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.
So it’s February. Water temps have been recorded at our Seawall swims down to 39F. That’s F as in Fahrenheit, though that F could easily can stand for something else. Especially if you add the exclamation point. 39? F!
I’ve mentioned before that our regular winter swim group has grown this year. We’ve gained some very kind yet voracious people, who are just as passionate and crazy as the rest of us.
We’ve also come up with some extremely clever and rather extraordinary ideas for warming up (sort of) after our swims. Unfortunately they’ve done nothing to help our “you guys are nuts!”reputation, as we look more ridiculous now than ever. But I thought I’d review them, just in case someone could gain a little warmth, if not just a laugh, from them.
Portable hot tub, aka plastic bucket filled with warm water. This is an idea from the only person in the group that has swam skins all winter. We each take turns standing in it and muttering in ecstasy. Also a great way to get the sand off before putting on your fuzzy slippers.
Warning: once your feet are in, you will really want to try and fit your entire self into the bucket. Your arms. Your butt. Anything. Do NOT try this. It leads to all kinds of “uh-oh” awkward moments.
Portable hot-tub boots. These are basically any rain boot that you fill with hot water, then walk around in post-swim. Perfect if you want more time in the bucket, but don’t want to look like an ass hogging it all to yourself. Water does tend to slosh out as you walk, but you probably won’t feel it.
Hot tea and biscuits. I bring a large carafe of hot black tea with sugar and milk. I also bring British biscuits, preferably McVitties, because they’re bigger and easier to grab with cold club-like hands. Tea and biscuits after a swim is a custom I enjoyed in the Maldives, and I’ve decided to continue it here.
I really want to bring bacon one of these days as well, but have yet to figure out a way to keep it warm enough on the beach while we’re in the water.
If you see a body of water, and someone’s fishing there, AND there’s a park on shore with playground equipment and a dock, it’s safe to assume people do swim there. Just probably not in January. The buzzards watching me seemed a bit too interested. I’m alive. Enough said.
It’s now mid-January. A few stalwart members of my OW swim friends are still swimming in the Sound, me included. Temps on the east side of the island are around 45F now.
We try to get a mile in, but this time of year a lot can vary that: strong currents, rough water, or driftwood and debris dragged out to sea during a storm. These can be tricky to spot (not to mention dangerous) when the waves get big.
Last week we experienced all the crappy conditions together: currents, rough and murky water, logs and grass and all kinds of crap on the surface. Thought I saw a condom float by me at one point. I told myself it was white seaweed and carried on.
Because that’s what OW swimmers do: we carry on. Whether it’s sunny, flat, and clear water; or zero visibility, white caps, and snowing.
Calm sunny winter days are my favorite swims of the year. The beach is empty, the water still, and I can simply soak up the serenity of it all. And that warm shower after? Pure bliss.
But sometimes a day like last week, when not a single condition is cooperating, is just the challenge both my mind and body need.
To most people, this sounds slightly masochistic and absolutely nutters.
But the best part is I’m not alone in my crazy. There’s always two or three or even five others that must get the same charge as me, because they keep showing up to swim, ready to get in and carry on through waves, logs, condoms, and the f#%-all conditions.
These are friends that shiver next to me at the picnic table after we get out. The ones trying like hell to take off their gear and pull up their sweat pants with the same frozen unworkable fingers as me.
We try to help each other out, we really do. But usually we end up laughing so hard at each other that we’re left completely useless in our mirth and hysterics.
I realize this most likely has something to do with post-swim endorphins. Ooh I love those endorphins!
But that’s swim-friendships for you, and I’m so grateful for every one of them. They make the mid-winter carrying-on bit a lot more fun.
Contemplating my last blog entry from the Maldives, I wanted to conjure up THE MOMENT from the trip, the quintessential experience, the big ah-ha. So hard. I’d seen so much and learned even more about myself.
But as I tried to come up with this moment, I found myself absently humming the chorus to From Now On, a tune from the movie musical The Greatest Showman.
The movie wasn’t that big in the States, but let me be clear, it was HUGE in Britain. At least that’s what two of our friends on the boat told us, the two that knew the words to EVERY song on the soundtrack, and who would break into From Now On at the top of their lungs occasionally during our swims.
(Warning: it’s about to get real here, so cue the uncomfortable fidgeting.)
Swimming back to the dhoni after my mind-meld swim with the manta, I’d felt the tears rolling as I climbed up the swim ladder. I hadn’t realized until that moment I’d been crying.
I walked to the bow of the boat, seeking a quiet place to be somewhat alone (alone as you can be on a small boat with 14 people). Everyone else was excited and talking, so I felt a little foolish and dramatic with the tears.
I have made vulnerability my enemy for so long, yet when I let it in, it is the one true experience that always changes me for the better. Manta as metaphor: go deep and find peace.
Up in the bow, my Hugh-Jackman-loving friend had sought out the same quiet space. We’d discovered earlier in the trip that we’d both been through mutual grief and tragic loss: she with an unexpected and sudden death of a loved one; me with the senseless death of my brother-in-law in a random act of gun violence.
There is no life experience stronger or faster in bringing people together than shared tragedy.
She saw my tears and laughed; I saw hers and laughed. Then we cried some more, and laughed some more. No words passed. They weren’t necessary. I was so grateful for her.
I rarely talk about the shooting with friends, let alone complete strangers. Not only because it’s terrible, but because it changes the way people see you, and the way they treat you.
I have found it is a burden that needs to be shared with discretion. Not everyone is strong enough to carry it.
But sometimes the fact that strangers are temporary makes sharing less risky. And in the wide open ocean, half a world away from my everyday life, there was room for the question, room for the risk, room to share the burden.
I never guessed someone else would be carrying the same burden on that trip. The circumstances of death were different, but our stories left the same heavy weight of grief on our shoulders.
But it also left us with deeper reasons to laugh, to see the magnificent world, to feel the ocean around us, to dance and sing as loud as possible, and to watch for dolphin fins on the horizon.
There is such power in feeling understood.
The following night, after our last dinner and group pictures, Marni and I left for the airport. I was coming home tan (at least on one side; gotta get better at backstroke), I was stronger, and I was changed.
I’d found space in this 52 year old body to grow, space to cry, space to imagine myself farther into the world, space to make a new friend for life, space to be brave.
Will I go back? I’d love to try, but I know it wouldn’t be the same. Every second that ticks creates a past that can never be relived, no matter how much we wish we could do it, or see them, again.
I am ready to make more deep blue salty memories. Maybe Belize next year?
I’ve been dragging my feet with these last few entries. It’s been nearly a month since I was in the Maldives. I don’t want to lose my reasons for revisiting those warm blue memories.
The above pic was one of my favorite moments of the trip. It was our next-to-last day, and our swim guide said, “Before breakfast, we’re swimming with dolphins and mantas.”
Have you seen the Kristen Wiig character Super Excited Sue from SNL? That was me.
The next morning, we all showed up with snorkeling gear and piled in the dhoni in search of dolphin.
Our local guide on the bow would shout and point directions to the captain in the back, steering the boat toward whichever pod was closest. Then he would suddenly shout, “Dolphins! Get in now!” And we’d all throw ourselves off the boat and swim like mad toward the fins.
Not everyone would make it off the boat before our guide would then call out, “Wait! They’re too far away. We’ll go find another group.” And off the dhoni would go, leaving the group of swimmers that had just leapt out, bobbing around by themselves in the middle of the Indian Ocean.
I loved this so much! Not just the trust piece of both parties, but the sheer craziness of leaving those swimmers. That would never happen in America, land of the overly cautious and lawsuit-laden.
We were in and out of the boat multiple times in our quest, so I was part of the first group off and left behind, as well as the group that stayed on and got closer.
So close. The pods of bottle-nosed dolphin that swam under us were elegant, squeaky-chatty, and enviably free. They would roll their bodies slightly every once in awhile to check us out, with a look that said, “You call that swimming?” Then promptly leave us in their wake.
I also discovered that spiritually speaking, I’m more of a manta than a dolphin. Right when I thought I’d missed seeing a manta forever, one glided directly underneath me. I swam my ass off to keep up with it as it gently flew below me, barely moving its six-foot wing span.
The irony didn’t escape me. I was flailing on the surface trying to keep up, as the giant below me cruised effortlessly in deeper water, allowing me to follow. Manta as metaphor.
Rose early for tea on the deck this morning. At least I thought 6:30 was early. I keep forgetting this is a boat full of swimmers, so they all were up at 6AM, some doing yoga. Yay for them.
We anchored off a sand shoal, just a thin strip of white sugar in the middle of the ocean. Rahgandu Kandu. Nothing but terns and shells and coral. Yes, it looked just like the picture postcard in your head right now.
The dhoni took us out about 3.5K from the shoal, and we swam back along the edge of two reefs and The Big Blue. Even saw an anemone with Nemo inside.
The fish here are all about variety: big, small, colors, stripes, dots. Schools of black and yellow Moorish Idol fish swam by us in droves.
I knew they were Moorish Idols because it was the one fish name I could recall from the vast list of species in a dive book we had on the boat.
To entertain myself during our swims, I would give the fish I saw new names: Miami Drag Queen Fish, Box o’ Crayons Fish, College Football Team Saturday Jersey Fish, Upper West Side Fish, Aretha Franklin Fish (a fellow swimmer agreed with me on that one), Candy on Gramma’s Coffee Table that No One Ever Eats Fish, Police Do-Not-Cross Tape Fish.
Whoever thought of Moorish Idol wins the fish-naming contest. Hands down.
Second swim of the day was 1.5K, around the small island of Anbaraa and its lagoon. According to our local guide, the island was leased privately every year for a large music festival. But last year the party got out of hand, the music was too loud, and a few partying people drowned.
So the government revoked the lease, and now it’s available for anyone to enjoy, called a picnic island.
Creepy story, gorgeous swim.
Dinner was a beach bbq back on Anbaraa, and the crew went all out for us. Candles in the sand led to the “table,” which was a life-sized whale shark sculpted out of sand. There was a small trench all around the shark to put our feet, and banana leaves served for seats.
It was impressive, as was the whole tuna on the bbq the crew had caught the night before. The food on the trip has been crazy good. More on that later.
Afterward, we walked the empty beach, where thousands of hermit crabs moved around like ants on a sidewalk. So many! All different sizes and styles of houses carried on their backs.
Tomorrow we swim one long 5K in the morning. Nobody better be up doing yoga before 6:00.