Friday, October 9, 2009

Beautiful Swimmer

Callinectes means "beautiful swimmer" in Greek, something I learned when reading about the Chesapeake blue crab, whose taxonomical genus is Callinectes.

I love that word - the sound of it (well, the way I think it is pronounced) and the image of it.

Callinectes. Beautiful swimmer.

I am a swimmer, but I am not a beautiful swimmer. I am a fifty-three year old still carrying way too much steroid weight and don't look at those Skatzes Women veins on my left leg swimmer who swims the side stroke when I swim, which I try to do two to three times a week at the nearest Y.

But I love the word Callinectes all the same and often roll it around in my head while I turn laps. I think about having it imprinted on my swim bag, which instead has the fading character of the Reed College griffin on it.

I am not a beautiful swimmer, but when I swim, I forget the steroid weight and the veins and the ravaged knee joints, savoring instead the cool weightlessness of the water. When I swim, I become one with the water, which is beautiful.

I learned to swim as a young girl when my mother signed us up for lessons at the old Delaware pool. Many summer days, she would send my older brother, my next younger brother, and me off by bikes for the afternoon, with strict instructions to start riding home when the 4:00 rest period started.

The summer scent of my youth was chlorine.

My boys were water babies. Ben's first home was an apartment complex in central California with the ubiquitous outdoor pool; he was in that pool from his toddler years on, learning to swim when he was four and a half. Sam, who grew up here, learned to swim the summer he was five.

When the boys were little, my across-the-alley neighbor Sally and I would pick a summer day to load up our four children and spend the day at Lake Erie, swimming and splashing and reading and eating. I would often stretch out in the sun-warmed shallows, closing my eyes while the water lapped around me. I would stay in the water, half dozing, until the sun and the water dissolved (if only temporarily) the considerable worries and stresses I carried around back in those days.

[Note: A day at Lake Erie came with its own stresses. Sally recently reminded me of the lake trip that resulted in the worst sunburn of Sam's young life and how he whimpered and cried for a half hour of the two hour trip home until he fell asleep, knocked out by the pain.]

Once the boys got to the age where the lake (and everything was) was "boring," I more or less stopped swimming. I started swimming again in September, 2005, just as soon after my second stem cell transplant as my doctors would allow.

I haven't stopped swimming since. For me, it is tangible evidence that I am still here, that I am holding the cancer in me at bay. I think "If I can swim a half mile today, then I can't be too sick, right?"

Several friends have told me they would never swim for exercise because it is too repetitive and too lonely. It is the repetition and the solitude that I like. When I slip into the water, I am alone with my own thoughts. With luck, I fall into a meditative rhythm while I count off laps in my head. There are no emails or phone calls to answer. There are no pressing chores that need completed.

There is only the water, the cool, blue water.

Often, I will finish my swim by floating on my back, just letting the water hold me up. I explained to Margo once that I learned to back float from a very good teacher who said "just pretend you are going to bed on your back" and then told the whole class to "lean backwards until you fall - the water will catch you." That teacher got it right: you have to trust the water to catch you, to hold you.

Many decades later, I think of her when I finish my swim, as I often do, by floating on my back. My laps are done, I have confirmed once again that I am alive. I take a breath and then I launch myself from the side walls, trusting the water one more time to catch me, to hold me up, to give me hope.

Callinectes. Beautiful swimmer. Beautiful life.

1 comment:

Sarah / Bee House Hives said...

April,
Thank you for saying hello over at Montana Mornings. It lead me here this morning to be touched by reading about you.
We have snow covering the ground as I write, but your post reminded me of swimming at the river when I was a little girl.. laying in the shallows with the water lapping- just as you wrote.

You are brave and I want to thank you for sharing.. your beautiful life.
-Sarah