A thousand metaphors have sprung from the lips of those who know the joy of gliding through depths, splashing through waves, propelling themselves through that which infills us and that which surrounds us.
I know that joy. I love to swim – now – but it was not always so. I have spent my life in and around water but for the most part it has been at the surface: canoes, kayaks, sailboats, motor boats, paddle boards, even rafts in swamps. But swimming for sport? I was not that man.
When I was a child I took swimming lessons regularly for several years. All of my siblings did. It kept us occupied in the summer months. I also suspect that even though our parents wanted to trade us in on some days – to upgrade to more compliant models – they also wanted us to have a better than even chance of staying alive in the water – I think.
So, swimming lessons we had. I even joined a kid-level swim club, for about two days. I loved being in the water but I hated swimming lengths. To swim lengths was to die in mixed metaphors: bound by all four horsemen of the apocalypse and forced to flail in the depths of the River Styx.
I was not a fan. There was a greater chance of me becoming a great blue whale than becoming adept at freestyle. It was not fun for my skinny little self. It was not ‘challenging’ and it was certainly not ‘life affirming.’
And yet 50 years later and very much to my surprise, I am becoming moderately respectable in the pool. And while it has spawned no end of metaphors floating through my thoughts, I have come to enjoy – to actually like! – swimming for the sake of swimming. It is true that it is a life saver for my mind, for my healing soul, but when the water surrounds me, I am free in a way that is foreign to dry-landers.
At first it was not so. At first it was an act of desperation, of trying to maintain some semblance of sanity while I traveled with Mom through her final months. At first it was a supplement to my hiking in the hills, to my morning and late night walks in the city. At first it was self-preservation.
I gasped. I wheezed. I took on enough water to fill several small ponds. Archimedes would have wept, were he not laughing so hard. I wondered if I would survive. I rested after each and every length. Ten was enough, followed by at least as much recovery time in the hot tub or sauna.
But I didn’t drown! I’m sure that a lifeguard or two thought that I might, that they would have to rescue my soggy soul. Instead, I somehow managed a minor miracle. Ten lengths became twenty and twenty eventually became 40, then 50, and in time much, much more. The rests became fewer, shorter. The convulsive gasping became a moderately elevated pulse. I was alive and I was surprised. I am still surprised.
But the heavens will not let me off that easily; it was not just about swimming. I admit that the universe knew the perfect metaphor for our difficult days, our disquieted nights. It knew what I would require to finish my journey and that in time I would be far enough removed to understand.
Every day I was between the shallows and the deep, whether on a mountainside or in the pool. Every day I felt – briefly – that I was about to go under, that this particular time might be too much. It did not matter that Death and I had visited before; every visit is different. Every visit is new.
She looked up as I unlocked the door, coming in from the dark.
You came back! I thought you’d go home after the pool.
Home in those several months was an old but clean, beach-front motel, owned and very well operated by a lovely couple for over 40 years. Home was a kitchenette, a table, a blanket covered couch, and a bedroom taken up almost entirely by the bed. But it was home.
Still in her housecoat and pajamas from that morning, she smiled an exhausted smile from the depths of her chair.
No, Mom, not yet. I wanted to see how you were doing tonight.
Oh, I’m okay.
Really? It doesn’t look like you’ve strayed too far from your chair.
Well… I’m glad you came back.
That, of course, was Mom-speak for not doing well at all. We were about two weeks from the new year and she had been slowing down far more than she ever believed she would. If she had been honest that night, and deeply so, she would have admitted that about six months had passed since her oncologist told her: Lois, you have about six months.
I’m glad you came back…
As we approached her final Christmas we were no longer in the shallows. We were swimming, moving to stay alive. Until then we had explored the tide pools, imagining what might be out there but splashing, playing, avoiding the deep.
She believed that we could watch those waters safely, comfortable where we were. She thought that we could linger a while. But the sand was suddenly gone from beneath our feet and now she was living day to day, dying day to day.
It happened gradually then quickly. Slow, slow, suddenly fast. Invisible steps from sand to rocks, to barnacle encrusted reefs. Water becoming deeper. Sunlight slipping away.
Perhaps we were standing in one place, the imperceptible flood filling around us. Perhaps we were traveling, swimming through seas, down fathoms, down leagues. Perhaps we were flowing under starlit spans, ebbing gently with the tide. Or maybe – just maybe – we were carried.
Standing or swimming, we learned that quickly is best done slowly. So we lived – one day, one morning, one moment at a time. As her hourglass flowed to empty we enjoyed what we could – slowly. We savored the fading light on the snow covered hills – slowly. Phone calls – slowly. Music – slowly. She ate tiny meals and snacked on sweets – slowly. We delved into memories, drifted through dreams – slowly, as if to hold back the waters, as if to turn back the tides.
But currents and tides will not be tamed. They will do as they will do, as they have always done. Their ways will become our ways and we will yield.
Quickly, slowly, ebbing, swirling, the water around us became richer, darker. It became heavier, closer, wrapping her in the warm, welcoming weight of its gentle, powerful stream. It became her closest friend, her truest companion, even in her final hours, inviting, whispering: Come… It is wide, it is deep, but come.
Months later, I swim again.
The water is no longer dark. There are hints of sunlight splashing on the white topped waves. The water is no longer deep. The sand is firm beneath my feet and the shore is near. My vision grows clearer, allowing me to see farther, inviting me to find hope. And each day our companion welcomes me a little more. It holds me closer, it teaches me again, it allows me to weep when I must, to smile when I can, and it reminds me to love, for life is short.
And one day, no matter what tides have turned between, when it is my time to cross the river the water will whisper to me as it whispered to her: Come… And I will swim. Once more I will swim.