Sunday, June 26, 2005

Plunge for Patients: I am a swimmer again, Uncle Pete

Note of explanation: "Uncle Pete" was the director of a children's day camp I attended as a child on Fire Island, as well as my swimming instructor at the time. As you can see, I didn't make it easy for him.

Dear Uncle Pete,

I wonder sometimes what happened in your life after you retired from directing the summer kids’ camp at Saltaire. You may not realize it now, but I’m one of your success stories. In fact, I may not realize it either, but today I came a step closer.

Picture me back in my childhood—my terrified avoidance of deep water, of jumping or diving in, of any water- (or for that matter, land-) related risk. You tried very hard, did your best to persuade me that upon entering deep water, I would not automatically drown, immediately forget how to swim, be sucked underwater and held there. Admittedly, I held out. As a stubborn kid, I would dig in my heels if someone tried to make me to do something I didn’t want to do. Later, lured by the “carrot” of sailing lessons, I did manage at last to enter deep water, first with, then without a life preserver.

And during one summer at a place called Wildwood Country Club, near Pittsburgh, I was trying in some very rudimentary way to dive, when a lifeguard whom I remember only as Sue saw me, and took an interest, then took me gently through the steps of diving from a ladder, then off the side of the pool, and finally off the diving board.

I became a swimmer. You saw the progress and advanced me about two or three swimming groups when I arrived at Fire Island for that summer.

I stayed a swimmer, taking risks, taking dives off the high board, learning to swim in the ocean. But as time went by and my time near water became less and less, some of the old fears returned. It didn’t matter so much, I told myself. I’m really more a runner than a swimmer. And I do in fact love to run. It was in pursuit of improving my running that I returned to the water—and to the ocean. I returned to the depths where the monsters lurked.

The monsters are not sea monsters, not sharks, not even the perennial jellyfish and crabs, not the powerful waves that can make saltwater swimming such an adventure. They are the “what if’s” and I could hear them as I wavered about whether to swim in the Plunge for Patients in another Wildwood in New Jersey where I again found a swimmer I didn’t know existed.

“What if there are sharks? Didn’t a boy just get attacked in Surf City?”
“What if a wave smacks me into spin cycle and I drown?”
“What if this is the day a tsunami strikes New Jersey?”

Note: I don't guarantee my fears will be rational. ;)

But thankfully I have guardian angels: the family and friends who pray for and support me and convince me it’ll be okay, that sharks are so last week, that spin cycle happens in washing machines, that tsunamis aren’t scheduled to make an appearance in New Jersey this year. Oh, they don’t say these things literally, but I hear their voices quieting the what-ifs, little by little, by saying, “you’re a strong swimmer” (thanks, Beth), “If you’ve done an open water swim, you can do this. It’s smooth once you get past the breakers” (thanks, Mike), “I’m going to do it” (thanks team-mates), and “you’ll do fine. I’ll be right beside you” (thanks surfboard lady who showed up near the first flag) or speaking in actions by driving me the 90something miles to do this swim (thanks, Neil).

When I first joined the Marlins Masters at the Lansdowne Y, Mike mentioned the Plunge for Patients as something he was hoping to convince us to swim. But when he said it was an ocean swim, I had serious doubts. Oceans? I used to dare to step past the breakers, dive into waves and body surf them in, but from long lack of practice and some spin cycles, I backed off, and my visits to the beach included walking or running along the shoreline, maybe getting my feet wet, maybe in some daring moment, getting up close and personal with a wave, but a mile swim, through breakers? Um…not me! Except that Mike is persuasive and talked about what a great cause it was and swimmers met patients and their families afterward. And so I couldn’t really say no. What I did was to file away the idea, put it on hold, but the day was getting closer, and my swimming skills improving, thanks to the regular workouts Mike supervised or e-mailed.

Still, I procrastinated, didn’t preregister, didn’t look at the logistics of going (causing Neil and me considerable frustration as we drove all around the Wildwood/Cape May area looking for last minute shelter for the night before the race). Fear was speaking to me—we found a cabin at a campground just in time for me not to decide to bag it and skip the swim (and too late for anything but a dinner of ice cream, strawberry smoothies, and a power bar I shared with Neil).

The next day at registration, as Mike had mentioned would happen, I was given something besides the usual race goody bag and t-shirt, swim cap, something in addition to the body marking that swimmers undergo before an open water event.

Like the other participants, I was given a typed copy of a story—a true story—of a patient who had more to contend with than breakers and “No Vacancy” signs, a cancer patient named Dan Chiplis, who, like me, had participated every year in the Plunge for Patients, then developed leukemia. He refused to give up on his treatment or his swimming, tapping into the wisdom from swimming to help him fight his illness. “Both the endurance swimmer and the leukemia patient have courage,” Dan wrote, “but it’s the leukemia patient who must reach deeply and constantly to hold on to courage.”

But I admit that I learned all this only later: when I received the story, I was a bit distracted, was nervous about the race, a bit sleep deprived from our long search for accommodations, and so put the story in my bag to look at it later. I’d also forgotten at that point about swimmers meeting either patients, their families or both. This would become important, and I didn’t realize just how important.

I saw Mike and team-mates Denise and Carrie, met Beth from Coolrunning, and took a hesitant pre-race dip to feel out the water, Beth urging me to put my goggles on and take a dive, Mike telling me basically what to expect and reassuring me. Still, when they held off the start for almost an hour because of the fog, cancelled the three-mile swim (bringing the 3-mile people to our start) for the same reason, and seemed to be considering whether to cancel the mile swim, I have to admit to a little prayer that I’d be spared my trial by water.

Nope. The director announced that we had the go-ahead, and assembled us all in the water, me following the crowd and praying like mad and thinking, “no way to back out now.” We gathered at a point where breakers were lifting and rocking us around, and in the middle of my subvocal “oh my God’s” and “I can’t do this’s” and “I’m so scared’s,” we received the signal to start. Suddenly, I was in the midst of a crowd of people swimming madly toward the first buoy, many of us adopting the Tarzan style of head up swimming.

My goggles made the whole scene look darker than it was, and all I could see were walls of water coming at me, with just a hint of sky. Water hit my face, splattered into my mouth, and I seriously entertained thoughts of turning back. But when I looked back, the scene was just as intimidating. The breakers behind me, crashing onto the sand—would I be churned around inside of them? And when I looked ahead again, a young man beside me was being urged on by his friend, while a woman on a surfboard cheered us both on, told us we were almost there, that she’d stay with us, that we could grab her board if we needed to. I switched from Tarzan-crawl to breast stroke to catch my breath, deciding to save the crawl stroke until I rounded the flag, where as Mike promised, the going did look smoother.

Once around the flag, I swam alongside the surfboard lady, talking with her every so often. Then I found myself slipping past her, and she called to me, “good, keep going—watch for the next flag!” I followed other swimmers nearby, sighted every so often, found myself in a rhythm of regular swimming pool crawl stroke (refined in the past several months with Mike's help) and sighting and breast stroking. The process grew more comfortable. I felt safe as long as I could see other swimmers and follow them, found myself even enjoying the swim, rocked back and forth a bit by waves but finding no sharks, no spin cycle, no tsunamis, just other swimmers and buoys with flags and people in kayaks and people on surfboards. Then I saw either the same or a different surfboard lady with the same reassuring voice: “This is the last flag. You can turn toward the shore now.” I told her I wasn’t good with waves. “Follow me,” she said. I did. “You’re doing great,” she said. “Keep swimming. You’re almost there.” And then I could touch bottom. Got smacked once or twice by a wave, causing a leg cramp—but no spin cycle. Just allowed the waves to lift me up and carry me to shore. Found myself in knee deep, then ankle deep water.

Saw Mike and Carrie near the finish clock, cheering me in. Ran up the sand as well as the leg cramps allowed. Neil met me with his ever-present camera. I smiled.

I am a swimmer again, Uncle Pete. Just thought you should know.

Thanks for sharing the journey,

Post script: After the race, I heard the announcer reading the names of the patients whose stories swimmers received. I pulled “my” patient’s—Dan’s--story out of my bag, read it, then, heard his name called, and told the volunteer nearby that I had the paper with the story. She told me to stand, and she’d find the family. Looking in their faces, I saw their love for this person who faced the “what if’s” and showed what the human spirit can accomplish. Then I was especially glad I persevered and wouldn't even have considered doing otherwise if I knew his story as I know it now. He and they deserved nothing less. His spirit may, indeed, have been rooting for me all along--another "guardian angel." So thanks, Dan!.