Just keep swimming

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My mom was a champion swimmer in high school.

Just look at her. I took that photo of this photo in 2012. At the time, I wrote this about it:

“Hi, mom.
There you are, probably about 18 years old.
You have a kick ass body and a nice tan. Five foot nine inches, skinny but not bony. Gorgeous.
A sweet smile and those pig tails are too young for you, but you are such a sincere person that there is no irony or coyness to them.

We all yearn for the past sometimes. The sunshine there and that subtle aqua of that water behind you. The promise ahead of you.

It would be a cheapshot to do a side by side comparison of you then and now. It doesn’t work exactly like that. You are still that person in the swimsuit, just like I’m still the person in my graduation gown. Things have changed and circumstances are different, but we are still the same humans we were before.

Sure, looking at this image is like a punch in my gut. Those silk flower stems and the dust and debris and water damaged and mildewed paper frame. But fuck that.
I found this image in a box. Not in some shrine in your living room.

You could go rooting around in the boxes and find this stuff if you wanted to. But you don’t.
Sure, sometimes you feel sorry for yourself. Sometimes you cry. And you call me, and we make comparisons about how much worse it COULD be. How terrible others have it. Then we clean up the pity party and move on. Most often, I think you have these sad moments to yourself and don’t even bother me with it.

This disease has messed with you in the most terrible ways imaginable for all these years.
But you are still strong. You still laugh. ”

*** Four years later, a lot of this still is accurate. She does still laugh.

She laughed heartily, tonight, when we spoke from the public phone in the psychiatric hospital where she’s been for a couple weeks now.

But in January this year, when I went back to help clean out her home, I took these images:

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It seems she had begun rooting around in boxes, after all. Her old trophy up on the mantel. Her first-place ribbon tacked to the front door. It’s not really like her to go reaching too far back into her past.

I sensed a shift.

She can’t breathe as well these days. Her years long chain-smoking is finally catching up with her in the beginning stage of emphysema.

My brother and I have joked she is invincible. Even she has said she cannot die.

She once drank bleach in a psychotic episode and came out mostly unscathed.

Eight years ago, she went to the very brink of death with a colon surgery that we were certain would kill her. Three months worth of a hospital and rehab stay and she arrived back home, with permanent colostomy bag and a strong will to live.

Her home is filthy and even an infection might have taken her out by now.

Her diet is basically coffee, cigarettes, protein shakes and sandwiches.

Now, when she leaves me voicemails, I can hear her gasping between her “I love you,” and “sweet dreams,” and “I’m proud of you.”

Thinking about this puts me into a pure panic. I have not been able to do what I want for her. I haven’t been able to save her. I haven’t been able to give her the softest bed and a room with a view of the ocean, like she deserves.

I’ve taken for granted her physical strength, and have been blinded by her mental strength.

And yet, she laughs.

And keeps treading water.

She’s still a swimmer.

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6 comments

  1. This touches me deeply… you are not only touching the general public with your postings but also those of us who are dealing with serious mental illness… I bask in the awareness of you and your brothers compassion. May this blog be one more rung in the ladder to bring awareness to the issue of stigma.
    Blessings

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  2. ‘She’s still a swimmer’ ❤
    I think I'll remember this forever and repeat its sense in hard times. Thank you for all you do here. Lots of strength ❤

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  3. You are a brave soul to share these thoughts and feelings, and I applaud you for the good you are doing for yourself, the respect you are paying to your mom, and the many people you will never know who will be moved and feel understood by your words. I, too, had mental illness in my family. My brother was diagnosed with schizophrenia at 19 and was quite mentally ill for the next fifteen years before he was stable enough to work as a nurse’s aide for four years before he became ill with a brain tumor. He passed two years later. Like your mom, he was a kind and gentle and loving soul lost in a sea of an illness that left him so afraid and ashamed for how he behaved and what he would become. But in the end all that mattered was the loving person who was doing his best to shine through. And he did. And so does she, as difficult as it can be to see it when you are mucking out her house or visiting her in the psych ward. I’m glad to have found your blog and send you love, condolences, empathy and most of all respect for the life you are living and the difficult work you and your brother and your family are doing to treat your mother with dignity.

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