One of my favorite stations to listen to on my way to a swim is a Canadian rock station called The Q. Like a lot of things, Canadians do radio right, whether it’s neutral news reporting, funny commercials, or listener games.
100.3 The Q does a game called Polka Monster, where someone calls in and tries to name the popular rock song being played live by the DJ, on an accordion, in 3/4 time.
No joke. (It’s really hard!)
Sometimes the Catholic radio station in Edmonds will cut into The Q’s airwaves while I’m listening. A lot of static can be heard when this hostile takeover happens, but every once in awhile, I get a clear mash-up of rock and religion. Ozzy Osborne’s Crazy Train popping in and out of their program called Father Knows Best. A Tragically Hip song mixed with advice from the Bible about depression.
I cannot make this stuff up. I’m not that funny. But it’s worth suffering through the static for these woven moments of unintentional comedic gold.
Laughter is a sacrament. So is water. The two together often get me through these cold cold frickin cold days of swimming. (Did I mention it’s cold?)
Whidbey got snow last weekend, and it stuck around long enough for me to post a swim at Robinson beach. A good six inches fell, and naturally everyone wanted to swim. It was something different from the gray rainy days we’ve been pulling ourselves through the last four months.
Running out of the water after the swim (I call it my “get the hell to the towel” move), I looked down long enough to see my bare feet in snow. I couldn’t feel them, so it didn’t feel strange.
But it looked strange, a weird mash-up. Bare feet mean summer sunshine, “toes in the sand”, everything associated with beaches and feet. Now here was snow, rather out of place with my icy, incredibly red, feet.
Swimming and snowfall is also a weird mash-up. But there’s a buzz about it, a few extra endorphins maybe, a thrill knowing not too many others would want to do this.
But then, not too many people listen through static for a chance to hear a priest’s benediction blessing through Rush’s Prime Mover.
I should probably start by introducing myself – my name is Bailey, and I’m Teresa’s introverted, first born daughter. I think I’ve made an appearance on here once or twice, thankfully all good things – my mom didn’t HAVE to be so nice, but she was. Thanks, mom :).
Anyways, brief background on me: I am a senior at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, double majoring in International Affairs and Economics (please don’t ask what I want to do with that, I still don’t know, and I’m so sick of coming up with some bullshit answer every time – I’m just trying to survive out here). I’m also a sprinter and a captain on the track and field team (I know, I know, hold your applause); I love the grittiness of sprinting, and it’s something that I am immensely proud of.
As we all know, 2020 was pretty shitty, for a number of reasons. If you’ve been following my mom’s lovely blog, you know my family has had a doozy of a year – why not throw cancer at my mom, too? Just get all of the shit out of the way in one terrible year. Anyways, the middle of March was when my 2020 track season officially got cancelled due to Covid. In a word, I was devastated. To have that pulled out from under me was a blow, and I took it pretty hard. I’ll admit that it was far from the end of the world, but track was (is) one of the biggest factors to my mental health. To lose that in the middle of a pandemic, while still trying to process the information that my mom had cancer, was Hard. Watching one of the most important people in your life go through something like that is Fucked Up, and I felt pretty helpless about the whole thing.
I ended up moving back home to the island, because school was online, and I wanted to be around for my family while my mom went through her cancer “journey” or whatever bullshit people call it. I never thought I would be living with my parents again for the long term, but all of a sudden I was back in my childhood bedroom. Which isn’t inherently a bad thing, but I was a fresh 21! I should have been doing stupid college kid things with my friends on the weekends! I mean, don’t get me wrong, Jim and Teresa know how to party, but having a beer with dinner and then going to bed by 10 wasn’t *exactly* how I had pictured my evenings going.
I probably sound ungrateful – that wasn’t the case! I’m lucky to have such a great family who loves me so much. It was just too much all at once for my brain to handle in a healthy way. In short, I got depressed, and hit a low that I hadn’t seen since high school. It was tough. My motivation was at an all-time low, and I couldn’t do anything but watch as my mom took on this monster that I couldn’t do anything about, and I had to face it every damn day. There’s no distracting yourself from the Bad Thing if you’re stuck in quarantine with it for weeks on end.
Despite everything, I think my mom caught on, because she started dragging me along to swim with her and her friends, even when she wasn’t allowed in the water herself. Now, I’ve swam with these guys occasionally during the summers, when it’s nice and warm out, but APRIL? No offense, but what college kid wants to get up for an 8am swim in 50 degree water?? It certainly wasn’t very high on my priority list at the time. But I did it, because it was something to do, and I finally found something I could do for her – I could be her place holder in the water until she could get back in.
So I got up at 7.
And froze my ass off.
And immediately wanted to go again.
I mean this in the most literal sense: it just might have saved my life. I was quickly losing all sense of myself, which is something that terrifies me. The water was cathartic.
All of a sudden, I was surrounded by beauty, and people who just loved life. It was infectious, and I couldn’t possibly be depressed when I was immersed in salt water and surrounded by friends. I realized I was probably in the best place possible – where else could I run for 20 minutes and end up on a beach where I looked out and there were dozens of porpoises playing at the drop off? Nowhere, I tell you. The cold water seemed to shock me out of whatever funk I had fallen into, and I emerged feeling resilient. It was meditative and cathartic; the water was a safe place to work out problems in my head, while simultaneously exhausting my body.
There were countless times I found myself smiling like an idiot into the water (the flounders that saw me probably thought I was a psychopath). My favorite days were when the water was a little too rough, and you got out feeling like you just went 10 rounds with Rocky. A close second was when we were playing in the bioluminescence at 10pm on a Tuesday night after drinking shitty Kirkland-brand margaritas. I mean, come ON!
I ended up spending the summer surrounded by friends, and had some of the best times in recent memory – I think I laughed harder and longer when I was with them than I have in years. Granted, they weren’t the friends I had expected to be hanging out with this summer, but rather were new friends I made that I lovingly refer to as my “old people friends” (I should clarify that none of them are actually old, but I think the age gap between myself and the next oldest of the group is roughly 35 years).
They welcomed me with open arms, and I loved spending any kind of time with them. The water not only saved me mentally, but it led me to some of the coolest people I’ve ever had the good fortune to meet, and the cool part was I think they liked me back!
I was home for Thanksgiving a few weeks ago, and was overwhelmed, kinda sad, and completely stressed out of my brain. The water was a balmy 47 degrees, and I hadn’t swam in about a month. But it didn’t matter. My mom and my friends were there, grinning like the lunatics they are, way too excited about getting in the Sound at this time of year. The water welcomed me back home like I hadn’t missed a beat, and, taking after my mother, I cried into my goggles.
– Bailey James
(Note from TJ:Some days you’re given a gift you can never repay. So much gratitude. Love you, Babygirl.)
First swim back today after six weeks! I’ve been counting down the days since my surgery, waiting for today. It was flat, it was sunny, but man was it 48 deg!
And let’s be clear: the water felt like 48. I did not.
During one of those long 42 days out of the water, I wrote down all of the new swims my buddies and I did this summer, back when it was warmer. And mostly sunny. And not November.
Thanks for a great summer, guys. The pic below was taken back when Island County was in Phase 3, and outdoor groups of 50 or less could gather. After this, we swam in groups of 10 or less. (Yep, that’s my disclaimer, folks.)
If you read this list and remember one we did that I forgot, please let me know.
New Summer Swims 2020
Lake Cle Elum
Whidbey-to-Mukilteo Ferry Crossing (almost to Edmonds!)
Whidbey-to-Camano Crossing (both days!)
Clinton ferry park
Double Bluff to Robinson Beach
Phosphorescence Night Swims Useless Bay
Bush Point to Shore Meadow
Lagoon Point to Bush Point
Glendale to Sandy Hook
Bells Beach to Baby Island
Beverly Beach to Baby Island
Greenbank Farm Wonn Road public access
Driftwood Park to Keystone Spit
Mukilteo Ferry to Boeing dock
Not too bad for a global pandemic summer laced with surgery anxiety. Here’s to new experiences in crappy times. Somehow they just shine a little brighter.
Driving to one of many many (so many!) swims this summer, a song came on my Spotify that stopped me mid-thought. Isn’t it great when that happens? You hear a certain lyric out of the blue and it’s like getting hit between the eyes.
The song was People Get Old by Lori McKenna. Not the most clever title, invoking an initial “no duh!” response from me when I first heard it. But then this verse:
Time is a thief / Pain is a gift / The past is the past / It is what it is.
The last line is cliche, so we can skip that. But time is a thief? Absolutely. Pain is a gift? Truth. Eight words that sum up my summer.
I realize I’ve been remiss on the blog posts. Thanks to the folks that asked and prodded me to get back at it. I love you all.
But I make no apologies for the last three months. I swam my ass off, farther and stronger and better than ever before. Just like I promised myself I would while recovering from my mastectomy in April.
It feels good to keep a promise to yourself.
And when I had to choose to write or swim? You know what I did.
I’m out of the water again, six weeks this time, following my DIEP flap breast rebuild surgery. (Wow did that suck. But I’m back to wading!) Plastic surgery is crazy magic. Who knew all that Brie and beer built up on my gut over the years would come in handy?
So relieved this final step on my stupid cancer “journey” (eye roll) is complete. I feel like a cat out of the bath.
Pain is a gift.
This afternoon I’m turning the tables, albeit briefly, and stealing from time instead of the other way around. The sun’s out, the new puppy is asleep, and I’m wearing real pants as I write this. (Trust me, after that surgery, it’s a big deal.)
How is it that I’m at home more than ever before, yet I’m so far behind on everything? Just yesterday I finally repaired four wetsuits that I was supposed to do two months ago. And time seems to be absolutely flying by.
Yesterday the wetsuits, today the blog! At this rate I might even get to the dining room light fixture that’s been just a socket with wires sticking out of the ceiling for more than a year now.
But let’s not get hasty.
We’ve been swimming a ton, it being high season and all. Lots of new places, new summer-swimmer faces, and with Island County in phase 3, we’ve been able to bring back our weekly Saturday Seawall swims.
The first one was a cold, windy, rainy morning, and we had 23 in the water. I love swimmers.
My two daughters have been joining me, and it is my utmost joy and delight to see them glide past me at the start, effortless, adrenaline-filled, and powerful. I don’t see them again until I get out, where they’re patiently waiting on shore: dry, smiling, and on their second cups of tea.
That’s what a kind man walking the beach shouted at me a few days ago as I was toweling off after a swim in Mutiny Bay. Ironically, I was the first one out, not because I was fastest, but because I’d gone the shortest distance and was the slowest of our group.
Not exactly a heroic swim. But whatever, I’ll take hero worship whenever I can get it.
I waved, smiled and said thanks. People will frequently engage me in conversation after a swim, if I’m alone. If we get out of the water in a pack (school? pod?), a few brave souls will approach us, but most just smile and move briskly past, in case our lunacy is contagious.
Which it most definitely is.
The gentleman asked the usual round of queries: how cold was it, how far did I go. But then he asked, “How many millimeters is your suit?” This guy was a contender, serious-curious. He had some background, whether as a surfer, a diver, or maybe even a swimmer that used to do open water.
“Are you a swimmer yourself?” I asked him.
“Oh I used to be. Always wanted to try getting out there.”
I gave our facebook name, mentioned our open water swim clinics coming up, and encouraged him to give it a try. He said thanks, and after wishing me a good day, moved along down the beach.
After I give people info on how to connect with us, I usually never see them again.
But now and then a new person will join us that has the same disease we have. It’s usually apparent the first time they swim with us. While we welcome everyone, it’s the rare few that keep coming back. Something clicks for these folks.
More than clicks, it’s almost like witnessing a homecoming of sorts.
These aren’t the ones who swim to prove they’re tough, or who come to train for something, or who need attention by doing something unique. We always get those folks around this time of year, and they usually stop swimming after a few weeks.
The ones who stick with us, who end up swimming year-round with us, the lifers? They just come to be.
To be in it, to be part of a body bigger than themselves, to be slightly lost in something wild they can’t control.
It feels amazing to find your people. No heroics necessary.
There’s nothing like being able to return to something you love. Last Thursday marked four weeks since my surgery, and I was given the go-ahead to get back in the water.
Best. Swim. Ever. Sunshine! Flat clear water! Close friends! An osprey! Swift current on the return! Cold Pacificos after! And I was officially cancer-free.
Free! In this time of COVID lockdown, how lucky was I to actually feel that emotion?
After a full month of not swimming and restricted activity, I was nervous about how my stroke would be affected. But muscle memory is an amazing thing.
So is desire and drive.
I felt a little expected stiffness in my shoulder and pecs, and I won’t have full-arm extension for awhile. But it’s getting better every day, and every swim I’m able to go a little farther before the sparky nerves start up in my right palm.
The body always tells you when to turn, if you listen.
The best part is being back in the water with my salty cold friends, the socially distanced chatter before we get in, the endorphin-driven giggles when we get out. How I missed it!
I’m grateful for everything right now: steadfast friends and family, my strong body and spirit, moonsnails, sleep, iris blooms, medical workers, oversized potato chips I can’t quite fit in my mouth.
And the darkness. I’m grateful for it, too. Dark times always come with offers of growth and hard-won change for the crossing. But once my toes reach down and touch sand on the other side, there’s joy, holding out a sun-warmed towel and cold Pacifico.
I know I’m one of the lucky ones. It’s good to be back.
<Special thanks to Matt and Marni for the incredible pics!>
This is my new swim normal: the walk wade. Wade walk? Typing the name reminds me of a tap dance teacher I had growing up. We called him Mr. Wade. He was incredibly thin, incredibly effeminate, and incredibly cool. He never liked me. I found tap dancing too loud for my 10-year-old taste.
I ran into him a few years ago selling cars at a Lexus dealership. His name tag just said Wade on it, no mister, no glitter. He was impeccably dressed, and could’ve shuffled off to Buffalo in his smart Italian shoes if only I’d asked.
It’s now the third week in April, the world is still in COVID19 lock down, and I am nearly two weeks post-surgery for my cancer.
Glad to have it behind me. The toughest bit was walking into the hospital to face surgery completely alone. Pandemic restrictions allowed no one in except patients.
My amazing husband watched me go from the car. Halfway across the hospital skybridge I turned around and gave him a brave wave. Then I grabbed my right breast, in a final salute before its ultimate sacrifice, and I did a little stomp-ball-change dance for him down the walkway.
How do you survive the mental challenges of cancer? Doing crazy shit like dancing and waving your righty at a parked car in the middle of a hospital skybridge. It also keeps people guessing if your tears are borne of fear or laughter.
I’ve found a mix of the two is perfect.
Swimming is not in the cards for me for another three weeks, hence the wade walk/walk wade along the shore while my swim buddies are out in the waves. A friend asked me if it was hard to show up for the swims but not get in. Would it be easier to not go at all?
I thought about that for a bit. After awhile, I realized there were three components that made my swims soul-fulfilling: the swimming itself, the people, and the beach. By just showing up, I could get two of the three. And two is better than none, especially when you’re on a healing tirade.
Plus, wading is hard work! I was hoping to step it up to a jog after I’m cleared to raise my heart rate. But with the risk factors of sinking sand and heavily barnacled rocks, I could easily end up badly concussing myself, or worse. And how would that look?
“She survived cancer, but died from head injuries caused by an overly strenuous wade.”
But also hilarious. Like life. Like waving your boob and imitating a really bad stripper on a hospital skybridge. Like wearing the loudest costume on stage and trying to tap dance quietly.
These are my swim gloves. I love them, but I’m pretty sure that with all that pink-on-pink color, I caught breast cancer from them. Pretty sure.
Or it might be that I have too much protect-yourself, wear-a-mask, wash-your-hands, wear-gloves, keep-your-distance, never-cough, hoard-toilet-paper American-COVID19 mentality in my head that makes catching breast cancer from pink swim gloves seem reasonable to me. Even rational.
Here’s what I am sure about: if you’re going to catch cancer, don’t do it in the middle of a pandemic.
I realize in my last entry, I kind of snuck my diagnosis in, tucked it behind some healthy sentences, in true cancer form. It likes to be sneaky like that.
This is a blog about open-water swimming, and it will stay so. But I had to make a quick side-trip here to tell a little bit about “my cancer journey.” That’s what the voice I kept hearing called it while I was on hold 42 minutes waiting for my surgical oncologist.
If cancer is a journey, then get me the f*ck off this hell train.
I’ve mentioned in earlier entries my belief that those of us called into open water have some kind of relationship with darkness. Nothing like testing the bejeezus out of my own theory.
As my cancer hell-train chugs along, I’ve been amazed at the parallels between the challenges of cancer, and OW swimming. (Makes you want to jump right into the sport, doesn’t it?)
Not just living above a deep darkness (with, around, among, under, choose your best preposition there), but the perseverance and resiliency required to get through it, especially with the COVID19 complications.
Being an OW swimmer, I already know how to tap into those reserves, and apply them. It’s very handy.
Take our annual crossing swims from Whidbey to Camano. When we finally get close to Camano, there is usually a stiff current to struggle through before we reach the beach. Right when I think I’m going to see bottom, suddenly the shore isn’t getting any closer, and I feel myself losing ground. Or so it seems.
I’m always tired by then, my shoulders are sore, and I’m ready to get out, warm up, and eat my weight in Brie. But I don’t stop. I tell myself, “I can go a little bit farther.” I keep putting one arm in front of the other; keep counting my strokes by 50s—48, 49, 50, 1, 2—; keep singing whatever Lady Gaga chorus I have in my head.
Eventually, I see a blob of white shell through the deep green, then another, then rocks and seagrass, and I’m there. Best feeling in the world.
The things we work the hardest for are the things that mean the most.
This push of self came in handy a few weeks ago when I had to drive to Olympia for a second-look ultrasound and biopsy. Bellevue had an opening two weeks away; Olympia had an opening the next day. Hello 4-hour drive!
Everyone in the radiology department was very nice, especially the nurse with one lazy eye that looked like Marty Feldman. (I wondered if I’d misinterpreted “second look” biopsy.) But then I was walking around, tits out and hanging in the breeze, so I had no room to judge.
The radiologist looked like he’d seen better days, and insisted on “gowning up” for the procedure. Let’s be clear: a biopsy sample is about the size of 1/16th of a meal worm, and there’s very little blood.
Even Marty the nurse asked him doubtfully, “You want to gown up?” I could tell we both thought this step extremely unnecessary, at first.
But while he was injecting my armpit with lidocaine for the lymph node biopsy, I felt a sudden spray on my lower arm. I’m guessing he’d overshot and gone through the skin to the other side, the needle spraying lidocaine on my forearm.
With his face right next to mine, I simply whispered, “I don’t think it works that way.”
Then I kept counting: 48, 49, 50, 1, 2….
Eventually I made it out and back to my car, where I laughed myself silly. And cried a little bit.
Then I laughed again as I sat in the Trader Joe’s parking lot trying to fit a bag of frozen mashed cauliflower balls into my sports bra for the ride home. I could write a book about which frozen foods work best in your bra after a biopsy. FYI: hashbrown patties make a good second choice.
A few weeks back a core group of swim friends rode our bikes onto the Port Townsend ferry. With swim gear in overstuffed backpacks and saddlebags, we set out for a short exploratory swim along the southern protected bay at Fort Worden.
Before we left, one of our more gregarious (but smart) friends sent me a text, saying “We should swim around Point Wilson.” He’s very fastidious, and supplied a course map, approximate distance, tides, all the goodies to plead his case.
I read the text and said out loud, “Oh hell no. That ain’t happening.”
Point Wilson, located within Fort Worden State Park, is the farthest tip of the Quimper Peninsula (and yes, I had to look that up). Its lighthouse juts out into the shipping lanes of Admiralty Inlet, and like any point, the water hauls ass through there.
This trip was my idea. I’ve sat many times at various waterfront taprooms in PT, pint in hand, thinking, “We should swim here.”
There’s many places like that for me, places where I’ve seen bodies of water and thought, “Yes, we could swim this. We need to come back here.” But usually I leave it at that, a good idea I never act on. And I could fill this page with all the reasons and outs I give myself.
Which is why I thought biking to PT and swimming the shallow bay at Fort Worden, in February, toward Point Wilson and back, was a huge accomplishment.
The bike ride was short, and soon we were on the beach ready to go. We started against a tough current, seeing that same damn clam shell on the bottom over and over. As we worked toward the point, the tight grip of the current began to slowly release us, until we were being pulled in the opposite direction, ever-faster toward the point.
Let me be clear: common sense was happening. We were shallow enough to stand up, we were staying together, and we were communicating. I stood up, ready to turn back while I could. My swim buddy was walking to shore, the water running past her legs like a river.
The friend who had sent me the morning text stood as well. I realized he’d probably plotted this entire thing from the get-go, the sneaky bastard. We watched the two strongest swimmers of the group continue around the point.
They didn’t get pulled out into the shipping lanes, they didn’t appear to struggle. They flew. They smiled. They did some butterfly. They were gorgeous.
The conservative side of me still wanted to turn around. I wasn’t as fast as they were. I don’t have a good kick. I didn’t know where we’d end up, or how we’d get back to our stuff. I was supposed to be leading this trip, so I had to be in control, be the responsible one. My usual why-I-can’t mantra.
But two weeks earlier, I’d found out I had breast cancer. I was mad, because I’d done everything right to prevent it, and it got me anyway. I felt helpless. My life felt out of my control.
I was that little kid riding on the pretend cars at an amusement park. I thought I was really driving, but turns out my car was on its own track the entire time, no matter how carefully I steered. I felt incredibly let down and seriously pissed.
Screw conservative, I thought.
So I smiled at my two swim buddies, who were waiting for me to make the call. I did some sort of what-I-hoped-was-cool but was probably dorky circle in the air with my hand. Then, I did a little dive in and simply let go.
And oh hell yes I flew around that point. The water was moving so fast I eventually gave up swimming and just floated, watching the sand formations below me change with the current, a container ship cruising past so big.
There was bull kelp and seaweed and iridescent somethings in neon purple below us. Small children cheered us from shore. I picked my head up, laughing. I’d felt out-of-control fear for the past two weeks. This was out-of-control joy.
Then we were completely around the point. We got out and walked across the campground to our bikes, everyone grinning and shivering and shouting, “Did you see this? Did you catch that?”
All the endorphins, not to mention wetsuits, caps, and goggles, made idiots and spectacles of us. It’s my favorite part of every swim.
We rode back into town, warmed up and laughed ourselves silly in a clothing-optional community hot tub at a local spa. Note: do not sit in the corner of the spa closest to the clothing-optional community shower, because a large hairy man will inevitably drop the soap.
Before catching the ferry back, we grabbed greasy cheesy burgers at one of my favorite small bars. I sat with a pint in my hand, my right breast still growing cancer cells, my stomach still sore from all the laughing. Everything was happening, and it was alright.