Four years ago I began to swim regularly at the local pool. In the autumn of 2016 I had some health issues. After being diagnosed in early September of that year with double pneumonia, my doctor wasn’t happy with the xrays and ordered a CAT scan. The scan showed a pulmonary embolism but also some nodes that resulted in a series of tests and consultations and eventually a PET scan because it was suspected I had metastatic lung cancer. Long story short: I didn’t. What did I have? No one knew. I eventually saw a hematologist and he too was a little puzzled. But again, long story short: I’m fine. During the period of uncertainty I think John was more anxious that I was. I was in a state of transparency, or at least that’s how I think of it. I kept being visited by the dead. I felt them around me, their hands on my shoulders, and although it was unsettling at first, it became very comforting. I’d come downstairs in the night to work at my desk and I knew I wasn’t alone. Meanwhile John would be awake upstairs worrying. In November of 2016, I sent him to the pool one morning. Swim, I told him. You need to do something to take you out of yourself for a bit. I wish you’d come too, he’d say, and I was reluctant. Years ago we swam at the pool. Years ago I swam in the lake most summer days with my family. But then things changed. More people were around in both places, I was older, I was less willing to take off my clothes and cavort in a bathing suit. Or not cavort, but you know.
Anyway, we were always walking. Almost every day we’d go up the mountain or around a series of trails in the woods beyond our woods, until we came out on a road, either the one that came down the hill to Sakinaw Lake or else the one that passed the marsh by the creek between Ruby and Sakinaw Lakes, the marsh where we saw kingfishers and turtles and once, in winter, a single swan.
That fall of the mysterious illness, I had trouble walking any distance. My doctor thought it might be an inflammatory response to the pneumonia. My right knee was swollen and it hurt to move too much. But I wasn’t going to swim. Because a bathing suit? Among others?
And then one morning in early January, 2017, I decided I needed to swim. I was drawn to water. I found my old black tank-suit. I joined John at the pool, finding a rhythm to take me up the 20 meters and back again. Back and forth. It wasn’t hard and it felt wonderful. If we went early-ish, there weren’t many people there. A guy who swam laps quite ferociously and who has become a friend (because when someone mentions modernism at the end of your swim, of course you’re going to want to talk to him some more). One or two others whom I knew in other ways years ago and who I know now as morning swimmers.
Because I was so accustomed to my slow kilometer (20 meters x 50 lengths) 3 times a week, I decided to return to the lake again too once the water warmed up in late May. It seemed silly to swim in a pool when I could be in a lake I’ve lived near for 40 years. A lake where we went most summer days when our children were young, where we had a favourite island for boat picnics, where my father fished when he visited us, sometimes bringing back cutthroat trout for a late breakfast. I’d gotten out of the habit of swimming there regularly, in part because the little wild area where we’d always gone had become a more organized park, with sand brought in for a beach, two picnic tables, a toilet, an area kept safe from boats with rope and buoys—and that brought more people, of course. I don’t like change.
Four summers ago I developed a new habit of lake-swimming. John and I went at 8:30, before other people were around. We mostly had the water to ourselves and I could swim the perimeter of the roped-off area for 25 minutes, sometimes watched by a kingfisher or ravens wondering if we’d brought food, sometimes a loon off-shore, swimming in quiet circles, and sometimes in the company of trout who’d jump out of the water for the various generations of flies.
This past year, the lake was a salvation. The pool closed in March when we were officially declared to be in a pandemic. We missed our pool swims. As early as we could bear to enter the cold water, we were going down for a morning swim. As the water warmed up, into June, we were swimming longer. Every morning during the summer. Our Ottawa family came to stay for 2 weeks in July, when air travel was possible (that brief window), and it was lovely to have our grandsons join us most mornings. They went again later in the day too. Angelica and her beau came for a few days from Victoria and one day we all swam at Trail Bay, the day when Angie and Karna were flying home. When we met our Edmonton family at Lac LeJeune in August, we swam in that lake, and in Nicola Lake (twice), and in the Thompson River. My memories of family and summer are sun-spangled, damp with lake water, tangy with salt.
In water I sometimes think I do my best work. I stretch out my arms, I take in the sunlight, the rain, the sound of mergansers muttering over by the logs, the far-off revving of a boat engine, I think about difficulties I am having with writing (I once took apart an essay and put it together in a much better way, all while doing the backstroke), I reconstruct the past so it’s perfectly intact and coherent and present. This is the summer when we put Forrest in a plastic baby bathtub to keep him cool, this is the summer when the wild mint grew around the hardhack, right where the sand now slides into water, the summer of the wasp stings, the summer of Angelica diving over and over until she was perfect, of Brendan wearing his bike cap backwards and hoping to catch a turtle in an old ice-cream bucket. When I am swimming, everything is happening again, and still.
The pool opened in early fall and although it’s different now, you have to book a time and make sure you’re out of the water at the end of your 45 minutes, your mask on as you enter the change room, and leave it, it’s swimming. For John, after a surgery gone sideways, it’s an opportunity to exercise and feel buoyant again. I do my slow kilometer with revisions in mind as I anticipate a new collection of essays tentatively in the works for publication. And I’ve added a twice-weekly winter lake swim to my swimming schedule, a time when I feel completely alive in water both familiar and strange. One morning the ferns on the trail down to the lake were silver with frost and I couldn’t feel my feet as I did a brief few strokes within the roped perimeter.
After that fall and early winter when I waited for specialists to read my xrays and look serious as they traced the nodes with a cursor, when I wore the hospital gowns that never covered enough of me, when I entered the dark space of the machines that made visual the changes in my body, I sometimes forgot who I was. I was a lung with dark mysteries, blood that carried dangerous cargo, legs that longed for mountain trails. I found myself in water, strong and purposeful, swimming the lengths, beyond the rope, ravens vigilant in the cedars, and everything possible again.