My family has been vacationing at the seashore for a couple of weeks in late summer for as long as I can remember. When I was a little girl, perhaps eight or nine years old, my favorite thing to do was to venture out into the ocean on my kid-sized raft in the early morning, when the tide was low and gentle. My father would park his beach chair at the water’s edge where he could keep an eye on his scrawny, plucky daughter, but the surf didn’t worry me. A strong swimmer already, I knew I could handle it. I would stay out there for a half hour or more, rocking up and down as the waves slid underneath me.
As I got older, it became more fun to play in the breakers, riding them in with a decidedly variable success rate. I got knocked around quite a bit, and usually finished the day with several handfuls of sand in my suit, but I loved it just as much. I was a fearless pro by the time I was a teenager, automatically curling into a ball when I got tumbled and resurfacing moments later with a smile on my face and sand in my teeth. The ocean never sent me anything I couldn’t handle. Unless the lifeguards had deemed the surf too dangerous for swimming, I spent more time in the water than I did on the sand.
At physical therapy this week, I happened to be there at the same time as another woman with a similar injury to mine, who started her course of therapy this past March, about a week after I did. As I rested between stretches, I enviously watched her perform with ease the therapeutic exercises that I can still barely manage.
I remember her primary evaluation; the wincing posture at the edge of the chair, a havoc of pain evident in her voice and on her face. But this past week, there was no trace of that beaten-down demeanor; it had been replaced by the cheerfulness of a patient nearly fully recovered, her strength and flexibility almost back to normal.
I was struck by how different she looked in such a short period of time, until I remembered that it hasn’t actually been all that short. It’s been three-and-a-half months, give or take. Which probably seems like forever to her, and certainly explains why she looks so much better. After all, that’s how the majority of injury recoveries progress; counted in months, or for a lucky few, weeks. Not years. Or open-ended, the final result too far off to be molded into a threshold, never mind a goal.
I still have that beaten-down demeanor, although I have learned to suppress it. Now, unless I’m particularly exhausted, it no longer shows in my face. The passage of time is irrelevant to me; my recovery progress is so incremental that it’s all but imperceptible. I’ve only added a couple of tasks to my initial slate of exercises; movements that are still so challenging that I have not been able to increase resistance on any of them. Progress is measured in increasing reps from say, three to five, or, for a couple of them, as far as ten.
The addition of a new exercise this week has had the usual effect of increasing my stiffness and pain load; this has become so normal that I don’t bother mentioning it any more unless it intrudes upon my normal activities (such as they are). Momma Ape does not approve of this pattern, nor of my way of handling it, but I played the “it’s my body” card (a favorite card of hers, I might add) and she let it go. Or at least appeared to, anyway, and if that’s the case, I’m more grateful than I can say. I still need allies, even when I’m doing the wrong things.
As summer spreads out around me, softening the air and warming the surfaces, it’s hard not to think about swimming and the ocean. While I don’t spend all day in it during beach vacations any more, I still venture out to say hello and rock in its cradle a few times during my visit. As I slip under each wave and feel it pull through and past me, I feel like I’m being cleansed and reborn, wet and salty, fresh and new.
I use the metaphor to explain my life-coping philosophy. As an adult, I’ve learned that when I see a big wave approaching, it’s better to swim towards it and dive into it headfirst rather than try to run for the shore. Usually, I can come out on the other side with the worst of it crashing behind me. Unlike when I was in my twenties, few waves are like that now; most are gentle, sliding underneath me like they did when I was on my little raft. Only every once in a great while does one thunder in so powerfully that I have to curl up into a ball and wait for it to finish.
But as of last October, the metaphor has officially broken down. I have been waiting, curled up, for this current wave to expend itself, to finish taking out its anger on the shore break and subside. But I’ve come to realize it’s not a wave at all. The surf itself has grown angry and dangerous, there are no lifeguards to be seen, and I am not sure I ought to be out in it. Waves don’t drift innocuously beneath me any more. I keep attempting to ride one in to the safety of the shore, but I am never delivered there.
Waves just keep coming, hard on the heels of each other, forcing me to stay hyper-focused on their approach, at the expense of just about everything – and everyone – else. I’ve been pulled so far away from other people that I can barely see them as they tag one of a series of distant, bobbing buoys before moving on. Way out here, I have to fight just to stay out of the riptides, unable to get myself close enough to one of those buoys to even touch it.
It finally occurred to me that I’m not looking at the right set of buoys. Those are the ones for [relatively] healthy, able-bodied people. It’s no wonder I can’t reach them; I’m not even in the same ocean as they are any more. I have been dragged into rockier surf, and there’s a different set of markers here. And I have tagged plenty of them. Giving up full-time student status. Taking pain medications regularly. Hiring a cleaning service. Relinquishing my stick shift. And, this past week, acquiring a handicap parking tag.
But it seems I am still a strong swimmer, in a manner of speaking. This ocean I find myself in, wilder than one I would have ventured into of my own volition, still hasn’t sent me anything I can’t handle. There have been some close calls, and some long tumbles under water, but each time I’ve emerged relatively unscathed on the other side. The smile may be a grimace, and there’s a lot of sand in my suit, but I’m still ok.
My raft is this blog, giving me a chance to rest above the water between the relentless waves, and I’m getting pretty good at managing myself this unfamiliar surf. I may not be diving in headfirst, but I’m no longer running for shore. I’m out here for the duration, however long that may be. This may not be my permanent sea, but that’s no longer an excuse not to learn the tides.