Okay. This is the situation: My friend Nicole is in Nepal helping to build shelters for earthquake victims. In her blog, she wrote about a platter of flowers, “red tika that the elder blessed and smudged on our foreheads.” For much of the past week I carried in my head an image of Nicole amid the ruins with tika. I spent so much time trying to make it visible through Photo-shopping that I’m running late. If I sit here writing, I won’t be able to visit two other friends in two different nursing homes today. I won’t be able to finish the photo project I’m working on for a bereaved mother I met online.
So I’m leaving you to fill in the blanks, connect the thoughts. Young Nicole following her heart and reaching out to strangers across the world whose lives have been devastated, the villages in Lalit Pur where they lost 95% of their infrastructure yet still found red flowers to give that symbolize gratitude and long life, and my own small efforts to make life better for others.
All I wanted to say is, we need to take care of each other. We give what we can. And if you’re feeling lonely or directionless, or you think your life is in ruins, go help someone else. It may make you feel like you’ve been blessed with red flowers.
The first time I was aware of the fragility of life and of being a custodian, was when I came home from the hospital with my newborn son. Almost two years later, bringing my new daughter home, I again found myself reverently guarding life.
As June approaches each year, I remember my four summers at Camp Scatico. In 2001, in order to afford to send my children to camp, I became a hiking counselor. I had just turned fifty when Scatico hired me and announced that as part of the job they would train and certify me to be a lifeguard. I didn’t tell them I was terrified of drowning.
Two weeks before camp opened, I stood shivering on the dock with a dozen twenty-year-olds. Surrounded by bikinis, navel rings, some British accents, and raging hormones, I noted right away that I was the oldest and the smallest in the bunch. Before long, it became apparent I was the slowest swimmer as well.
The first aid and written tests came easily to me. Swimming the laps and hauling “victims” to shore were more challenging. I kept putting off the parts where I had to go under water or dive. But on one of the last days, we had to dive into deep water for bricks. When everyone else had completed this required task, treading in eight feet of water, I stared past my goose-bumped arms.
“C’mon, Robin. You can do this,” they all cheered in camp-style support. For the umpteenth time I drew myself up, flipped my head and arms down, and kicked my legs to reach the bottom. It took all my energy because every cell in my body and brain was screaming at me, “Don’t.”
After several attempts I was exhausted. It was past the time to stop for lunch and most of the group left. I knew I’d be able to swim the last lap on my back cradling the brick if only I could retrieve it. I knew if I didn’t pass the test, I’d lose the job. “One more try,” the instructor said. And said again after another failed effort. “You’re so close,” she lied, “try once more.”
I don’t remember what inspired me or how I suddenly, finally, found a last tiny snatch of energy. I remember taking a deep breath from my breathlessness, pushing with all my might through the water, straining and reaching frantically with flailing arms for the brick. I remember being surprised it was swaddled in white cloth. I think I cried when I reached the surface with it. “Put it on your chest and finish the lap,” they had to yell to remind me.
I passed. And the sweetest memory I hold of being a lifeguard is of the early morning swims on the still lake blanketed by clouds of fog. We splashed in, hooting about the cold, sending out ripples, and rousing a family of great blue herons. The herons flew low over us and the clouds wafted up as we swam across the lake. The oldest, smallest, and slowest lifeguard, I trailed the others, always in awe of all there was to guard.
What do you guard in reverence, with all your heart?
“Do you remember this?” I asked, holding up the ancient rake. “I got my rake, my Wellingtons and work gloves. What am I forgetting?” The boots and gloves were oversized. My shorts were tight and tiny. No one would be stopping by so my hair was tied up haphazardly.
“Don’t look at me like that. I have to rake the algae from the pond.” I took a fast drink of water and bent down for a kiss.
“First we rake. Okay, I rake. Then I pull the cattails up by the roots. Then I get to carry the piles of raked and pulled stuff from the pond banks. Then I pour the blue dye off all the edges to discourage algae growth. And then – I don’t know why I do this every year. I should be spending this time with you.”
This is the conversation I had with the dog. She watched me from inside the sliding glass door as I reached and pulled and piled algae and old pondweed. For seven days I raked the pond in one or two-hour sessions until dripping sweat stung my eyes and my back ached.
“Do you swim in your pond?” People always ask me that. The truth is I can’t remember when I last swam in the pond. My daughter was the one who used the pond. She and her friends splashed around on neon-pink and orange poly-foam noodles, shrieking with laughter. “Mom, look. Watch me. See me.” I kept the pond clean and beautiful for her. Now that she’s gone, I’m not sure why I bother.
To keep a pond cleared for swimming is backbreaking work but sometimes hard physical labor is what one needs to stay afloat in grief or depression. Some people pray. Some meditate. Some go for walks in nature or drive fast and far. All of these I have done. There are many ways to deal with loss but the thing I come back to each spring is the raking.
I could see my inherited dog waiting and watching my every move from inside. Tearing off my boots, my socks, the tight shorts, and my father’s watch, I scanned the shallows. There was no longer any easy access to the pond. I sat down on its grassy edge. Now or never, I thought, and scooted off into the cool water. I splashed. I swam out through warm and cold spots. I swam in a circle. And hollered out to the dog, “Hey, Suki. I’m swimming. See me?”
In times of trouble what do you do to stay afloat?
Just so you know: I’m not even going to try to write coherently today. It’s my daughter’s birthday. In a week it will be Mother’s Day. And all I can think, every minute of the day and night now, is how I wish I could get back the joy of those days when Marika was alive.
She loved singing, being near water, Australia, sushi, and carrot cake. And the dog I inherited. So I’m singing to the full moon, hiking with the dog, raking algae from the pond, and eating sushi and cake. All the things I gifted her, the pedicures, the shopping sprees, dinners out with friends … I am now gifting myself.
A card she gave me on May 9, 2010 says, “Mom happy mother’s day! IOU one lunch out @ your choice of restaurant! Always, Marika.”
It’s because she wrote, “Always.” She drew a heart around the middle of the word. That’s why, four years after her death and for as long as I can chew, I will eat lunch out on Mother’s Day.
Maybe I’ll even buy flowers.
Taking bets: Will my son call me for Mother’s Day or not? Will I remember to phone my own mother before midnight on Sunday? How will you deal with Mother’s Day?