By Carmelene Melanie Siani
I had gone to my gym to do my regular workout in the pool.
I can’t swim, but I can walk, and that’s what I do, I walk back and forth about 50 times—actually for 45 minutes—from the deep end to the shallow end. The pool at that gym had blue lines painted on the bottom of it with floating “guard rails” between lanes that allowed for two people per lane to use them without swimming into each other.
One time, about 10 minutes into my workout I had a rather unusual experience when a woman in a strange get-up got into the other half of my lane at the pool.
Let me give you a visual.
She was a very wrinkled, very thin woman about 5 feet tall, weighing no more than 100 pounds, with a pair of huge water goggles on her face and a flower laden swim cap from the 50’s on her head. She was wearing a bikini (that’s right, a bikini) with what looked like the cut up strips of old foam rubber mattresses duct taped to her feet.
I felt ashamed at myself for how I averted my eyes when this apparition came into my lane. I didn’t want to look at her—to see her—in all her old age, in her decrepitude. I didn’t want to see her make-shift floaties or her thin wrinkled body in her thin skimpy bikini.
“I don’t look like that,” was my first thought. “I’m not that old nor that ridiculous.”
I separated myself from the old woman mentally and hoped that nobody thought I knew her. Then, about a half hour later, as I was getting out of the shower, there stood this same old woman waiting.
“Are you (something) (something)?” she asked.
Because of her very thick accent, I wasn’t quite sure what she was saying but deduced it to mean that she was waiting for the shower stall I had been using.
“Yes, yes.” I told her, I was finished and just a minute while I gathered my things.
“What’s that (something) (something)?” she asked, pointing to the bright yellow flotation belt I had been wearing in the water. “Is it to (something)(something) up straight?”
After more something somethings, I figured out that she wanted to try it on and I helped her get it around her. As I explained that it wasn’t for your back, that it just looked like that and that it held me up in the water, I noticed how thin she was and yet, how strong on her feet, she was.
“I can’t swim,” I told her and she said that, “Oh yes, she (something) (something) too which is why she (something) (something), (pointing to her mattress strip laden feet).
And then she said something that I could only get the gist of and that sounded like she was saying she admired me for getting in the pool with my waist floatie even though I couldn’t swim. At the end of whatever it was she was saying, she reached over and, touching me on my arm with one gnarled finger said very clearly,
“You be strong. You be strong.”
It was almost as if—despite the shunning thoughts I had felt so keenly when I first saw her—she was giving me a blessing. When I left the gym and walked out to the lobby where my husband was waiting for me, I couldn’t get the old woman and her gnarled touch out of my head.
Where had she come from? How did she get to the gym? Surely, she didn’t drive there. She was almost too small to see over a steering wheel. Was there somebody waiting for her?
I actually and literally thought, “What balls.” From what I gathered, like me, she couldn’t swim either but she got in the pool anyway because, as she put it, “(something)(something) stretched her.” There she was, wearing a bathing suit and bathing cap she’d had for decades and not only that, but there she was talking to people—like me—in an almost impossible to understand English that indicated she felt she could communicate in any case.
“I want to be as brave as her,” I told my husband in the car on our way home.
“What do you mean, ‘brave?’ he asked.
“I want to be brave enough to be entirely myself right down to the bottom of my duct tape wrapped feet,” I told him. “I want to be brave enough to think that no matter what my age, people will want to communicate with me.”
I also want to be brave enough to look old age right in the face when it shows up in the glances of others, and not avert my eyes.
In my mind I saw myself in the pool the next time. Coming down the steps was the same old woman.
“Want to swim in my lane,” I would say to her. “You be strong. You be strong.”
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Editor: Dana Gornall
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