A Surprise Confession

The pool. Again.

Slightly over a month ago, I wrote about the fact that this pool where I swim daily, weather permitting, is a place where I do some of my best thinking. But I’m not always silently pondering away. There are these random conversations which spontaneously occur with the people sharing your lane. On most days, someone is usually swimming right next to you. Over time, the regular swimmers begin to engage, especially when we see each other, not only at the outdoor pool, but also at the indoor one, which is open for the length of a school year, from late August to late May.

Me at a different pool.

Despite the fact that a lot of people are around, and that kicking and splashing are pretty noisy activities, the pool can be surprisingly intimate. In the locker rooms, people get naked, both before and after wearing flimsy swim garments that outline their bodies, including their private parts. Most often, a nude stranger is showering next to you. Locker rooms also have toilets. That’s a whole lot of intimacy going on right there. Personal chatting doesn’t seem like such a big deal then, comparatively speaking, in such a literally stripped-down environment.

The indoor pool.

Over the years, I’ve certainly done my share of conversing with a fairly sizable group of people, connected only by our common choice of swimming as a primary exercise. When I first started logging my regular laps at the outdoor pool, I was only in my twenties. Back then, I was usually in the company of my friends or Michael, so I primarily socialized with them. Most of my other conversations were brief and limited to casual comments about the water temperature or the weather. As years went by, I wound up coming to the pool on my own. I noticed, and was noticed by the faithful who showed up every day. I remember one person telling me she was sure I was a lawyer after eavesdropping on some of my chatter. I haven’t figured out exactly why but maybe I was argumentative. Someone else thought I was a teacher. We all listened to each other. Over time, we habitual swimmers, governed by the hourly limits of lap swim schedules, would wind up chatting as we daily made our way through our routines. Back in those days I met and talked with Nina. She was a fascinating woman who spent her youth in Scandinavia hiding from Nazis. She moved to the U.S., married, had kids and became a newspaper columnist. By the time we met, she’d already been through breast cancer and at that current moment, was grappling with ovarian cancer. I’ve never forgotten her telling me that the nurses on the hospital cancer floor told her that fatter patients did better with chemotherapy than the skinny ones. I thought that was such a comforting tidbit. I told her about my family and she admired my breaststroke steadiness. I looked forward to our regular interactions. She’s been dead for about eighteen years now. But she’s alive in my memory. As years passed, people with whom I’d been side by side for many years are now gone. The passage of time exacted its price from some of those water lovers.

The walkers.

The two Joans both died. One Joan was a surprisingly robust woman, considering she’d had multiple sclerosis for many years. She needed a walker for stability and wore interesting water gloves for warmth and also, to improve her grip on the bars that eased her way into the water. She was what I’d call forthcoming, even blunt. She talked about her preference for her son over her daughter and shared details about her life with her deceased husband, Bob. She was a person with blatant prejudices; we tangled with each other about her racism and anti-semitism. Not your average pool talk. I found her honesty refreshing and was pleased that in her late seventies, she was still able to rethink some of her views. She used to visit Florida for part of the winter. One year she left and didn’t return. The other Joan was a tiny, frail person who sometimes seemed like she could drown at any moment. But she managed to pull herself up and back in the water, all the while with a hostile eye on the newbies who sometimes parked themselves in her favorite lane. Joan continued to swim even as she declined into dementia. Her daughter Susan came to stay with her, loyally bringing her to the pool even as her energy and focus waned. Eventually the aquatics managers were alarmed about her delicacy and requested that Joan discontinue her swimming. One day she stopped coming. I saw her being walked around the neighborhood but ultimately she passed away.

Some came with their canes.

Gisela, another elderly cancer survivor, continued to lower herself into the pool during her treatment, seeking the forgiving relief water provides to those in pain. So did Pat, so friendly and sociable, who shared the good and the sad stories about her youth and her current life as a loving wife, mother and grandmother. Her pool life was abruptly ended when a post-surgical leg abrasion turned into the wound which wouldn’t heal. So much for immersion in water. The rest of us still miss her company.

My daughter was tutored in math by Jerry, who in his 80’s is still a swimmer at the outdoor pool.

Recently I’ve realized that there’s been a shift in my position in the pool age hierarchy. Those of us in our early seventies have moved up to the “oldest” level, with so many of our former swimming mates now deceased or unable to attend. Jerry, the math tutor now in his eighties, still shows up intermittently with his wife, Joyce. Aside from them, the only other regular elderly attendee is Jack, now eighty-nine years old. Until two years ago, Jack would always come with his wife Emmer, to whom he’d been married for well over sixty years. They shared a remarkable story. They’d both been married before each other, to partners who had each died tragically when they were in their twenties. Jack and Emmer were single parents, who met and fell in love, ultimately recovering from their shared grief to build a new family. Sadly, Emmer died almost three years ago. Before that, I mostly talked with her in the water, sharing stories about our kids and talking about medicine and science. Emmer always had her bright white hair done in an impeccable style, never putting her “do” in the water.

Emmer always used on of those swim noodles to prop herself up as she paddled along. She’d had cardiac problems for several years and had gotten through a recent heart ablation, intended to stabilize her heartbeat. Her doctors were somewhat reluctant to proceed, given her age, but she cheerily went forward, always an optimist. I remember one hilarious interaction we had the summer before she died, when I realized she’d left her swimming supplies behind as she made her way to the locker room. I picked everything up and ran to the locker room where I found her, still getting ready to leave. I came in shouting, “Emmer, you’ve forgotten your noodle,” which made both of us laugh really hard. At that moment she was smiling with her perfect hair, emitting the scent of baby powder which she applied after every swim. That was the last time I ever saw her.

Jack – from Facebook.

Jack is now my oldest pool buddy. We usually share a lane at the outdoor pool during the three days a week he now permits himself, rather than five. He’s being cautious about not overdoing his exercise as he tries to protect his shoulder, which has gotten delicate in recent years. Aside from our shared appreciation for swimming, I think it’s unlikely that we’d ever have crossed paths. Not only is he seventeen years older than me, but we are diametrically opposite in terms of our fundamental beliefs. Jack and Emmer shared a deep fundamentalist commitment to religion which I do not. In addition, Jack is politically extremely conservative while I am at the opposite end of that spectrum. On the few occasions when we’ve exchanged ideas on those topics, our differences were immediate and obvious. Rather than engaging in conflict, we instead have chosen to chat about more neutral issues, always polite and I think genuinely wishing each other the best, as we make our way through the world, absent our deeply missed life partners. But apparently there is something about being in this exposed state that can elicit the most unlikely statements from people. At least that’s what happened a few days ago. I mentioned to Jack that my recent experience of caring for my granddaughter had added a dimension of physical contact to my life that I hadn’t had in the six years since my husband died. Getting accustomed to endless days without touching another human being is daunting after decades of body closeness. I think it’s generally agreed by those in all corners of the medical profession, that physical contact is an important and necessary factor in maintaining mental health.

Me and my granddaughter.

Jack quickly piped up and said he really missed his physical contact with Emmer. He talked about the comfort of her wonderful body. He stated that even though he thought she was where she was supposed to be, he wished he could still be with her. I was fascinated when he went further, talking about how he still fantasized about her at night, wondering aloud why he doesn’t see many articles about the long-lasting sexual drives that can still accompany a person into old age. As he lives in a senior citizens’ assisted living facility, I asked him if he ever discussed this topic with any of the other people who lived there. He said that he’d never discussed this issue with anyone and seemed a bit embarrassed to have mentioned it. I immediately responded that I thought his feelings were normal. Although I’m sure there is wide variation between people regarding their sex drives, I’m certain that more older people are sexually active or at least interested than some might imagine. I know I am. I found myself wondering out loud about how the commonly shared parts of life, like sexuality and death are still so off-limits in normal discourse. I know that if I bring up my own still-alive feelings that many people look positively squeamish. I was glad Jack felt comfortable enough to express himself to me although the irony of having this devoutly religious man unburden himself to me, his opposite, about such deeply personal feelings, was not lost on me. The good news is there was no subsequent awkwardness between Jack and me after our exchange. We even referred to that conversation again in the course of our recent swims beside each other.

I’m glad I’m still swimming. On the days when there’s no company I’m happy to buzz along in my own head, thinking away. I still visualize Michael when I’m in the water. I’m like Jack, still interested in my absent partner. I’m glad that I’m approachable, even to the most unlikely people. Life continues to be surprising in so many ways. You never know what someone in the next lane might confess to you. And that’s what keeps me interested in tomorrow. For anyone who’s curious, here’s an article about sex and the elderly. Very enlightening. Being old may not be what some people think.


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