On Saturday at the pool there were six English men in the lane next to me, five of them diligently trying to teach the sixth how to swim. They were younger than me, late twenties perhaps or early thirties? It was delightful. All these grown men in a lane with fabulous accents each giving advice and coaching, then up and down the pool they would go, all swimming badly but tremendously proud of their friend for his efforts and determination to master freestyle.
I wanted to interrupt and give advice, to break it down into manageable bits. I wanted to suggest first they start at the wall and master the breathing, then to loan them a kick board to practise the kicking but it wasn’t my place, besides who says I am the expert? I am not, I am just a schoolteacher who sees an opportunity and wants to get involved.
Instead I listened to their conversation and smiled. As I swam up and down beside them I remembered things about my childhood and learning to swim. Maybe it was their accents, similar to my own father’s that took me on this journey back in time.
I think I must have learned to swim in Singapore when my father was based in Changi as a chaplain for the Royal Air Force. I was really small then but I vaguely remember those chunky rubber ‘water wings’ (as my mother called them) blown up tight around my arms. I have always loved the water whether it is the sea or the swimming pool, to be submerged, surrounded, supported and safe.
I swim more often now than I have in years, enjoying the relative silence of the water, the repetition of the movements and the air in my lungs seems to expand for the whole day after the task is over. This very sensation of breathing and being conscious of it somehow empowers me in a way I can’t explain.
Sam and I often talk about our breathing. Who would think that something that once came so naturally could be such an effort? Why do those who suffer hardship understand this and remind one another to breathe? Have our thoughts become so anxious that even the very thing we have done all our lives without effort suddenly becomes something we fix our attention on?
Lately this has become a real problem for Sam. Her throat locks and she panics as she gasps for breath. Her eyeballs expand, her face turns red and I pass her water to sip. ‘Something is stuck in my throat,’ she whispers, ‘I think it’s the foil from one of the tablets. It keeps getting stuck, I think I swallowed it by accident.’
I try to stay calm.
I don’t recall leaving foil in her drug dish but I consider that it is possible so I suggest she goes for an x-ray. Nothing shows up on the screen, ‘not even my thyroid,’ she laughs. All is clear and after days the problem seems to go away. For two weeks everything is fine and then it is time again to drop the dose of the prednisone and the problem of the blocked throat manifests again. Could it be psychosomatic? Could it be fear? Or is her throat really blocked, is something really wrong? How can I know?
At times I feel like I have come to the end of my capacity to grasp this complex existence of trying to live a normal life. Nothing is normal anymore though I establish as much of a routine as possible to convince myself that it is. For the first six months of last year my throat was blocked too. I remind Sam of this and we laugh about all the ‘Anticol’ lozenges I sucked on, keeping the little shop at the entrance to RNSH in business. Then there was the swine flu epidemic and we had to wear masks to hospital. That was when we discovered that you couldn’t suck a lozenge and wear a mask because it makes you eyes sting! Who would have thought?
Somewhere into the sixth month of her illness I found my breath again, a new rhythm. I realized that this was going to be a very long journey and I gave myself permission to focus on the only thing that really mattered, Sam’s survival. This required deep, thoughtful breaths and to allow myself the focus required for this I abandoned so many other things.
My ability to manage my former commitments and social engagements fell apart. I recognized too that my capacity for faith completely changed, that to survive this ordeal I needed to go to a deeper level, a solitary place where it was only God and I. In a sense I abandoned the things that I had previously been enamoured with, battened down the hatches and got ready for war.
Primo Levi describes it this way, ‘There comes to light the existence of two particularly well differentiated categories among men – the saved and the drowned. Other pairs of opposites (the good and the bad, the wise and the foolish, the cowards and the courageous, the unlucky and the fortunate) … One has to fight against the current; to battle every day and every hour against exhaustion, hunger, cold and the resulting inertia.’
I am standing on the shore of the ocean while the sand shifts under my feet. I am living on the edge, waiting for the tide to turn, wondering what the future holds. As I look out I hear my Dad singing his merry tune:
‘I do like to be beside the seaside,
I do like to be beside the sea.’
I see the twinkle in his eye. Here is a man who has known grief and learned to sing in its face. I pray that like him I will be saved, and wise, and courageous even if we are the unlucky.
‘You are doing tremendously well.’ My Dad tells me, just as the men at the pool encourage their friend though his strokes are awful. Though he lifts his whole body out of the water just to draw breath he has everything he needs and somehow with his friends cheering for him I am sure he could swim the English Channel if it were required.
It’s incredible what you can achieve when people are cheering for you. Though you are drowning, though you can barely lift your head for breath, though you take in water and cough, though your head is submerged so deep and your thoughts so concentrated on survival, somehow the voices reach you, the ones who are determined, they find a way, they don’t take their eyes off you or tell you to be happy. They don’t pretend that everything is fine. They see the situation for what it is. It sucks! Its unfair and any good that might come from it is so far in the future they don’t demand that you rejoice. This is friendship, short and long, plain and enigmatic.
The truth is, there may have been a better way to cope. There may have been sensible steps you could have taken, an ordered progression, task analysis but you had never planned for cancer, it came unexpectedly and you are thrown in the deep end flapping, kicking and gasping for breath. The only thing that will save you is your determination. None of this is elegant or dignified, it is not even certain.
Graham Swift writes, ‘sometimes casually, sometimes critically, the familiar surrenders to the unknown, the tangible to the illusionary, the present to the past, the solid and safe to the uncertain and confused…Don’t we all live more or less, in this perpetual borderland?’
In reading, as in writing, we lay structure over the flatness of life enabling ourselves to deal with some radically dislodged worlds, to penetrate the barrier of the unknown future and seek out hope and to discover other voices that echo our thoughts so that we feel less isolated and afraid and unsure.