgeous lake but were too busy scrabbling to live to spend any time near the water. Back in those more innocent days, a kid could go alone from the park down to the water and that’s what I did. I stood watching the swimmers carefully and copied their movements as best I could. What a glorious feeling. The lake was really cold but I didn’t care. I’d stay in the water until I pruned and my lips turned blue, excited when my uncertain movements took me from one spot to another. I was hooked immediately. I didn’t care about the stinky, rotting alewives that lay along the shore. Whatever happened to them wasn’t going to happen to me. Most of my early water time happened in that lake. Occasionally, my parents took us on an excursion to a city pool. I remember going off the high dive at the Wicker Park pool, an almost unimaginable feat when I, whose fear of heights is now legendary, would do almost anything to enter the water.
In high school, swimming was a component of PE class. I remember we wore swimsuits made of a material that felt rough, that the suits were baggy, and that you got either a red or blue one, depending on your skill level. I didn’t love our pool or the class. What I did love at that time was summer, when a nearby motel allowed people to pay a dollar a day to spend unlimited hours at their outdoor pool. Before I had a summer job, I split my time between The Thunderbird Motel and Rainbow Beach. My skin was bronzed and my hair turned auburn.In those formative years, I just loved what I loved. As I evolved from child to young adult, I started a deeper thought process, probing inside myself, trying to understand what I felt and what I wanted. I was seventeen when I went to college. I had no inkling then that I would spend the rest of my life in this university town, a place plopped in the middle of corn and soybean fields where the only body of water was a skimpy little creek filled with widely varying and questionable items. I’d left my lake behind. But in time, I found the pools, first the ones on campus and then, the city pool, the one destined to become the pool of my life. The water continued to be a source of peace and lightness for me. As I swam along, slowly and steadily in my classic tortoise style, my hurt, my rage, my confusion and even my positive feelings went quiet. I can scarcely describe how unusual the internal drifting stillness felt, so in contrast to the relentless focus which is my dominant mental state. I began to learn that my water time was my meditation time, a state of mind that was more organic to me than I imagined.
But I am getting ahead of myself. At twenty, I met my husband, a water person like me. We roamed together, looking for swimming spots. We skinny dipped in gravel pits and farm retaining ponds. We found lakes a few hours from home and emerged from them with green slime caught in our toes. As we moved further into our life, our travels expanded and there were hotel pools, more lakes and finally oceans.
We glided in the waves of the Atlantic and Pacific. We spent countless hours in the Gulf of Mexico and swam with the wondrous creatures of the turquoise Caribbean. We carried our lovemaking into these waters, surreptitiously joining with each other under the surface. We managed a few pools as well. These were rapturous moments that sway in my memory. Unforgettable.
When we joined old friends and their families in a communal camp setting for several years, I swam the lake while Michael helped the kids with the water sports. I don’t believe I ever rode the jet skis we rented. Occasionally, I rode in the boat to spot the people who were water skiing or tubing. I canoed once. And I sat or stood on the dock to help the little ones learn to fish or skip stones. But for me those sweet summer vacations were about the swimming, usually by myself.
For many years when winter break began, we took our kids to Starved Rock State Park, a place for hiking and watching bald eagles, if you were lucky. For me the lodge there had the critical main attraction, a large indoor pool, a hot tub and a sauna, completely glassed in so that while you swam, you could see nature scant yards away. One amazing December day, we arrived with a blizzard minutes behind us and as I swam lap after lap, I watched the snow fall steadily, piling up in great white heaps while the warmth of the water embraced me. These were trips we shared with our children, telling stories, breaking news, relaxing and tightening the bonds of our little family unit. As they grew older, sometimes we went alone. But we also expanded our crew to include girlfriends, and eventually our son-in-law and grandchildren. We went there in the midst of Michael’s chemotherapy. And it was the last healthy trip he had the month before his cancer ran amok. I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to go back there. I think I prefer to have the memories from those times remain encapsulated. I often wondered why I was the only person in the pool in the morning, up and back, up and back, not understanding why people hadn’t figured out this lovely feeling they could have so easily. I was lucky. That book is closed.
But the pool of my life is none of what I’ve described. Our local pool was called Crystal Lake. In my mid-twenties having a car and a job allowed for mobility. Crystal Lake was a lovely city park with mature trees, playgrounds, the lake, bridges and pavilions. The pool was further north and built in a depression in the land. Surrounded by trees and prairie plants, with street sounds muffled by the landscape, it was easy to feel that you were far from an urban area. No hustle bustle here. The pool was an oasis. I started attending with a couple of women friends who worked with me. I swam the most, my friends doing a few laps while I stayed in the water. Eventually, Michael joined us there periodically. He was a beautiful swimmer but lazy – he’d do a few lengths and then snooze on a lounge chair. When he got too warm, he’d rejoin me. What a treat to hold each other in the midst of a work day. The good life. Every summer I looked forward to the Memorial Day opening. Over time, my companions came and went. I kept going, every day unless the skies opened and lightning interfered. I swam through my first pregnancy in that pool. I was so enormous that the lifeguards were terrified I’d go into labor on their watch. They had a baby betting thing going, trying to score cash off my giant belly. That didn’t happen. But my babies did arrive eventually and they learned to swim at Crystal Lake Pool. When they went to day camp, they swam there a few times a week. Some of my friends moved away and new ones joined me. Michael, too, along with my sister and my mother, who sat on the side, dangling her feet in the cool water. We had family picnics there after work on hot evenings. I can see us sitting under one of the umbrella tables, plum juice dripping down the kids’ chins, going from the baby pool to the big pool, my shoulders sore from catching my little jumpers who were never bored after doing the same activity a hundred times. I remember when I made my daughter take a stroke clinic which she hated but did anyway, developing into a talented swimmer. Watching her go back and forth was almost as much fun as doing it myself. Eventually I joined the park district citizens’ advisory board so I could stick my two cents into any conversations about aquatics. Our parks director was more about parks than water. I wanted to advocate for investing in a community pool. Finally, the time came when the pool malfunctioned and it was time to tear it out, to start over with a new type of aquatic center which was more modern, with the bells and whistles that would attract more patrons and perhaps, break even financially. I was shell shocked even though I knew it was coming. Thirty years of life had gone by and that pool was part of my peace and joy. I mourned.
In time, I realized that fitness was a year round necessity and finally joined the indoor aquatic center so I could swim year-round. I acclimated because that’s what you do in order to survive and in time, was grateful to have a facility that I could use regularly. But my heart yearned for that feeling of swimming outside and escaping all the noise, both internal and external.
When the new outdoor aquatic center finally opened after almost 3 years, I went to check it out. I felt overwhelmed and alienated by all the noisy buckets, bells and slides meant to attract families and be more current than the old fashioned pool design I’d known for so long. I decided that the indoor pool would do and that except for spending time at the new Crystal Lake with my grandchildren, I’d keep my distance from this zooey place. But circumstances change. When Michael’s cancer came roaring to life last year, I stopped swimming in January and stayed by his side until his death in late May. He needed me and I needed to know that I’d done every last thing I could for him. I also wanted every single second that was left to us. When he died, I was whatever is beyond fatigue and exhaustion. After a few weeks. I realized that I needed to start moving before my body turned to total mush. I hadn’t realized how much muscle tone I lost during those months. Although I was always moving around and sleeping so little, the lack of regular exercise had caused all round atrophy. My doctor said that for every week of exercise that I’d missed, I’d need three weeks to begin to recover my strength. Suddenly I was looking at a year of weakness, something I’d never considered. Adding to the dilemma was my overwhelming sadness and grief.
If I went to the indoor pool, all the people that knew about my life would be waiting with sympathy. I knew that instead of working out, I’d be spending my time trying not to cry most of the time. I decided to go back to the outdoor pool, hoping to swim in privacy, not having to talk with anyone. The first couple of times I arrived for lap swim were disastrous. Friends I hadn’t seen in a long while were there and they all knew about Michael. Everything I tried to avoid was happening anyway. In addition, I couldn’t believe how weak I felt-every stroke was an enormous effort. I finally decided that the safest thing to do was to swim in the middle of the afternoon, when the pool was filled with screaming kids and I could disappear into the chaos while seeing virtually no one I knew. I thought it was a bit humorous that for so many people who had children and grandkids, that being around them during pool hours was like doing hard time. After a few weeks, I did bump into some friends, but not often. More importantly, I grew stronger, physically, mentally and emotionally. By the time Labor Day weekend rolled around, traditionally the last days of the outdoor season, I felt strong enough to go back indoors and pick up where I’d left off before Michael got so sick. And that’s exactly what I did. Over the fall and winter months, I reinstated my routine and faithfully moved on with my recovery.
But as spring approached and summer loomed, I found myself thinking more and more about wanting to swim outdoors. Taking the waters came into my head. I remembered how great it was to backstroke, looking up at the sky and the clouds. Watching hawks, turkey vultures and herons sail overhead as they moved toward the lake and scanned the ground for food. Dragonflies hovered constantly and bees droned along, attracted by the beautiful flowers and landscaping designs that surround the deck area. My pool pass needed renewing and I opted for the outdoor pass in addition to the indoor one. I’ve been going for a few weeks now. And indeed, I’m taking the rejuvenating, healing waters. As I glide up and back, I’ve been astonished to find powerful visual memories emerging, unelicited, from deep down in my body. I see my children, my daughter in a one piece suit with a single ruffle, diving off the side into her dad’s arms. I see my son, toddling gingerly through the kiddie pool, his arms uplifted, making sure someone was always nearby to grab his hand. I see my friends, laughing, joking and gossiping as they lay on the chaises, lazily watching me move along. I am powerwalking with my adult daughter in the shallow end, my sister nearby. I am telling a work acquaintance to stop talking to me about business when I’m in my vacation mode.
And I see Michael everywhere. I can see him diving. Swimming a whole length underwater and popping up right next to me. I can see the way his hair parts after swimming the crawl. Him smiling at me as he watches me swim length after length. I can feel how he pulled me toward him and walked around the water with me, clasped together in one of our happiest places. And I can see how much he loved being able to be there with our kids and the little boys, an experience he feared he’d never have. I don’t feel sad. I feel embraced. Every vision has a light quality to it, a shimmery glow that makes me smile, that brings comfort. My whole life happened at this place. My youth, my life partnership, my friends, my babies, my family. It looks different but it’s in the same physical place and how I feel while immersed is the same drifting meditative sensation that I’ve had while swimming, always. The sneak attacks will come again. There can be no doubt of those ambushes as my love for Michael remains so alive. But I’m going to take the waters, whenever I can. To carry me through until the next time.