In a previous column, I mentioned that when my mother was dying, writing saved me.
Recently a reader, Kristen, wrote to tell me that writing is the only thing saving her, too. She hid nothing about her despair in a funny email that took some of the fear out of her situation, both for herself and for me.
Kristen, thank you! Because in times like this, when we wonder if we can get through it, we need to laugh. It plucks the misery right out of us. I know because I’m the same way. But, to be honest, writing wasn’t the only thing that saved me.
When I first visited the island of Oahu, where my mother lived, I would have sworn that I’d never have wound up swimming to save myself. It was sad visiting her in the hospice home, waiting to die.
Spent from the emotion, I’d wind down by riding my bike from the hospice to Kaimana Beach. On my initial visits, I would dip into the water and hug the shoreline, afraid to venture out. But it was there I first watched Brian swim to the flag.
The first time I struck up a conversation with Brian, he told me that if I stopped swimming, “so chicken,” I’d eventually be “lucky enough‚” to see a reef shark.
I didn’t feel it was my place to say, ‚”Please don’t tell me that,” even though the idea of encountering a shark was terrifying to me.
Studying Brian felt like the beginning of my swimming education. For instance, I learned to call the fluttering cone mounted on a mast at the end of the channel a “windsock,” not a “flag.” I learned not to get in a swimmer’s way once they hit the water or I’d have to endure a rictus grin that was both weary of tourists and indistinguishable from a common scolding.
I never knew how nuanced a smile could be until I started swimming.
One day a woman named Deb swam up beside me and said she’d swim to the windsock if I did. That worked. From then on I knew that swimming toward the horizon offered something unlike, “chicken,” swimming, something that was much, much more.
“That’s how we’re gonna roll from here on in,” Deb said.
Brian mentioned I would see creatures other than sharks too. Once, I bumped into a turtle ‚Äî literally. The sea was so churned up, we just didn’t see each other. On other occasions, I was surprised by a Monk Seal, startled by a Moray Eel. I personally don’t care for Moray Eels.
But no sharks.
I left the island and returned a month later to face an awful week of cleaning out my mom’s stuff. More than once I went a little ballistic. “I can’t do this!” I screamed.
When it was over, I came undone. Swimming felt like the only thing I could do to stitch myself back together. I gathered my courage and swam the braggable swim of Waikiki, from the windsock to the pink landmark of the Royal Hawaiian Hotel.
Except that wasn’t quite what I did. Instead, I swam from the hotel to the windsock, against the current. I remember thinking it was a good metaphor for my entire life.
The shark came into view just beyond the reef. It was sort of lodged between two shelves of coral, as if resting. I swam away. Boy, did I! And in the process, I felt like I got a handle on what it really means to call oneself an ocean swimmer.
The next time I saw Brian, I told him what I had seen.
His take: “How big?”
“Too big!” I cried.
“Probably just the little guy,” he said. “Four feet, yeah?”
Little did I understand that was Brian’s way of telling me that there would always be bigger challenges ahead.
And the older I get, the more I want to be up to them.
MARY LOU SANELLI is a poet, speaker and author of nonfiction. Her collection of essays, “A Woman Writing,” is available from Aequitas Books. She can be reached at www.marylousanelli.com.