My cousin Bob’s quality of not being easily daunted might be described as British, although the trait has served him just as well in everywhere from Israel to France, and began serving me well in London, 1969. By that autumn, Bob has already gotten me in and out of quite a number of cars, pubs, cinemas and so on. Now it was time to get me even more in the swim.
He was convinced I could swim, that was the thing. And being 22 years old, grateful for having survived a still fairly recent shooting and not wanting to be outdone in the nerve department, I said yes. The first thing I knew I was thrashing about the shallow end of the Porchester Baths near Marble Arch, Bob in attendance. And the next thing I knew I was shivering in the locker room of that Greater London Council facility…but never mind. The deed was done, the point made, and it was a proven fact. I was buoyant, more or less, despite my paralysis. And my neuromuscular repertoire had been significantly expanded. Back in the swim of things.
A straight aquatic line leads from then to now, staying with Jane in a Pacific beach hotel, with a pool. I have not had a swim in…can it be a year? No matter, except that somehow it has not just been a year, that is any year. But somehow the wrong year. The year I either grew substantially older or grew substantially more anxious about growing older.
For several years, as recently as the early 1990s, I rode an adult tricycle. A bungee cord strapped my right paralyzed foot onto one of the pedals, the other leg pedaling quite normally…and I enjoyed going about the environs of Menlo Park in this fashion. Even the paralyzed leg acquired a bit of extensor strength over the months and years. And in an effort to keep up with the frenzied athletic pace of my first wife, I even entered myself in the wheelchair division of the Humboldt Marathon footrace. The latter was actually a half marathon, but not to worry, even that exceeds 12 miles.
Anything to keep in neuromuscular shape, I always say. And even after the wife had decamped, I kept saying it. Even entering the race for what was to be my last time. Several friends helped me practice. And it was in the practice that everything important occurred. For I could tell that I was losing my nerve. After all, I had been sitting atop this tricycle for years, and there was nothing to worry about, so what was I suddenly afraid of? The feeling of losing my balance, not being able to hold up my torso, being clearly a bad case of nerves.
It is either to my credit, or to something distinctly opposite, that I did not let any of this stop me. Certainly, this is at least partly unfortunate. For I was having trouble with nerve. To be exact, the peripheral variety. My old neck injury was acting up, bone spurs clamping off nerves leading to, among other things, my right shoulder. It was the latter that was no longer holding up my torso. In short, I was truly lacking nerve. Literally. Metaphor imitating reality. One can have too much willpower.
In any case, here I am now in the hotel pool getting used to the swimming experience. I am surrounded by water, filtered, bromine-treated and ready to be ever so buoyant. Except that, as I say, it has been a year. The whole thing frightens me in ways that it never did before. Each day, Jane and I make a progressively longer swim. Still, I cannot quite believe that the shallow end really is shallow. Drowning here seems a real possibility, even in 3 1/2 feet of water. I am aware of how much more stiff my body feels. Which may account for the constant fear of falling forward, on my face, unable to right myself.
Still, it gets better and better. If there is a lesson here, it has to do with living in the moment. At least for this disabled person, the past is a poor guide. I can remember my early days of full employment, when regular exercise seemed even more important. Working as a science writer at Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory, I somehow went for a swim before work. That is to say, I parked my 1968 Plymouth Valiant outside a public swimming pool in San Francisco’s Mission District, undressed and got in the water by approximately 6 AM.
I was not alone. Plenty of other physical fitness enthusiasts were there with me. I searched valiantly for the least crowded lane. A girlfriend who accompanied me on several of these early-morning swims recounted a conversation she had had with one of the young guys in the pool. His question being, more or less, was I drowning. Well, she explained, not really. And left it at that. My stroke, whatever one manages with a single leg and arm, resembled controlled drowning. The word itself, stroke, rippling its many meanings across the chlorinated water.
And rippling across time with this essential truth. It does not matter what kind of nerve you are losing. Be grateful that at least some time you can get it back.