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The Wave Pool
or "why my newsletter went on hiatus"
I’ve always been a strong swimmer, or if not strong at least confident. At times that confidence spilled into stupidity, as the line is fine. But I grew up in water so I was not afraid of it. In fact I don’t remember learning to swim, I only remember swimming. Creeks, the Delaware River, lakes at camps both as a camper who had to pass the deep end test (and did without much effort every time), and as a counselor sneaking off to skinny dip with the other girls in the middle of the night. The only time I genuinely feared the water was on a nighttime deep sea dive as a newbie SCUBA certified seventeen- or eighteen-year-old. I had no idea the ocean was so vast until I was floating on the surface of black water and could see nothing above, around or below me while my nose bled from several unsuccessful attempts to descend. That shit was crazy. Although I witnessed a sea turtle the size of my dining room table that night and I can still see the smooth, oval curve of its back illuminated by my flashlight, as it slipped through the water below my feet: a world I would never be able to fully explore.
We’ve been living in a hotel for the last several weeks while my husband goes through chemoradiation treatment for Stage 4 esophageal cancer. I chose this particular Holiday Inn because it has an indoor pool. The deal was further solidified when we found out they offer nearly a 50% discount for cancer families. I wasn’t sure what it would be like living in a hotel, and many tried to convince us to rent an Airbnb for more privacy, more hominess, more normalcy, but I’m glad I stuck to my gut. Staying here is not bad at all. At first there were days where I needed to escape the small room. The feeling would be sudden and intense, and I’d make a dash for the nearest park to power walk off my anxiety. But it didn’t take long to get used to this cozy little space, despite the amount of vomit, mucus, and saliva I deal with on the daily. That my husband has to struggle through on the daily. I’m here to rub his back, wrap his remaining curls around my fingers, and help him clean up. He’s exhausted both physically and mentally in a way I won’t understand. Hopefully ever. Though I am no longer getting the urge to flee, I do escape to the pool pretty regularly.
Swimming is similar to riding a bike. You don’t forget how to do it. I haven’t gone swimming in a few years, since our Rodanthe trip with my sister and her family. Not in the ocean, because I no longer have that youthful over-confidence that led me to get rolled by waves over and over at that very beach a little further south in Avon when I was a young teen. The Outer Banks shore is nothing like Jersey or Virginia. People drown there, there are no lifeguards, the waves and currents are completely unpredictable. It’s purely an at your own risk affair and I no longer take the risk. It doesn’t matter to me at all however. I don’t visit to swim in the ocean anymore, I just long to remain part of it. To breathe it in, and be reminded how small I am. The ocean is a salvation for me. But swimming is for pools, and now that I’m taking advantage of it again, it reminds me how much simply being in or around water heals me.
I’m still a pro at floating, treading, and moving through water. By pro I mean I can still do it. I’m not claiming proficient form or technique. I just feel at home in the water and I know not everyone does, so it feels like a gift. I’ve been trying to swim laps for exercise, but it wears me out quickly and I’m not all that impressive. Although the longer we stay here, who knows. Maybe I’ll join a swim team eventually. It would be amazing to feel at home in the water, and be accomplished. Because while I think confidence in the water is the foundation of being a strong swimmer, there have been a couple times where I underestimated water. Or overestimated myself. Or probably both.
In seventh grade I was a waif. Five-eight, and ninety-five pounds of elbows and knees does not a strong swimmer make. But I thought I was. So, when I was on my first school trip to the first amusement park I ever went to—Dorney Park in Allentown, PA—the wave pool was the first place I went. I’ve never been a big fan of amusement parks, and always spent the majority of my time in the water rather than sweating in line for hours just to ride rides that made my stomach drop, or eating exorbitant amounts of junk food like most my peers. Even at that age I more often sought calm, and preferred the outside feeling of sunbathing by the lazy river, tubing down the much less scary water slides, and playing in the pool.
I was a brand-new student at this school, so I didn’t have many friends yet. I don’t think I was in the wave pool with anyone I knew beyond recognizing that they were my classmates. In the end, this saved me a ton of embarrassment, but thinking back to tiny me in that pool surrounded by strangers but essentially alone, is frightening. I was alone a lot. I never thought anything of it. It gave me a potentially false sense of security in situations where one should have at least one buddy. Like a wave pool.
A buzzer went off. Swimmers cheered. The walls made this ominous clunk, like metallic jaws unlocking to swallow us whole. I stayed somewhat near the wall because I wasn’t completely insane, thank Triton. At first I could see those metallic jaws move, how they pushed into the water to create these voluminous waves. It was the coolest thing I’d ever seen. I’d been to the beach, but not yet the Outer Banks, and I’d never seen waves this big. What brilliant human thought this up? As they swelled, I watched people around me rise and fall, smiling, laughing, enjoying themselves as I was. I don’t remember how many waves I successfully rose and fell with but I doubt it was very many. While I could touch bottom when it first began, somehow the water magically (and terrifyingly) got deeper. My feet no longer found cement with or without the swell of a wave, there was even a light current that made it impossible for me to stay on the wall where the metal handrails were placed for idiots like me.
I started to panic. But I didn’t ask for help; I wasn’t sure how to without looking like the drowning cat I was. Asking for help in general, was not something young Jessica knew how to do. That’s not something middle-aged Jess knows very much about either. While I’ve gotten much better at receiving—compliments, gifts, affection, offers of support—I am still pretty terrible about knowing when to ask. I convince myself I’m okay for so long, I start to believe it. And the waves swell on.
I can’t remember if I went under completely. I just remember I could no longer see the wall or the jaws of death that created waves and I started to wonder what would happen if I got sucked too close. Some people had been hanging on those bars before the waves began. Were they still there? Is that where they’d find me when I finally went under for good? But before I succumbed, I felt someone grab my wrists. And just like that, an observant lifeguard lifted me out of the pool like a stuffed animal out of the claw machine. Right by the wrists like I was weightless, and he set my bare feet on the cement sidewalk. My time in the wave pool was over. A few minutes later, the buzzer rang again, the jaws finally shut and the water settled once more. The pool returned to its friendly and inviting clear blue. But I think I got dressed and went to the roller coasters.
Despite that humiliating day, I’d go on to pull a couple more idiotic water stunts that taught me sometimes learning a lesson actually takes me a few attempts at proving it wrong. These days, I’m simply grateful for the sensory deprivation of floating, the way my body feels like a sycamore leaf on the surface, how the water relaxes every limb, every thought. There is no need to seek risk. And yet, during this time in the hotel with my sick husband who has been my dearest friend, my closest partner and absolute support for the last decade, there have been several times when I wished that lifeguard would come along and pluck me out of my life. Please grab me by the wrists and set me on solid ground.
I have not experienced all of the suffering life creates, but thus far I’d say cancer is the most uprooting. We were set free into a world we knew nothing about, we didn’t ask for, and we’re not even sure we will both survive. Even the fire that left us homeless and traumatized was easier to get through because we were of the same mindset: we were okay and that was all that has ever mattered to us. Cancer is not that at all.
No one is going to rescue either one of us. All my husband can do is to try to stay as healthy and nourished and optimistic as possible between rounds of poison, and all I can do is hold him as he vomits. I can’t even say it’s going to be okay. Only I love you, and I’ve got you. It’s an incredibly helpless and oppressive existence for both of us. We still have many, many moments and hours of wonderful time together. It’s not all gloom. But for me, dread is the undercurrent of all of it, and every cough, gag, or sigh from him straightens me back up on this hypervigilant ledge I’ve been sitting on since December when I read the results of the very first scan. Guard cannot be let down.
I’m staying close to the wall, however. Our family and friends are the handrails and I have been allowing myself to rely on them more than I thought I would. When they ask what I need, I still have no idea, but I think it’s mostly just their presence. Conversations about cancer or dogs or nothing at all. Getting a little high and laughing at the carpet patterns. Simply knowing they are in this with us, even from a distance, they are holding us up in the ways they know best—books, calls, prayers, drums, tears, fun socks. It doesn’t make this easier, but it does help me feel like I’m not alone, like I was that day in the wave pool. And even though I have no idea what the future holds, I do know the waves will eventually settle. That’s the hope I can cling to.