Touch: The Journal of Healing



Madeline's Laps

    by Joyce E. Hicks

Madeline set her gym bag with towel, keys, and phone on the poolside bench and hurried toward the steps, compelled to make the first dent in the turquoise water, still and flat as Jell-O.  Her black latex swim cap with its sports logo squashed her eyebrows down as she pulled and snapped the edges over her gray curls. The swim cap really kept out the water much better than the old bathing caps with chinstraps, especially her girlhood cap with rubber water lilies, but it did not flatter. She felt like a Cro-Magnon. However, she was not showing off for beach boys, after all, and changing in the Y locker room for the past month had completed her initiation into the “Who-cares?” club.

Today, on the guard tower sat Devon, a sweet-faced teenager. What would he really be willing to do for the seniors like her who came to the pool afternoons, anyway? He could throw a life ring at least and call for help but wouldn’t be expected to give the old crows mouth-to-mouth, she didn’t think. Besides, most had already signed a “Do Not Resuscitate” (referred to as “your DNR” by cheery medical people), but it might pay to swim with your lawyer to head off resuscitation. Madeline smirked at the idea of her attorney, the pudgy Mr. Jessup, in swim trunks on hand with a briefcase of living wills for his clients splashing around in the pool.

With no time to adjust to the temperature, she lunged into the water, in a rush as usual to complete her routine. The chill being too much for her front side, Madeline flipped over and used chipper backstrokes to get her blood moving. Soon, the water felt delicious sluicing over her shoulders. She even made a few kicks, just to watch the ripples slop over the edge of the pool. In her day, pool edges were high above the swimmers. In these new facilities, the water was almost floor-level with a grate that sucked down the spillover. The design had something to do with smoothing the water faster, as explained on the TV during the Beijing Olympics.

All the TV she and Warren had watched for those Games--he avidly counted the US medals while she soaked up the cultural minutia. They quizzed each other on rules, placed bets, and searched out the odd competitions, like slalom canoeing and synchronized swimming. Both were certain the Chinese gymnasts were underage.  Next time, they promised each other, they really would go to the Games, even the winter ones. Warren said they should try skiing again themselves! He’d heard that out West they let people over 70 ski for free. Wouldn’t that be a deal!

As it turned out, they did not go to Vancouver nor would they go to London. The radius of their activities shrank, and by fall, Madeline was hemmed in by a wall of books, DVDs, CDs, and medical paraphernalia around Warren's bed in the den. She paid bills, banked, and ordered books, movies, and even knitting yarn online. A neighbor brought groceries. For the most part, she remained a cheerful captive, hiding her dismay over her emerging grey hair. Such quantities of it she had never seen even at 70 because of religious adherence to her stylist appointment. When Warren was moved to the hospital, back and forth from their house to his room on the fourth floor became her new travel itinerary.

Now for her swim. With her eye on the clock, Madeline reviewed her plan. If she could finish sixteen laps, she would do nearly a half-mile. Her doctor had warned that she needed to get out and take a break from Warren, or she would be on her back too. Though probably the doctor pictured her strolling at the mall, she chose swimming as less time-consuming and closer to the hospital.

"Huh, huh. Huh, huh." Her breathing was shallow.  The water that had seemed so refreshing at first now felt like thick gravy.  Madeline did a few sidestrokes as far as the lifeguard chair, then remembering her trick knee tried to snap it less. "Huff, huh, huh"; she flopped over to use the other knee. Not much better. The water just seemed less buoyant today. Was that possible?  When she stopped to catch her breath, her chin started to go under as the water broke apart around her. She paddled her arms with so much flailing that Devon sat forward. He looked terrified. She waggled a couple of fingers toward him and gave the OK sign.  Finally, a few more strokes brought her to the end of the lane. She grabbed the pool edge til her breath was not so ragged. Now it was time to turn around.

She saw that Francine and Pearl, two widows who took an aqua-cize class, were in the water. Locker room camaraderie had developed among the three of them over the past month. Francine was walking forwards and backwards in the shallow end doing some weird aerobics called water-walking. Pearl, in spite of or maybe because of her 220 pounds, dove forcefully under and arched upward, graceful as a tuna as she broke the surface.

“Come back here, Madeline!” shouted Francine. “Let me show you a move that’s good for your chicken flaps.” She began a vigorous crawl that took her nowhere since she was standing up.

One lap down and fifteen to go--Madeline checked the clock. She had about 45 minutes left before the doctor might (or might not) stop in on her rounds. And what was there to say, really, but Madeline needed to be there to hear it:

 “He’s holding his own. His blood oxygen is down, but that doesn’t always mean much.”

“Yes, it’s good you keep talking to him.”

“He probably knows you’re here.”

“Mrs. Pettigrew, you really should take a night off. It won’t affect the outcome one way or the other.” The doctor seemed genuinely concerned, holding her gaze for a few seconds.

When no one was listening, Madeline talked with Warren about skiing out West or about tickets for the Opening Ceremony of the next Olympic Games. "Good seats are over five hundred dollars each," she informed him after checking the Internet. "But it would be once-in-a-lifetime, after all." He raised no objection.

Finishing the lap, Madeline bobbed over to Francine who asked, “Any change in Warren?”

“Not really. He squeezed my hand last night. Or I thought so. The nurse thought not.”

“What do they know, anyway? Of course, he did.” Francine put her arm around Madeline who surprised herself by not pulling away immediately.

Pearl glided over, “Keep your chin up, girl. You’re doing all you can.” Then her massive body made hardly a ripple as she pushed off in a stately crawl.

Using a combination of strokes, Madeline made it down and back five more times. Maybe all this exercise was finally paying off, because her breath was coming more easily. As she swam back and forth, she noticed Devon occasionally turned his head from the swimmers to glance at her gym bag. Maybe you were not supposed to take up room on the bench like that. He might be afraid he would get into trouble, if his supervisor saw her bag.

Madeline soldiered on. Four more laps to go, but her time was almost up. It was nearly 2:00 already. Putting her feet on the wall, she pushed off forcefully into her favorite stroke for the last laps, knees be damned. The water parted ahead of her like the Red Sea, as she swept her left arm strongly back, hand cupped, and guided with her right arm, knees gently bending and releasing. She glided along. With her ear resting just below the surface, the pool noises receded, and she heard only her own sounds, breath and heartbeat. She had never swum so easily.

She noticed that Pearl and Francine were toweling off. Then Pearl pointed toward her bag while Francine made a gesture of phoning and mouthed something. Madeline raised her head and nodded. Yes, she would call them later to report on the doctor’s visit, but she couldn’t break her stroke pattern now to chat. Sometimes, she found their concern neared intrusion. Stretch out and in, out and in. Just a few more laps. Maybe she was getting the runner’s high people talked so much about. In fact, she felt a part of the water itself, just another element (H2O + Madeline). She swam on.

Someone said, “Goodbye.”

“What?” Since she forgot to raise her head from the water, her remark made such a hollow roar inside her swim cap she thought someone had hit her. She looked around, but no one was nearby.

Finally afraid she might be overdoing it, Madeline got out of the water.

She noted the surface settled down quickly because of the grates along the rims.

“What do you think of that, Devon? I really did a half-mile!” she smiled up at him on the guard tower.

He gave her the thumbs up, and then said, “Your phone’s been ringing.”

Her friends’ gestures became clear as day. Her phone had rung! Was it the hospital? What a selfish person she was, swimming around while Warren might be needing her!

Madeline searched the bag pockets frantically. The two front ones were empty. The side pocket! She jabbed her fingers on something sharp before feeling the hard little phone. Her towel fell to the wet floor, and water dripped on the tiny screen as she struggled with the menu for unanswered calls. There it was: Critical care, 2:00. 2:08. 2:14. 2:18. 2:25. A voice mail at 2:31. It was now 3:15. The phone was silent.

She pressed the green icon to hear the message:  “Mrs. Pettigrew? Mrs. Pettigrew, come to the hospital immedia. . . ," but Madeline pressed the red disconnect icon. The phone screen symbols returned to their steady state, a fully charged battery and many bars of signal strength, unlike the flattening peaks and waning numbers on Warren's monitors. It was so unfair. She pressed the tiny red icon again, hard, watching with satisfaction as the screen went blank.

She sat down on the bench. Time seemed to expand before her like the ripples that were free to escape over the edge of the pool. She saw her own boundaries expanding beyond the pool, beyond Warren's hospital room, beyond their living room, the border expanding to include her hair salon, her book club, her children's houses on the West Coast, and even beyond to people she did not know yet and places she couldn't imagine.

A vision of the little ring of comforts she had built around Warren's bed at home came to her. She knew she would trade the new horizons to recapture the old, foreshortened landscape, if only she could. “In a heartbeat,” she muttered.

Water from another swimmer spread over the rim toward her. Accepting then the burden of opportunities that could not be escaped, she sighed and stood. There was no reason in the world not to try for the full mile now. A few steps took her back to the pool edge. She made a graceful dive into the deep teal water.

© 2012 Joyce E. Hicks

Joyce E. Hicks works with student writers at Valparaiso University in Indiana. Personal interests include fiber arts as well as writing fiction, particularly about later life. She has published fiction in Literary Mama and received honorable mention in a contest for NPR's Stories on Stage. She is a member of Blank Slate Writers.

Copyright © 2012

Touch: The Journal of Healing

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