7 Things I Learned When I Swam 1.2 Miles Across Cayuga Lake with 349 Women

UFFY7824


1.     Swimming is Not Biking

Last summer I soared along familiar roads, past alpacas whose long necks swung in my direction as I rode by, like weather vanes in shifting wind. Past the house with the big dog and the little dog, reliably annoyed by my return. Past the old man sitting on his porch whose raised hand seemed to want to ask a question rather than wave hello. Past the barn and field with horses grazing and a scent of honeysuckle and fresh hay.

I'd fly down the steep slope of Bates road, letting the brakes go –

Just to feel the past shrinking behind me.

Just to push through the blur.

Just to feel alive.

But if I'd known what was up ahead, I might have slowed down. I might have braked.

2.  Floating is Not Training

I'd meet my friend Kate at Seneca Lake for "training." "I've been jumping rope," she'd say. "I've been riding my bike," I'd proudly reply. "We should probably be swimming," we'd agree. Then we'd sit and stare out at the shimmering lake before us. After a while sitting would get too hot and only then we'd dive in and swim out just to where the water cooled. And then, we'd float. When we finished floating we'd swim back in and lay on the warm, smooth stones, letting the sun sparkle across us as we shared stories and wine under the yellow July sky.

3.  The Wayback Still Sucks

No day that begins by telling yourself - vomiting is not an option, ever gets much better. Clutching my lime green swim cap and goggles, as I sweated in my tankini, I looked out the sealed bus window at the dawn. There was zero airflow. Seated in the wayback of the bus, a blend of nausea, claustrophobia and anxiety percolated. I'd gotten only a few hours of sleep, being jarred awake by the knowledge that I was barely prepared to swim across a kiddy pool, let alone a Finger Lake. What was I thinking? I listened to the giddy conversations of the other women on the bus. They all looked like Olympians.

I pictured being yanked from the middle of the lake by a team of rescuers and then brought by boat to where these women would be celebrating their rather easy victory. They'd look down upon me with pity, whispering, "what was she thinking."

"You ok?" The Olympian next to me asked. “Listen,” she said, “don't worry.” “Everyone's nervous and you're never as slow as you think." I tried to smile and nod but the air was now completely stagnant. An air conditioner hung behind us, mute and apparently broken.

I was carsick all the time as a child. My parents had a gigantic station wagon and I used to ride in what was known as the wayback. Seat belts were optional it was the 1970's. Children just rolled around in cars and were completely free to make faces and obscene gestures out the back window.

And here I was, a grown woman stuck again in the wayback with no escape. And like back then, I had to pee.

But just as I was about to lose it in at least three different ways, we arrived at the lake.  The bus jerked to a stop as the air conditioner finally blasted on.

4. Sometimes You Are as Slow as You Think

I don't know what I was expecting but it wasn't a bagpipe player by the port-a-potty. Nor was it a ramp descending into the lake like handicap accessible drowning. I had imagined holding hands with Kate and ceremoniously jumping off a pristine dock amid cheers. But before I knew it my group number was being shouted and it was time to head down the suicide ramp. Staring across the lake was like looking down from a great height, the other side was dizzyingly far away. If I was about to board a boat and be shuttled across, I might have second thoughts. But this was no time for wimping out. 

Immediately, I was alone in the water. There were no traces of my group. It was as if they had all been secretly given underwater spy gear to stealthily propel themselves, James Bond style, across the lake. I swam breaststroke until I got a little winded and turned over on my back. That was my plan. I’d go as far as I could and then float a bit on my back to rest. But as I flipped over I saw that I was only feet away from where I started. New groups of women were now entering, and passing me. I tried not to panic. A man in a kayak appeared beside me. "How you doing?" He asked. "Oh you know, awesome, just taking a breather."

Tom became my guardian kayaker angel. He encouraged me to rest, he kept me on track when the current picked up. He reassured me that the second half would be easier. He told me I could do it. And I believed him. The more I swam the more my body gave into the rhythm. Stroke, breath, stroke, breath.

And then, I was in the middle of the lake. “Look at how far you’ve come.” Tom said. “You should check out the sky.” Dark cloud formations were punctured by gold light. I remembered why I was swimming. It wasn’t for me. It was for her. For Phyllis. The elegant woman who wore gold and loved my father.

Our human experience will leave no trace. A whale blinks and we become extinct. But on that day when 350 women swam together across Cayuga Lake, we remembered the dead. We swam for them. A melted glacier became our abyss of grief. Perhaps on that day, the dead remembered us too.  

I remembered Phyllis, and I did something unexpected. Instead of swimming forward, I took a deep breath and I dove down into another world. A world carved out as effortlessly as a child’s finger in wet sand. Where massive sturgeon lurked, like scaly gods in a starless sky.

I pushed down through the water until my ears throbbed. It was there, in that cold instant that the words strength and wisdom appeared in my mind like an etching. Strength and wisdom, a message from a murky depth.

I heaved my body up towards the light.

I felt my past shrinking behind me.

I pushed through the blur.

I felt alive.

5. Saving Someone Saves You

"Doing ok?" Tom asked. "Yep," I managed but then realized he wasn't talking to me. I spotted a swim cap and goggles. Judy was a little disoriented and Tom asked if we'd swim together so he could keep us both on track. I swam up to her and told her we got this. We'd stop a lot and encourage each other and laugh at the absurdity of where we found ourselves. After a while when we stopped we heard music. We looked towards the shore and we could make out crowds of people. In a burst of adrenaline and endorphins we blissfully swam forward. We thanked Tom and said goodbye. I thought I’d see him again on shore but I never did. Judy got out before me and by the time I climbed the ladder to the dock she had disappeared into the crowd. We didn't know what the other looked like, our heads had been masked by goggles and a swim cap and our bodies and bathing suits by the lake. I never saw her again.

6. We Do Things for the Living

As I climbed out of the lake I instantly missed the solitude of the water, the gentle lapping in my ear, the peaceful rhythm of the current, my breath and heartbeat. I missed looking to make sure Judy’s swim cap was in view and the safety I felt knowing Tom was close. On land it was much louder and more complicated, my body wobbled and I wondered if I could walk. I stood on the dock shaking as a kind looking woman smiled widely at me. She wore a plastic poncho and held out her arms. She hugged every dripping wet swimmer. "Thank you," she said as I cried.

They had run out of towels to wrap swimmers, which meant that I had to walk in my tankini and in front of photographers and hoards of people. Normally, this would be a nightmare scenario. But at that moment I was proud of my quivering, exhausted, waterlogged body. At the end of the dock was my son, Riley. And when I reached him he said words back to me I've only ever told him before, "I'm proud of you."

The next day I called my dad to tell him about the swim. We talked for longer than usual, bringing up all our favorite topics and laughing and reminiscing about Phyllis. It was the last time I'd ever talk to my dad. He died three days later.

7.  I Got This

It’s been almost a year since my first time swimming across the lake. I’m biking the familiar roads again. I notice new things. A house has been painted blue. A tree lost a large limb. A new dog sits on a porch. I ride to the top of Bates road and let the brakes go. The wind brings tears but I don't brake. I don't know what's up ahead, but I know I can face it. I’ve found my strength. For now -

I just want to keep feeling my past shrinking behind me.

I want to keep pushing through the blur.

I want to keep living.

YJRI2001

Post swim. Still standing!


© Laura P. Reid 2018