Edison Johnson Aquatic Center
I am old. My mother is older. It is for her that I have lived in this small southern city the past several years, as her caretaker. It was my plan to find a job when I arrived, pay for around-the-clock care. I would be the savior and never get my hands dirty. It is laughable to think of now. But I push the thoughts away, my hands fill with water. I push away, too, the thoughts of what I will return to. The stale eucalyptus scent of her home, our home. The sheets to be changed, the sores to dress. The dribbling mess that constitutes her meals. This too I push away. Nothing but clear blue emptiness before me, nothing to do for thirty more minutes but stay afloat.
I arrived just after nine, when the work crowd has already showered and gone. The pool is sparkling blue, the surface rippled by only one or two other swimmers, old women both of them, pulling their aging limbs through the water with slow, steadfast patience, their swim caps white and somehow hopeful. I have my pick of lanes. I choose the center one.
There is no point trying to ease in to the water. I put on my cap and goggles and jump in all at once, let the water envelop me in one, quick jolt. This, the immersion, is the one unpleasant part of my morning swim, but there also something fortifying it, something that strengthens the spirit. And my spirit needs strengthening.
Today is breast stroke, one lap after another, no breaks in between, just slowing down if I get fatigued. I like how I can see the black tiled strip at the pool’s bottom reflected on the surface of the water above me, and I like, too, how it disappears the second my head breaks the surface of the water and then reappears. It is a tiny exercise in faith, to trust that the shiny black path will be there, again, when I next look for it. It is a simple and perfect path, the length of the pool and back, and I follow it again and again. It is a journey I can travel alone, a journey I can complete, a journey that strengthens me. However short, however inconsequential.
When my thirty laps are complete, I hoist myself to the pool’s edge and breathe, resisting for a moment the urge to weep that always comes at just this moment. I stare up at the murky skylight, clouds sweeping past, blue sky behind, bright and clear. If I do weep, at least no one will notice. My face is wet already. I grab my towel from where it is sitting atop my shower shoes, press it, still folded, to my face. In the lane next to me, one of the elderly women is done with her lap swim. She bobs under one lane divider and then the next until she has reached the ladder. She neatly moves the goggles from her eyes to her forehead and pulls herself out of the pool with arms that are crepey and loose on the underside, but still strong. She moves with authority and even grace, despite a certain lilting caused by a bad leg and a slightly stooped back. I find myself staring at her, her strength and stamina, her clear ability – her quiet insisntance, even – in taking care of her own damn self.