The Swimmer

The man was there again today. He comes in the mid-morning when the gym and the pool are quiet. He’s gaunt, balding, and confined to a wheelchair. He may be my age or a few years older–it’s hard to tell. I’ve never heard him speak. He arrives with a young male caregiver who knows exactly what to do without any prompting from his client.

The man wears a vest that hugs his upper body, and the caregiver assists him with pulling protective sleeves onto his forearms and working his hands into webbed gloves. He uses a walker to ease himself from the wheelchair into the lift beside the pool which lowers him down into the water. He closes his eyes for a few minutes as his body adjusts to a pool warmed enough to keep the water aerobics crowd happy. His caregiver gets into the pool with him, and the man begins to swim.

Up and down the lane he goes, flat on his back. He lifts both arms high up into the air at the same time, spreads them the width of the lane and propels himself through the water, with, I suspect, little use of his legs. The young caregiver walks along on each lap but doesn’t appear to be assisting him. He’s just there as a sort of spotter. The man occasionally stops and rests at the ladder at the far end of the pool, but for the most part, swims continuously.

It is beautiful to watch. The man’s powerful arms move at the exact rhythm on each lap. Swimming in the adjacent lane, I find myself slowing down my own pace. Raucous splashing and kicking to hurry and finish my laps seems almost impolite. This man commands as much respect in the pool as the most talented of the young athletes who practice here in the late afternoon. He moves quietly and almost effortlessly through the water, although I cannot fathom the upper body strength it must require to swim that way. I’m not sure I could swim the stroke that he uses even with having the ability to kick. For a sixty-something, I am a strong swimmer, and the man often keeps up with me, using only his arms.

Today, another swimmer got into the pool and was about to swim in the same lane as the man and his caregiver. I leaned over and asked this person to share with me because I didn’t want anything to disturb or interrupt them. That lane was a sacred space that needed to be protected.

As I was leaving, I glanced over at the pool and the man was still swimming. His arms cut through the water like the wings of a giant raptor soaring through the sky, savoring the freedom of movement.

The Miracle of Turkey Meatballs

I sit here at my desk half expecting Baxter to pad over and nudge for food. Or leap up onto the back of my chair and purr. It is too quiet—no scratching sounds in the litter box or on his digging board, no whining for us to move the baby gate so he can come downstairs. God, this one hurts.

I’ve spent too many sessions in the comfort room at the vet’s in recent years. We lost our rescue Westie, Vinnie, in June 2020 after a five-year battle with chronic liver disease. Shortly thereafter, a conflagration of health issues showed up in our shelter cat, Baxter, which turned into another marathon of daily medications. But a cat doesn’t take pills as easily as a dog.

There were times when Baxter, who was extremely resistant to taking pills, required medication four times a day. We’d spin the dial to see what he would prefer—deli ham or roast beef, cooked chicken, or melted cheese, or none of the above. He was over pill pockets long ago. Our daily lives were regulated by the exasperating process of pilling this cat. If he didn’t get the medication, his lungs could fill up with fluid, or he’d form a blood clot and die a painful death.

And then several months ago, we discovered the miracle of the turkey meatball. I had recently tried a recipe for turkey meatballs that involved crushed tortilla chips, salsa, and cheddar cheese. (Yeah, all the good stuff.) I took a chance at offering him a pill in a tiny piece of meatball, flattened out and spread with a dab of cream cheese. Eureka! He loved them and seldom refused a pill offered in one of these meatballs. His health actually seemed to improve to the point that it was almost better than before all of these cardiac and metabolic issues started. He came downstairs more, started wandering around outside, ate well, and appeared to be a happy senior cat.

Until this week, when it was like a light in his body gradually flickered and then went out. He started leaving food in his bowl on Wednesday and by Friday was curled up in one of our closets, refusing all food. Apparently there were electrolyte and potassium level issues caused by the dosage of diuretics he was prescribed, and the vet wanted to try some form of potassium supplementation. But Baxter would not eat anything, including his beloved turkey meatballs, even after receiving an appetite stimulant at the vet’s. So we tearfully sent him home to Jesus this past weekend.

Our guest bathroom, which had become a sort of apartment for Baxter, is now stripped of its litter box,  packages of food and medications, and the giant roll of paper towels that we used to clean up his messy eating area (he had almost no teeth and dropped morsels of food everywhere.) My husband and I are both so very sad, and yet, we are grateful for the miracle of the turkey meatballs. They allowed us to get meds into him with minimal drama. He loved them, and he seemed almost rejuvenated during these last few months

Would that we all could experience the miracle of turkey meatballs when we reach that stage in life—something that tastes good and helps us take our medicine and for at least a little while, makes us purr with contentment.

Pepper Season

An almost unseemly green against the otherwise desiccated garden, the peppers peek out from under a lush growth of tousled leaves. Along with a few earnest green beans, the peppers are all that remain of summer’s bounty, thriving among shriveled tomatoes and bolted lettuce.

These late summer days when the hot afternoon sun fades too quickly into the cool of evening always remind me of the last weeks of my father’s life. That fall I took a leave of absence from my teaching job so that I could spend time with him. I got caught up in the rhythm of what was left of his life–the visits from old friends, the care from the in-home nursing staff and the devotion of Randy, the man who mowed my dad’s lawn, shoveled snow, and did odd jobs around the house. Before the nurses and hospice people swooped in, Randy spent nights on the sofa in case my dad needed him.

Randy grew a garden in a corner patch of ground next to my dad’s toolshed. I remember growing sunflowers there when I was a child, but it was never used for much after that. He’d put in a tomato plant or two and sometimes some zucchini, but the peppers were his pride and joy. All that last September, Randy would offer me bags of gorgeous green peppers. He told me how he loved to make stuffed peppers with ground beef and “whatever cheese I got,” smacking his lips and saying, “Man, that’s good eatin’.”

I remember those days as vividly as if they occurred yesterday. They were oddly peaceful and filled with the beauty of small things. I walked to the same corner drug store I did as a child except now instead of ordering cherry cokes, I bought swabs to moisten my dad’s mouth and milkshakes he craved but couldn’t drink after a few sips. I’d go to the post office to pick up the mail, admire Randy’s most recent pepper harvest, and read prayers with my dad at bedtime. Even when my father could barely speak above a whisper, his lips moved when I read the Lord’s Prayer.

I share this story because it seems that so many friends have recently lost parents and loved ones. Even these fourteen years later, I remember what it’s like to live moment to moment, to sit in vigil, to not sleep waiting for a phone call. And yet, there are treasured times in the midst of the pain and anxiety and sadness. People who pick up our burden for a while and make us smile. People who hold us close and tell us to take a leave of absence from our jobs because we’re never going to get this time back again. People who love that person almost as much as we do and offer us bags of green peppers when everything around us is dying.

Behind My Mask

Last Sunday, I spent three hours singing in a mask—one for a morning church service and two for an evening concert. The mask makes my glasses steam up and the tropical humidity during the concert meant I had a choice between seeing the conductor or wearing the mask. The mask won. Being surrounded by my fellow choir members all wearing a piece of black cloth over their mouths felt like a weird, dystopian dream.  At the church service, a woman said to my husband and me, “I hope you’re not going to sing in those,” and we replied, “We are, and it will be fine.” She just gave us a look.

Before Covid and outside of an operating room, masks symbolized celebration. Whether worn by children trick-or-treating or adults for a Mardi-gras party, mask-wearing occurred in festive settings. Our masks let us pretend we were someone else, and we could whip them off whenever we wanted. The Lone Ranger and Zorro (I’m dating myself) wore eye masks in all of their mysterious, swash-buckling glory.

Now, behind my mask, I harbor a swirling and often, toxic, soup of emotions. I’m grateful for these miserable masks that rub my ears and steam my glasses because they help me to safely sing with others. But I’m also angry and frustrated that I’m back into my Covid shopping  routine—pull into parking lot, mask up, go into store, come out of store, mask off, sanitize hands and repeat. The box of 50 masks I bought last spring that I joked about not using are now half gone.

As I write this, the musical organizations my husband and I are involved with wrestle with decisions about how to safely rehearse and perform concerts. There are more questions than answers, and I know those frustrations don’t begin to compare with what schools and businesses are facing. My friend who is a nurse in a local hospital told me that what’s she’s seeing is the same as last winter, if not worse, because patients are younger. A theater in our community posted that vaccinations would be required for admission to all performances. Some online comments were supportive, but most were rants about invasion of privacy and government “control,” and, as with any kind of Covid posting, accompanied by the ubiquitous laughing emoji.

Behind my mask, I am exhausted from pretending to be gracious and understanding of those who choose to ignore the seriousness of this virus, especially for our youngsters who cannot yet be vaccinated. Behind my mask, I’m saying don’t dare send me any more links and emails defending your right to make others sick, especially when those links manipulate scripture to support a political agenda.

Behind my mask, I seethe, because just when we were slowly climbing out of the pit of this pandemic, too many refused to reach for the helping hands offered to them, forcing us back into the muck. I ache for the medical professionals and the teachers and the store-keepers and the restaurant owners who must constantly deal with abusive anger fueled by politics, disinformation, and plain old selfishness. I grieve for those who have lost family members to the disease or lost relationships due to the bitterness of extremism.

My masks are back in my purse and my car and my choir folders. I will soon need to buy another box.