Coming Back

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!>

–TJ Wiley Forsyth

Wading Through It

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. 

So much wrong happening here with the anklets and choker. But please note rebellious absence of tap shoes.

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.” 

Humiliating. Tragic.

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. 

–TJ Wiley Forsyth

Cancer? No Thank You.

In the winter I wear pink 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. 

Barf. 

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.

Sunset behind Whidbey from Camano side.

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. 

–TJ Wiley Forsyth

Out of Control

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. 

All my gear warming in soul-sustaining sunshine before the swim.

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. 

Calm bay at Fort Worden, looking toward Pt Townsend, the conservative route.

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. 

Lovely way to warm up, but beware the proximity of the shower…!

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.

–TJ Wiley Forsyth

Small Comforts

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.

–TJ Wiley Forsyth