(A Women Swimmin’ Participant Profile)
by Erica Steinhagen
“I swim in meditation to those I and others have lost.”
I had decided not to bring my neoprene sleeves. It seemed so warm to me. Even at 8am, it was getting humid, and I didn’t even deign to look at the Cayuga Lake temperature abstract that I so faithfully refreshed each winter dip in order to record the audacity of our character on those bitter days. Today was a miler, and I was so eager to get in, I only made sure to have my sleeveless wetsuit for buoyancy, cap, goggles, Garmin, bright pink buoy… When I arrived at East Shore, I checked. 63 degrees. Hm, ok. I forgot my water shoes, too. Ah, well. I rushed in like always and pushed my face into the water and instantly bucked up and made that hooty reflex-sound like “WHOOF” and then eased back in, letting my face and neck get acclimated as I started the crawl. The water was so still it looked like a pool, but it was earthy and silty and the weeds were starting to reach the surface like they do in mid-June. The cold on my bare arms made me almost smile, remembering the millions of needles of 32-degree water in February. This was easy. Exhilarating. Here we go. Whoosh. Quiet. And loud. Water in my ears. I’m alone.
Every single time, it happens. I am distracted by the starting, by the challenge to my comfort, the settling into a rhythm. But then, once I’m settled and in a pattern of right/left/rightbreathe, left/right/leftbreathe, I start to feel a little tightness in my throat. All of a sudden, I hear Carol telling my how when I’m 40, my voice will do that too…I’ll find my lower range, I’ll sing that role, don’t worry, it settles. The laugh, the tease, the big sister squeeze when we part after the gig. I am sitting with Camilla, on the end of her sofa, and she’s got a tiny smile and is much too pale, and she’s telling us how she dreamed us before we were born, the three girls with blonde, brunette, and red hair, she called us the Princesses and we each had a pony to ride that matched our hair, and she drew us, and knew us when we finally met. And then my Kel, at the end, unable to speak, but rolling her eyes with a joke, and squeezing my hand so tight, and letting me rub lotion on her bald head and the sound of her breath the last time I was with her.
In the water they’re sort of above me and behind me, these women, because in front of me is just green. Foggy green. Flash of sun. Foggy green. Flash of land. Breathe. Sip. Settle the breath. Calm the tight throat. Get it together. I am here because I CAN be. I can still move my body. On land I am now clumsy, less coordinated and strong and confident than before my foot dropped from nerves being crushed by an exploding disc in my spine. I limp on land. I am no longer a fast walker, a source of great pride, especially when I lived in NYC. Not now. I am slow, awkward. In the lake, I am buoyant. I am not fast, but I am confident. I can set my face in the water like the sun is set with some insistence and firmness into the morning sky. Not high, but purposeful at 8:30am. Me too, I say to myself. To the sun. To my women. Me too. I am insistent. I will move because I can move. I am still here.
Somewhere is my sister, too. She’s quieter. But to be frank, death is all around me. And it is a part of this meditation. Every time. That I have had so many lost to me who were gathered so closely in my net. That is why. That is why I am in the water. Because there is nothing to be done about loss. It has happened, it will continue to happen, we are all plummeting towards it every moment. But one thing I can do is swim. I can swim to raise money for Hospicare. Easy. And hard. I want it to be hard. Two miles. More. Let’s go. I can do it. I am here. I can move.
I am so grateful to Hospicare for helping us witness and be present for deeply loved ones who are dying. I am so grateful for the support, and resources, and care that allow for the…what? The transition, the guidance towards what is next. The resting of a forehead to a forehead, saying words that might be the last ones. Say them every time in case they are. Then they are. That is all. I love you, I will always be here, I will be ok, I will take care of her/him/them, always, it’s ok, you can let go, you can rest, I’ll be with you, I am with you, I love you.