Facing grief, life, cancer with truth, not homilies.
I go to the pool four to five days a week. I’ve been doing it for a long time, well over 40 years now. When I was in my 20’s, I only swam during the summer. My community had a beautiful outdoor pool which was recessed so deeply in the ground that you couldn’t imagine you were in the middle of a city.
All you saw were trees and hillocks, birds flying overhead, native plants and butterflies. You could have a conversation with praying mantises walking along the sidewalks. Bees buzzed, dragonflies dipped into the water, and the occasional frog cooled off right next to you. I used to go on my lunch hour with a couple of girlfriends every day. Michael joined me periodically. They got wet and put in a few laps but I was almost always in the water.
Swimming outside reminded me of how it felt growing up in Chicago by Lake Michigan. I was the only water person in my family. I always wanted to be in the water. I loved the way it felt, even when it was freezing, both stroking my way through it or bobbing in it like a cork, always buoyant. Michael could never float. He’d sink to the bottom while I lay on my back enjoying the feeling of lightness, the sky above me and a sense of freedom so different than being bound to the ground. I’ve always been an outdoor person, fascinated by the earth and its many wonders.
As a kid I played outside all the time and learned to find peace and solace in open spaces. Water elements enhanced those feelings. I’ve been immersed in lakes, rivers, oceans and even retaining ponds when they were the only wet places available. Yeah, me and water. After swimming outside every summer for 30 years, our outdoor pool developed electrical issues which became dangerous. New pool designs had been studied by our local park district for a long time. The ultimate decision by the park commissioners was to close the pool and spend the next few years implementing a design for a new aquatic center. I was so devastated.
Although I’d availed myself of the YMCA pool during early morning hours when my kids were small, I’d confined my swimming to vacations during the off-season and depended on Crystal Lake Pool for my summer bliss. I’d been at it for such a long time that I sunk into a unique type of mourning, mourning a space rather than a person.
Meanwhile our school district and park district had collaborated on an indoor facility located just a block from my house. Swimming indoors wasn’t remotely appealing to me but I realized that exercising regularly was mandatory as I aged and my knees started to crunch. I knew that I needed the water, not only for pleasure but also for survival. So I held my nose, acted like a grownup and started attending the lap swim hours for adults. After a time, I got accustomed to being there. The south wall of the pool building is all windows so there is still a sense of outdoors that filters into what is otherwise an enclosed space. I was purposeful in my lap swimming and also in water jogging, most especially when I was still working full time.
I’d see a few people that I knew and we’d greet each other and perhaps exchange bits of conversation. But when I retired, some of the urgency about getting done with exercise and rushing back to work lessened. I switched my swimming hours from early morning to midday, just as they’d been when I was young. Eventually I realized that every day, the same crew of people showed up, including one person I used to see back in the day at Crystal Lake pool. As we swam beside each other, it seemed inevitable that we’d begin to converse. That woman was Pat who remembered me from the old days. She told me that back then, she thought I must be a lawyer because I seemed assertive in the water. I thought that was funny. I had no ideas about her career but discovered that she was a nurse. After a relatively short time, we learned about each other’s families and interests. Pat loves to read, and we had many conversations about books that led us to current events and personal issues. Next I met the “Joans.” The first Joan had MS and I remembered seeing her at the outdoor pool. I thought she talked too much but as a retired person, I was more willing to have a listen. Joan was both smart and provincial. She made anti-Semitic comments in my presence and I confronted her about them. She didn’t really know she was saying anything offensive and we worked that out. I learned about her husband’s death and her twin children who didn’t get along. The other Joan was older and very fragile. She was pretty territorial about her lane space and had a sharp tongue. At 90, she is still swimming although it’s scary to watch.
There is a couple named Emmer and Jack, both of whom had spouses die in car wrecks when they were young, leaving them with children. They found each other and have been married for many years now. Then there is Stephen, a retired cell biologist who’s a famous activist in our community and his wife Viki, who I knew from a community Spanish class where we’d met years ago. She was an art teacher in addition to being a talented painter. Ruth, who is 82, had a son who lived on my block and hired my daughter to babysit for his children. All of her grandchildren wound up as students of Michael’s. Laura is a retired special education teacher whose husband has been living with lung cancer for just under 30 years. Her father had Merkel Cell cancer like Michael although he was much older when he got it. He lasted three years. When Laura’s husband Glenn began to relapse, I was able to share information about a new drug and DNA testing that I’d run across while researching Michael’s illness. Merkel cell cancer behaves most like small cell lung cancer so I was surfing lung cancer groups for new information. That crossover research helped extend Glenn’s life. How amazing.
Walt swims almost every day. He is one of the few older single men who swim. His wife died of an aneurysm at work, slumping over her desk and being gone in an instant. Then there is William the taxi driver who’s been struggling with lung cancer for several years. He’s bringing an oxygen supply with him to the pool these days. Everyone is afraid when he seems to get stuck on the opposite side from his tank. But somehow he manages to get back across. I think he’s courageous. I’ve met a lot of people like Lori whose kids were Michael’s students. Fran is the wife of a lawyer who grew up on the south side of Chicago when I lived there. He was a heartthrob and pretty much still is. Mary Lee is a transplanted Texan, a former teacher and a widow. She is soft-spoken and sincere and deeply concerned about our current political landscape. And there are other swimmers like David who used to work for my husband back in the days when he owned his music store.
Perhaps the best pool surprise for me happened several years ago when Debbie, an old friend I’d known since the ‘70’s, suddenly strolled in. Within a matter of days, we established an intimate friendship that was based on a shared history from long ago, the fact that her children were also Michael’s students, and the simple fact that we just seem to blend together in a comfortable, secure way that feels as if we had no time gap between us. Ever.
I’m mystified by what goes on in that pool. People share the most intimate details of their lives with each other. Most of us never share any time outside the pool. But there are confidences and tears and hugs exchanged. Everyone checks on everyone else. There is a grapevine of information at play. Some of us are friends on social media. Some people find social media beyond their mental wheelhouses. The older people have faced challenging health issues and family deaths. Parents who fail and go into nursing homes are commonly shared topics of conversation. We talk about joint replacements, cancers, blood clots, kidney stones and heart disease. The water carries us all along at our different rates of speed. All this information is exchanged as we are almost naked. Is that part of this pool vibe? That as we are fundamentally so physically exposed, the emotional exposing becomes the next logical step? These people feel like a different kind of family to me, with lots of benefits and none of the hard parts. But what is true is that everyone checks on everyone else when something major happens. We exchange emails and texts and have shared lunches. When Michael was sick, Laura brought my favorite cookies to the hospital and when my knee was replaced Debbie brought cookies for my kids. And the vibe doesn’t stop with the swimmers. We also have our relationships with the young people who staff the pool, the managers, the cashiers and the lifeguards. Over time, they’ve gotten used to us as we have to them. They know our names and when we show up. If I miss a day, Quentin worries about me. I have long, interesting conversations with Bri, Ally, Jennifer and Leslie.
When I came back to the pool after Michael died, I was physically and emotionally embraced. I listen to them and give motherly advice. I guess it’s easier to take because I’m not their real parent. When Pat returned after cancer surgery, she was greeted with genuine warmth and affection. For the most part, we are all really different from each other. But everyone loves the water and we all have proprietary interest in the pool for our own very different reasons. My son’s first job was actually as a cashier there, one who arrived for the 6 am adult lap swim crowd. That was 16 years ago. Some people have vanished. The older ones may have died or gotten too infirm to come. The younger ones probably have moved on. My friend Melissa is a summer swimmer like I used to be – we share a lane and discuss art, music, politics and our personal lives which overlap although I’m a few years older. The pool people have their own little universe and I am in it. As I assess my life and what’s important to me I realize that this water business has given me more than physical health and strength.
I am part of a culture there which is non-ageist, non-sexist and freely available to anyone with a smile who’s willing to share a few thoughts for a brief part of a day. How civilized. There’s no telling how we’d all be outside our common love for the forgiving ease of the water. It doesn’t really matter. I’m reminded of those pillows you see sometimes, the ones that say, “ what happens at grandma’s stays at grandma’s.” The water vibe is like that, a safe zone. I never stop thinking while I’m there but each stroke lets me release some angst and feel lighter. Just like all the pool people doing the same thing, lane by lane. Pool vibes. Glad I have them.