It was the heat, which had soared to new heights, then settled at an acceptable glow (punctuated by random sizzles) on the skin, and that swimming pool before me. They brought me thoughts of summer and body, confidence and a little uncertainty, a big dose of happiness. I witnessed the last before me: daughter, Alexandra, held close one toddler twin granddaughter (encased in a life jacket that bobbed at chin) and in they went. Splashed, squealing, as they sank into so-blue water (painted concrete a tropical hue) with bursts of gaiety. The other twin looked on, a finger to lip, head at an angle, wandered back to a chaise lounge, then back to check the water with tentative toes. I desperately wanted to jump in but was fully clothed so contented myself at the edge, feet dangling in soft, clear, cool water. Alexandra had been suddenly moved by the spiking temperature and inviting water when I’d visited, unprepared. But the duo in the pool radiate delight, voices raised in summer celebration. Soon those little girls will learn to swim.
So I need to order a new swimsuit. I have an older one that I used when enjoying pools at hotels when tagging along on business trips with Marc, or on vacation. I’m ready for something comfier and fresher, admittedly perhaps done with a suit that displays greater jiggly parts, even the nicer ones. Though I stop to consider my older body less than the ageless spirit: just let me in that water, let me slice through it but gently. I have enough confidence to jump right in. I want to do a breast stroke, side stroke, back stroke, then float from one end to the other. I’d even dive in if I could.
I am not great at the simple crawl–partly, no doubt, because I must keep half-opened eyes above surface if I want to keep contact lenses intact, yet also see. I need prescription swim goggles if I take to water more. Still, swimming is not my best athletic activity. It might be one–I am a water lover from way back when we kids and adults all jammed into old Central Park swimming pool. But I’d need a pool more handy. If there also was no pandemic to beware. For now I need to find place and time where I’m able to swim without being bonked on the head with sudden flailing feet or a crocodile floatie. My own neighborhood pool is likely re-opened; part of a recreational center, it is indoors only, however. I want sunshine bathing arms, chest, face, legs–not a glare of overhead fluorescent lights.
I watch twins and daughter and decide I will buy a new suit, pronto. I will swim, too. Even if the thought of my flesh exposed gives me a a very minor pause. What can I tuck away, what can be freed up? Does it even matter to me? I go home when the fun is done and recall how it has been thus far to romp about in this body. It has been pretty much a blast.
Wasn’t it, isn’t it?
Overall. The higher points making up for the low, and far more often than not, anymore.
Okay, let’s get the hard part of the story over with. There are pictures of me I wish were never taken; many have been torn up and tossed. We all have those, of course. But for me they reveal several years of telltale signs of a life unwell. The sharp truth of things. I look into those bluely hollowed eyes and ask: Where were you? Who took over? Yet it was me, all along, only hijacked here and there. Taken leave of a full array of senses at times. Hungry even if unaware of it, often lonely, unfortunately rather angry though trying hard not to be, and tired. I often seem grim even when trying to smile, as if I begrudged anyone daring to snap the shot. And see the reality: Cynthia, surviving but struggling.
I was far too thin. I don’t think I knew how thin until I saw the photos. So thin that I had trouble finding clothes to fit without checking the youth section–finding a women’s size 0 or 00 was almost impossible. This is not preferred when you are an adult. Not when everything hangs from your spare shoulders and bony hips, as if you are a mannequin. Yet, how often other women remarked they wished they had such a “problem”… I must emphasize: it was a terrible way to live. I weighed perhaps 100 pounds, often less. I know this not because we had a scales; I mostly haven’t had one, at all. But my doctors weighed me every time w ith a shake of the head, and remarked on it as it dipped, fell and then rose a tiny pound or two–and it left me without much fat on my bones. I dreaded those scales.
I look, in those pictures, emaciated. I look, during those times, haunted. Exhausted. I’d be awake until 1 or 2 am, doing laundry, ironing, planning for the next day’s schedule for five children’s activities. Writing a bit. Then up by 6:30 am.
Which would have been alright in my twenties and thirties except that I could barely eat. I did sleep, wiped out each night. All young parents get tired. They just have more fuel than I had to get up and do it all over again. I was chronically ill but didn’t yet know how ill.
I had been diagnosed with colitis at 21, and the years following was given more related diagnoses. They all meant the same thing to me: challenges to overcome. A body that sometimes seemed to hate me as I grew up, one I have needed to love and care for. We had been in happy cahoots so long…not so much, anymore. I tried to be as strong as I needed to feel. It worked as long as I could act as if all was alright.
But I also sometimes drank too much; it took less than you’d imagine to do the job with little fat on my body plus a history of substance abuse as a teen. Two or three stiff mixed drinks gulped when everyone was gone, a quick shot in the shower. Believe me, even a few weeks of this impacted my life–and using up a great deal of energy. It didn’t improve things though it numbed part of the pain awhile. But not all. There were marital problems, kid worries, money challenges–all the time, all those years. Digestion problems had been in my life since childhood and then alcohol did more damage to my system.
I ate what I could manage; eating had long and often made me sick as if I had flu or food poisoning. It was a challenge to enjoy any entire meal that I prepared daily for our family. I ate a few scraps as I washed their plates. And a lot of bread with butter, jam, a dab of peanut butter as that usually settled okay.
Gastroenterologists gave me medications that were frankly addictive. I ended up in the hospital for substance issues and was seriously informed I was beginning to starve. It wasn’t pretty, it was first another ER and then writhing in bed feeling caged and too ill. I had severe gastritis, and the colitis had worsened. It was a shock to me, the near-starving part. I didn’t drink a lot, not as much or often as others; I took my prescriptions and had found them difficult to cut back, stop. The fact was, I ate the best I could and never could keep any good weight on. I smoked Newport cigarettes and drank too much coffee and I only learned later that these added to the problems.
At some point I thought I’d get stronger, enough to keep on, and so drank protein drinks once a day as well as a very ight meal and engaged in body building at the gym 4-5 times a week. I developed much better muscle and better peace of mind, but my 5 ft. 4 inch body was basically all muscle and lots of obvious bones…No one helped me with nutrition those years, and I knew too little to sufficiently address my needs. I had tried to trust doctors so turned to them again: Find me safer drugs, I have a busy life to try to manage! Eventually I got a bit better. Again, shuffled drugs to maintain some semblance of eating.
This went on so many years it was just life, the weight up and down–105, 100, 95 lbs., lower. (Once a little boy asked his mother if I was a boy or a girl when at the swimming pool. I was wearing a bikini but was so skinny it was apparently hard to be sure…) Because I was in chronic pain when I ate, but in chronic pain when I didn’t. It could fell me, bring on gritted teeth and blinked away tears and send me to the emergency room. I tried to hide it from the children, even hid myself until it passed; I did not complain unless it was too much. I had to keep going, that was all. It was just colitis acting up, it wouldn’t kill me I had been told. (At 21, when married the first time, I sipped on a bottle of paregoric gotten in an Appalachian pharmacy during our honeymoon. It was needed to keep on and eat at all; we were camping, I wanted to be alright. Six months later I was in the emergency room seriously ill with much blood loss but recall nothing of the week there except IVs and being nauseous when offered real food again.)
In any case, I had attended university and a decade later believed I needed to accomplish far more. So I got a nice job that started my human services career. And took care of the growing kids as my husband travelled more, climbing up his ladder of success. I exercised and worked on staying alcohol free and staying off prescribed drugs that were still problematic (being narcotic- and barbiturate-based). I was successful much of the time although that made the s symptoms harder to bear. Discouragement dogged me. One doctor suggested a partial colostomy as a final option. Or just live with it. I left in tears, yet was determined to find another way.
But how? It was what it was, and I did know it could be worse. I was not terminally ill as long as I stayed sober and clean. I still found much to appreciate in my life. It just took some work–except for my children, whom I loved beyond reason. For whom I so wanted to be well.
Years passed. There came a more committed sobriety, a couple of divorces, a move to Oregon, a new battery of doctors. Food intolerances, I was told, were the big bad extra culprit. I could learn to help myself more! Discovering I was severely lactose intolerant was a revelatory experience. It wasn’t the entire answer, but a major change in my well being. I learned about other foods I tolerated poorly. I discovered that it was a kind of genetic Achilles heel–most of my birth family had similar or the same diagnoses, I discovered when talking more with them. (Also, my children have coped with this to some degree.) I began to eat more healthily, a diet I could better live with, and began to gain a bit of weight. Even if I had the same diagnoses, I learned how to manage all more effectively.
I was in my early forties before I knew all this. For a short time I bitterly asked God why I had to lose so much time, be sick so long along with all other ordeals. But that attitude got me exactly nowhere fast except in a pit of self pity, as usual, so I looked forward to better times.
One day my young adult son told me after a big hug “hello”: “This is how my mother should feel when hugged!”
It stunned, perhaps hurt a little at first. Then I knew I had done some things right. We may not know what family and friends truly think, how illnesses widely affect them. They accepted me as I was, yes–they loved me. But they had worried a long time, too.
It took what it took. I figured out how to avoid some foods and cautiously eat others, and feel safer about food, in general. I have had ups and downs with this; I still have digestion illnesses to manage. But in time I began to add more pounds, and discovered more energy. I was excited about often being outdoors again–hiked, walked and more. Daily. I quit smoking. I got better jobs, went back to college. I learned to steer clear of abusive relationships. Soon I embraced my life in the Pacific Northwest and became more resilient and at peace as I enjoyed a healthier lifestyle. I was opening to more happiness. It took redoubled efforts if I failed my goals, a stubborn faith, and the peculiar dance of time. I still have to intelligently oversee health problems– there are a few at 71, but none I can’t recover from, so far. But I am not thin, anymore. I am closer to an average sized woman. I am so relieved and glad of it.
Close to thirty years ago, people began to tell me I was changing, even looked different. Some from my twenties and thirties told me they didn’t recognize me, at first. My face and body changed, yes. But I had long been such a serious person and a person who kept her head up even when it hurt to raise it, and walked hard with shoulders squared to keep from feeling beaten down and falling over. But I had begun to soften around internal and outer edges, smiled more readily. Laughed. And tears were not swallowed.
Well, I said, I am healing up…I got through some stuff. And I watch what I drink and eat–I never eat dairy that has lactose– and I hike!
Long, long before all this, I was a child and youth at ease in my skin, my body filled with energy and my mind confident of much. Enthralled with life’s offerings even with hard times coming and going. I was engaged in a variety of physical activities. So here I was about to enter middle age, and I’d begun to think I was undewrgo8ing a true transformation. It seemed a bit like a return to that more whole part of myself. Step by step, prayer by prayer, more knowledge each day.
I was no longer anxious about seeing myself in a photograph. I looked in a mirror on tough days and felt compassion–for the woman I had been and the one I was becoming.
I early on felt I was born fortunate, given a life to live that had a plethora of opportunities and good times. My parents taught me gratitude, about being humble; I learned it also at church. Counting blessings was something done every night during prayer around our dinner table. And I was thankful for people in my life, for different kinds of abilities, for opportunities to enjoy learning and wondering–and in a pleasant city. I deeply appreciated our yard and fully utilized it, as if it was a few acres for continual exploration, not just a moderately good city yard. It was one of many spots I grew up with a basic optimism and my “companion” of curiosity.
And I sure didn’t think one thing or another about how I looked or came across to others. I wore glasses by the second grade as I was very near-sighted. I may have been teased a bit about the thick lenses, but it rolled off me. I was average in size, perhaps leaning toward thinner, and nothing special. My mother sewed most of my clothes–expertly but, still, they were seldom bought until I was a late teen. Everything seemed okay, good enough. Mom rarely said anything about my appearance– except that I ought to keep my bangs off my face or get them cut short so she could see my eyes and I could see the world. One of my sisters teased me at times about being thinner than she was, as she liked to eat more than I did (I’d already had a few digestion concerns), and carried some extra weight. But to me she was just my closest sister– until she explained how that was for her years later. What I knew as a kid was that she was a fantastic softball player, a good musician, sometimes hard on me but often fun.
I loved to engage in creative pursuits from a young age (a family proclivity)–music, art, dance, writing– but I was equally passionate about getting physical. Riding my bike, swimming, tree climbing, running races, playing “Kick the Can” at twilight, ice skating, sledding and tobogganing, croquet, badminton, hopscotch and jump rope, baseball and basketball, water skiing and snow skiing, volleyball, tennis, a little boating–well, you name, I’d try it. My parents didn’t like to fish or seriously hike (though we camped in a pop-up) or I’d have done those, too. They were a bit athletically inclined: Dad played tennis, loved to cycle and enjoyed sailing; Mom was on a girls’ basketball team in school (unusual for the mid-1920s), had terrific energy and stamina. By the time I was born they were forty years old, far too busy to play a game with me often.
I got a charge from the slow mastery of skills with new active endeavors. That sense of gradual confidence was powerful and pleasing. Plus, it was fun, even thrilling to feel muscles stretch and grab, the heart pump, senses sharpen; to reach new goals, to help a group win a competition. I didn’t feel inferior to other girls or boys I knew and don’t recall being harassed for being a girl on any team or for “playing like a girl” in its negative connotation. I played hard, worked to gain better skills and had a great time doing it. A competitor at heart, it was easy to get in there and push myself.
I had a basic physical confidence. I simply had the drive to move (even when playing my cello or writing or drawing). Despite not always feeling well. Despite wearing glasses until I was 14–when I became a cheerleader at school, why not? (Despite childhood abuse, which hadn’t quite caught up with me.) Over the years I studied and faithfully practiced figure skating, and ballet and modern dance. There were times I thought I wanted to be an athlete–or a worldwide adventurer–or at least a dancer–when I grew up. There was simply not enough time to do all of what brought me joy. I wanted to fully inhabit the pleasures of strength, competence and power that came from moving within my body, with purpose, for fun or serious goals.
Being alive struck me as a fantastic chance to do and learn more, human senses vibrant and responsive to all. Every nerve woke up with me as I awakened and stood up: a new day. It was pure magic to smell the flowers beneath my window, hear the babble of voices downstairs mingled with music, see the honeyed light fall across my toes. It was youth, it was being present in flesh and soul. It was simplicity of ordinary happiness.
None of that had much to do with what society thought of me, how my body or face were viewed, what I wore, how I fit in with the rest. What mattered was learning well and then doing. And just being me, living among the great span of humanity, feeling part of and also accounted for in the infinite universe. I believed in myself even if someone doubted me. I felt I could do things and so I got started and did them. My parents supported this spirit–usually.
Yes, I know I was born fortunate and that made a big difference. And I continue to enjoy discovering opportunities to embrace new skills, expand my limits, experience something from another perspective. Pushing the limit. Heart disease? I’ll walk faster, longer, harder. Gut troubles? I’ll take the pill if I must and step out in the sunlight, go on the best I can. I am relieved to be able to welcome life. To live it also amid heartache and hardships. To do this, that and the other as attentively as possible. And I have learned to accept, too, the reality of limitations when it is clear they are to be heeded. I can gain focus and restfulness by sitting out a hike or swim or dance, as well. Patience brings insights, more peace….as long as I go along with the natural rhythm and order of things. The mind and soul remain active. We have this time to take it in, accept some assistance, and give some back. And soon I am back on my feet, one way or another.
Hopefully into a new swimsuit and into the water. I want to play in the pool with our fabulous twins, help them learn to float. I want to abandon all and drift upon the lulling surface, dive to the bottom and rush back up. So I have a bit of weight on me these days, my hair has streaks of white and ordinary scars and lines map my face and body with human travels. I am not impressed one way or the other.
I think of what has been endured thus far, how my human trajectory across time has been punctuated by divine interventions, beautiful surprises. I have taken–dragged, lifted, tolerated, ranted at, had mercy for— this body with me for the long haul and it, me.
And I am not ashamed of, or embarrassed by, this loosening fleshy envelope within which I live my life. It was given to me as a grand opportunity to do what I could and still can. I have treated it much better than when I was still uneducated. fearful, lost or too ill. And my body has served me with a certain flair, and has granted me grace more often than I can count. So even with the pain: I thank you, my earthly transport across time, for carrying me still. We’ve got this–so let’s swim!