Bring a Little Water Sylvie



As I was doing my Saturday morning rheumatoid arthritis exercise routine in the YMCA pool, I heard the first few chords of the intro guitar riff to Billy Squier’s “Lonely is the Night” over the speakers. I immediately smiled. Damn. Billy Squier from 1981’s Don’t Say No. It was never my favorite song. “The Stroke”, “In the Dark”, and “My Kinda Lover” were more popular with me because they were full of so much more sugary-grit bubble gum. This song was guitar heavy and was Squier trying to play with the big boys in bands like Led Zeppelin. If I wanted to listen to truly good guitar-heavy rock, I would have been listening to Led Zeppelin. I favored the most, however,  “She’s a Runner” from 1982’s Emotions in Motion. Full disclosure: I still do. I played it for my husband this afternoon and asked him if he recognized it. No. Could he name the singer? No. Shockingly, he was not ashamed to admit that he had never listened to much Billy Squier. “Well,” I told him, “that’s about to change.” He left the room. I enjoyed the whole song. Like Billy said, No resistance–it’s hardly fair / Call my name, honey–I’ll be there I’ll give in to you foolishly. I don’t even have to wait for it to come on the car radio. I will seek it out. True story.

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I began to love Billy Squier around 1982, the year after he released Don’t Say No, and stayed committed until about 1984 when he released an awful album titled Signs of Life. Also, my interests were developing in other directions. Judge me not for I was young. Don’t Say No and Emotions in Motion were perfect albums of the early eighties. Squier, with his curly locks (somehow not a perm!) and awkward yet liquid way of moving in leather pants and scissor-altered sweatshirts emulated his own idols: Freddie Mercury and Mick Jagger. My love of him was the gateway to my love of more talented and interesting sexually androgynous men that followed. This was coupled with my love of rock and roll that had evolved a step-up from say, Loverboy. Sorry not sorry Canada. So Squier was a [sexy] step in the right direction, though a rather light step for sure. Fortunately, I had a strong foundation already from my music-loving parents and radio dial cruising ways and I was only a few years away from finding my way to Madonna, Prince, and R.E.M., and before the eighties were over I had discovered Tom Waits and returned to Bob Dylan.

Over the pool speakers, Squier was followed by Journey, then Tom Petty, then Eddie Money. It may as well have been 1983 when I was hanging out at Vet’s Pool in Ann Arbor, feeling good in my one piece suit, certain that everyone there was impressed with my graceful and knife-straight dives off the diving board, and buying Hostess Snowballs at the concession stand because I was an independent woman with babysitting money stashed in my towel and my granola-making mom was not there to tell me I couldn’t enjoy the toxic bombs. For the record, I just made granola earlier this week and I have not consumed a Hostess Snowball since before one day in high school when we hacky-sacked with one in the rain on the front porch of Community High and it didn’t break down from the precipitation or repeated kicks.



I never wore two piece suits, at least not until my twenties. Yes, it took me more than twenty years to become comfortable displaying the scars that mark my midriff due to life saving surgery at birth. (The upper part of my esophagus did not connect with my lower esophagus and stomach and there was an abnormal connection between my esophagus and trachea. So, surgery was necessary and happened immediately. Yay, it worked! I choked a lot and caught pneumonia easily. Breathing and eating created minor complications but for the most part I was a normal kid whose father occasionally hung her upside down and beat on her back until she expelled whatever was choking her. This is not the recommended method for dealing with choking but here I sit, writing this.)  I have two deep puckers near my belly button and one very deep one on my side. I also have a line down my abdomen, as well as a few other cuts around my body. The scar on my side was revisited when I was fourteen because it was so deep, scar tissue doesn’t stretch and I was growing. I lay on my opposite side one afternoon, fully conscious yet locally numb while a plastic surgeon “brought it closer to the surface”. When I was quite young and my friends and I would gather our t-shirt bottoms and loop them through the necks, creating halter tops, I displayed my scars. I was still in the free, body loving years of youth. Other kids would comment upon and ask about my “holes” or “extra belly buttons”. My baby fat and short middle made my scars look deeper than they do now. (Oddly, my middle-age-fat middle does not do the same.)  No one was unkind. They were just curious. Sometimes even funny. When I grew older a friend jokingly called me “Jesus” because of the deep hole in my side like Jesus’ piercing from the holy lance. Oh, Catholic kids can be hilarious! I was never hurt or upset but I did become self-conscious and embarrassed enough, as well as done with other children asking if they could put their finger in my “holes”, to give up on two piece suits for quite a few years.

I have always spent plenty of time in water: pools, lakes, rivers, and great salty oceans. My father fished; my family had a canoe; my mother had been a lifeguard as a teen; my family had limited money for entertainment – all of these factors added up to water sources being a go-to place for fun and relaxation. My mother was also smart and thrifty enough to know that expensive breathing therapies were better replaced with swimming lessons.

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As an adult my life has been one of pendulum swings, each period one of effort or recovery and very little time spent at equilibrium. Well, there’s now. I’m maintaining more equilibrium now. And so I have spent much time in water because water challenges and water heals. After a car accident in which my leg was burned on the catalytic converter I spent time soaking my leg in special baths so that the skin could be removed easily and as painlessly as possible. When my feet and ankles were recovering from multiple broken bones, I swam often. First, I simply walked figure eights in the water, learning to trust my feet again. In the late nineties, in the years following the broken bones, I swam frequently as a counter-balance to so much biking, walking, and running. I swam at the indoor pool at Welles Park in Chicago’s Ravenswood neighborhood, one of nearly 30 fabulous indoor pools maintained by the Chicago Park District. It was me and a regular group of older women in matronly and architecturally impressive suits and daisy-festooned swim caps in that pool. I was young and skinny and wore a red suit and black speedo cap. The ladies called me “the ballerina” because I always went through a series of water stretches. We would gather in small circles in water to our shoulders, treading, bouncing, hopping from side to side, and chat. For awhile there was a lot of talk about Monica Lewinsky and I listened rapt as they clucked disapproval at her for thinking HE would leave his wife.

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During both pregnancies I swam often – especially during the first when I had more free time. I credit so much buoyant movement, so much double-wombing, with making both natural deliveries fast and easy. Of course, my Irish heritage and ample hips also helped. I am all things: the Monty Python character dropping yet another baby, the Dickens character saddled with another mouth to feed, and the goddess warrior with a baby on one shoulder and quiver of arrows on the other. In any case, I can drop the babe and finish hoeing the row before the first nursing.


And now, I am in the pool about three times a week and in the hot tub almost every day. My poor neighbors. Our back yard is pretty private but when the leaves are off the trees one or more neighbors may have suffered the sight of early morning or late night naked hot tub yoga. In water I am buoyant. I am mobile and agile. I am nearly pain free. The water supports me as my body goes through all the motions that are sometimes hard on land. I put a foam belt around my waist and run, and run, and run. I lazily swim slow laps from one end of the pool to the other in a meditative motion. I stretch and lunge and jump. And, if I do this a few times a week, life on land is easier. I am going to Zumba again. No more Saturday morning cardio hip hop to Nicki Minaj. No, I go to Zumba Gold (gold means for active older adults!) and I love it. Right now, we’re doing the Hustle every week and each time I twirl during the bridge, I am one of Charlie’s Angels. I feel that amazing, that light, that free. That glossy.

So when Billy Squier joined me in the pool this morning, it felt fated. A memory to provoke my memories. A voice to remind me what I once was and forever shall be. Somebody’s watchin’ you baby, so much you can do / Nobody’s stoppin’ you baby, from makin’ it too / One glimpse’ll show you now baby, what the music can do / One kiss’ll show you now baby, it can happen to you. . .


Oh, Billy, so many things have happened to me. Life is full and wondrous like that. And now I’m more like one of those ladies at Welles Park Pool with gravity and my bathing suit battling for control and my own ballerina buddy in the form of my youngest daughter who swims with me on Saturdays as part of her own physical therapy. She has  to strengthen her VMO due to a ligament injury at gymnastics camp four years ago.


Yes, that camp, that advertised REAL OLYMPIANS and was nestled deep in the heart of unmarked roads in Tennessee shall forever haunt my daughter, her friend, my friend, and me. We drove our daughters down to the middle of Tennessee the day after I had outpatient surgery and the morning after the night I saw Book of Mormon a few hours after leaving the surgery center. Those were all choices I made. Amplitude increase of said pendulum, I suppose. A week after that 14 or so hour round trip in which we dropped our young gymnastic team daughters off at the camp, we returned to pick them up. We found injured girls and an end of camp performance in a large, hot gymnasium pumped with loud pop music and narrated wildly by gymnasts that had clearly been blowing lines of cocaine for hours because they screamed at us like far too motivated motivational speakers from the eighties. Other than such memories, the knee injury is what is left from that camp. Neither girl is still on the team.

And so water heals us, moves us, blesses us, hydrates us. It is cleansing and mightily powerful. Water can move us or allow us to simply float. Back when I swam with the older ladies in Chicago I learned a few things and I am happily swimming in their direction with my own younger companion, whose name happens to be in one of my very favorite songs about water.



Free Fallin’

When we encounter the sand path from the wooded trail, we immediately decide to take it. This despite the fact that it seems a nearly vertical climb. This despite the fact that my feet and knees hurt and I’m positive this ascent, the possibility of which makes me dubious, will do my joints no favors. But, there it is and so we shall climb it. We know Pyramid Point, one of our favorite spots in northern Michigan, lies upward, and this sudden strip of sand seems as promising as one of the sugary shortcuts on a Candy Land board.

We start to climb and both of my daughters, Frances and Sylvia, quickly outpace me. We finally reach a crest and I see that there are now choices: continue up the razor backbone of sand or cut right, climbing down a bit at first but then ascending by means of much more reasonable switchbacks. The girls choose the former and I the latter. I walk downhill, immediately dropping from their sights but they had not been throwing glances over their shoulders at me anyway because they learned long ago to count on the fact that I would be at their backs. We would rejoin one another at the crest. I moved slowly, enjoying the wind and sound of water, lost in my thoughts.

“Mom? Mom?!” My handle is called out a first and then second time. The second time in a much more urgent voice, filled with disbelief, concern, panic, irritation. It is as though Frances is on Everest and turned to see nothing but rope trailing behind her where once a hiking partner trudged. Oh shit, Mom’s fallen off the edge of the world.

“I’m here.” I assure her, “I just took a different path.” She is placated, though laughing nervously  at her moment of wondering what had become of me. In the slow minutes it takes me to join her at the crest I imagine the thoughts that raced through her 16-year-old mind. She is likely equally enthused and terrified. Eager to be the responsible caretaker and terrified to do it without me. Oh shit, Mom’s fallen off the edge of the world and the car keys are in her pocket.

Fortunately, I  brought my tall wooden cane, the one I bought when my feet were swollen everyday and I was teaching full time. It is actually not a cane but a staff. I considered those canes that the pharmacy sells. There were some exceptionally tacky ones: neon pink with leopard spots or purple paisley. Some had not simply a foot but a solid, four-pronged base. I may one day need one of those canes. It is in fact quite likely that I will but I’m just not ready. They feel like a permanent decision whereas my staff feels like an as-needed accessory. It is the reading glasses of my sometimes not so sure feet. The stalk of wood is an excellent climbing tool as I plant it and then pull myself up, step by step. When I reach the crest I can stand atop this dune like Prospero, gazing out over the lake and perhaps conjuring a storm. Don’t worry about me children, I’m just controlling nature.

When I reach the girls they ask if I am okay. I offer confidence and even mention that the dense, cold, October sand feels really good on my swollen and sore feet. This is true. It is numbing, massaging, invigorating. My sandals have been tucked into the back pocket of my jeans and my toes are quite happily lodged into the packed powder. They even feel a bit wiggly, something they rarely feel anymore. I feel good, happy, relaxed. I am also in a lot of pain and simply weak and tired. My daughters are smart and they know me. They know me well. Still, we all choose to together participate in a fiction we are willing to truth. Mom is fine.

They know me well because I have always been their keeper. Before I remarried and our family suddenly grew from three to five, it was, well, three. Their father moved to another state when they were only four and seven and most of their life experiences have been in the company of  the other two-thirds of our trio.  Our home was small, doors never closed, beds shared, and,  due to lack of childcare funds, just about everything done together . My daughters knew my intensity, my seemingly endless energy, my creativity and productivity, and my fierce love. They never doubted my strength or abilities. I once stitched Frances a small felt tube on a sturdy neck cord so she could carry her lip balm during the winter months. She came home from school asking me to make about 25 more because her friends all wanted them. She had a list of names. Time and energy were of no concern to her. She seemed genuinely surprised at any limitation I showed. Of course Mom can do that. I did not do that but I did stay up until the middle of the night doing many other things. I paid the bills, baked the muffins, mowed the lawn, wielded the power tools, sewed the Halloween costumes and doll clothes, dipped the cat litter, hid the Easter eggs, and in every other way assured those girls that I had it taken care of, that I was up to the task, whatever it was. And I was.

These pilgrimages to northern Michigan were something we did annually when they were little. Our trips are now more sporadic and we all love the sense of coming home they bring us. We visit a friend, a farm, my home state, and the lake that I love. There are hikes and dairy bars. Each summer of their younger years we piled into my old Volvo with no air conditioning, packing a  cooler full of snacks and books on CD and drove north. The drive took us about 11 hours because there were many bathroom and popsicle breaks along the way, but we all relaxed into it as we moved farther and farther north, away from schedules and school and our tiny home and daily life. When we crossed the border into Michigan we all cried out, “Woo-hoo Michigan!” It never occurred to the girls how bone tired those drives made me because we were having too much fun. I didn’t spend much time allowing it to occur to me either because I simply surrendered to the drive and the time with my children. I caffeinated steadily, leaning forward in my seat and slapping my own face when I felt myself fading. This trip, this October trip, is a chance to have another northern excursion before Frances grows up. She is a high school junior; Sylvia in middle school. Their stepdad and stepsister are visiting colleges during the fall break and this dividing of our blended family is not unusual. We take these moments to exist in what was. We all had these lives before we came together and we come together so easily and with so much love that the parting ways is easy and reuniting is celebrated.

The trees were beautiful driving up. It had not occurred to me that we would have such a colorful passage north. We are not intentional leaf peepers and for us these rich fall colors are a bonus rather than a purpose. No longer do we listen to children’s chapter books on CD but podcasts and shared music, which the girls tune in and out of with earbuds and their own musical choices. On this trip, we listen to Tom Petty songs, over and over, because he died only a few days earlier and took with him one of the voices of my eighties radio years. Conversation is balanced with silence and sometimes we share the music, all three of us singing along. I’m gonna free fall out into nothin’. Gonna leave this world for awhile.

It rained heavily as we arrived during the dark evening and we picked up food at the market and then headed to our friend’s tiny farmhouse. She is away, farther north herself, in the leap of land that is Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. We slept with the windows open and woke to farm smells and sounds. There were cows outside the bathroom window and horses in the sunshine at the pasture fence across from the porch. The girls slipped their feet into boots and stepped across the muddy drive to talk with the horses. I learned that it was chicken-slaughtering day on the farm and knew that I had to get us, my vegetarian daughter in particular, elsewhere for the day.

On the open dune I walk behind the girls, still feeling the bulk of my rubber Birkenstock sandals in my back pocket. They are the only shoes I wear these days and I have yet to make footwear plans for the winter. The girls are so very different yet so alike and they love each other as much as they irritate each other.  I try to not manage their relationship. I hear the bickering but I see and feel the love. I watch them descend toward the water. The waves slap rocks at the dune’s base and create a ripple of cold color and foam. The water’s edge looks perilous but the girls carefully pick their way downhill, around patches of dunegrass, toward the rocky edge. Please don’t fall because I can’t catch you. I think from my high and solitary perch. But I can or we wouldn’t be here. Despite my physical weakness and loss of self, despite my swollen hands and slow feet, I drove here with you and I climbed this dune with you, and I am watching over you as you sit close to the water’s edge and share this moment as sisters. I will climb down with you if need be. I will drive you out of these woods and feed you dinner and love you because I am the keeper of you; you are not yet the keeper of me.

The previous spring, after a year of confusing and debilitating migrating pain and inflammation, I was diagnosed with severe rheumatoid arthritis. I promptly contracted shingles and later in the summer was diagnosed with degenerative spine disease. In short, my body was quitting its primary jobs. Some days my hands hindered me from simple use: holding a mug, pressing garlic, opening a jar. Some days my feet swelled like potatoes and each step was painful. My shoulders sometimes did not allow me to raise my arms above my head and when my elbow was also inflamed, I had to manually lift my arm to a tabletop for eating or keyboarding. Simple tasks like brushing my teeth or hooking my bra became challenges. Sometimes driving a car was a really bad idea because my hands gripped the wheel about as effectively as the mitten hand of a gingerbread man. Candyland again. (Honestly, I hate that interminable game with no room for strategy or skill.) I was slow, far away, and in pain all the time. Inflammation squeezed my nerves and radiating pain that felt like fire ants crawling up and down my limbs kept me up at night. I spent the wee hours pacing out the pain or on our sofa, crying and watching old episodes of Law and Order. Oh, McCoy, you loveable fascist. Please lull me to sleep. Connective tissue hurt; big swollen lumps appeared on the top of my hands and feet. They hurt and then went away. There seemed no discernible causality between food, activity, inactivity, rest, medicine and symptoms. My body was a broken machine with electrical parts that glowed  and buzzed at unexpected times. I was the sick animal in our herd and my tangible weakness spoke of an uncomfortable instability. The girls wanted to help me as much as they wanted to ostracize me from the fold.

They weren’t ready for me to go careening off a dune, however, landing on the tree branches and forest floor behind us or the water and rocks before us. I was the driver, navigator, and banker of our travels. Frances drove part-way but it was highway practice for the relatively new driver. Heck, we weren’t even at the well-signed and heavily hiked Pyramid Point trail. Instead of driving to the trailhead parking lot and hiking the heavily trodden climb to the popular lookout, we drove into the wooded area and picked up a part of the long loop there, immediately finding ourselves in the beautiful beech and maple laden piney northern woods and headed for an open dune area less pristine than the lookout but just as inviting. On this cool and windy fall day the patches of scrubby dune grass and the wind-carved lumps and spines of sand created an interesting landscape. My car waited in the woods on the side of the road where we left it when we abruptly joined the trail until we came across the steep sand shortcut and now here we are, on top of a dune, in the cold wind.

Each of us has those things that make us, well, us and locomotion has always been one of mine. Since I took my first steps I have felt a strong wind at my back. I love the motion and rumination of walking often and for long distances.  Also integral to my sense of self is motherhood. Neither can be cleaved from me though how I employ both is ever-changing. Pain and limitations have not hindered the most important parts of parenting. I can love unconditionally, communicate effectively, listen, teach, care, pay bills, help with algebra, wrap gifts, make pancakes, make phone calls, and otherwise function in a parenting role. There is something else though that we three have built together, it exists among us and is part of each of us. We are makers and adventurers. We are producers more than consumers, and our small family was always a family project. We once drove west, following in the footsteps of Laura Ingalls Wilder. We made rubbings of leaves, one from every tree variety we could find in the Big Woods. We waded in Plum Creek, and camped in a brutal storm in Walnut Grove. We once ventured to Washington,  D.C., leaving on a Tuesday morning and coming back on a late Thursday night. I drove the whole way, straight through on either end. We ate peanut butter and crackers and walked miles every day. The girls were raised to be adventurers and were comfortable carrying their own luggage, sleeping in tents and cheap hotels, and riding long hours in the car from young ages.  I was the foreperson of this great project and now I am weak- limbed and low energy. I feel vulnerable, low ebb, old, and no longer up to the task. I continue walking across the sand.

On our return to the trail we find a fairy crown. Intertwined vines adorned with a few sprigs of greenery sprouting delicate white flowers. The full circle imagery is not lost on me. Here we are, girls, right where we started when you were little people: In nature, in wonder and beauty. Despite age, time, illness, and family changes we still find each other in this place and it is still as lovely, simple, and natural as this forgotten fairy crown.

Sylvia and I sit for awhile, scooping sand around our feet and being quiet with one another. Now is still their time to be children: and I refuse to fall down on the mom job – literally or figuratively. I am still their tether and my feet, swollen and slow as they are, are still firmly planted. I am helping them dig their holes deep and plant healthy roots and if at these still tender ages they think I have become unmoored then so might they. This is the job. It has been the job from the moment I met Frances and her helmet of heavy hair. The job requirements change everyday but the first and foremost of them is simple: be there. This presence takes many different forms and may be literal or figurative. The time will come for the burden to shift and the roles to change but that time is not now. I am not ready to be kept by my children and they are not ready to keep me. Because I am the keeper of you; you are not the keeper of me.

Just the normal noises