Thursday, May 8, 2008

documenting change: thirteen and 2/3.

the sound of laughter.

After my first triathlon on April 6th, the rest of my class was training for a full length event on April 19th, but I was not. I got lazy. I attended classes, but I skipped workouts here and there. On April 19th, my classmates did their second event, and our class ended. Then I got REALLY lazy. I managed to stop swimming all together.

A week before my second triathlon, a wave of reality hit. I realized I better get back to work. On Monday I went to swim and I could barely swim 100 meters. HOW DID THIS HAPPEN? Panic. I began to swim every day, trying to build back up to the 350 meters I would need to do for my triathlon. On the Friday before, I managed to do 300 meters, resting for about a minute between each 100.

It was not looking so good.

On the day of the event, I rushed to the site, got registered, set up my transition area, and ten minutes before the race began, I decided to have a look at the pool to help relax me. I walked into the Natatorium. My eyes grew at the sight before me. An Olympic sized pool?! This was not relaxing at all. This was terrifying. And unexpected. And it made my breath short.

Here is what I did. First, I put myself in the last group of swimmers – the ones who would swim the 350 meters in 15 minutes or more. (I had timed myself at 14 minutes). Since we all wore ankle bracelets with chips in them that began timing when we entered the water, we were really competing against ourselves. This gave me an extra twenty minutes to calm down.

One: I stretched. Calves. Hamstrings. Arms. Neck. Quadriceps. Over and over, I stretched.

Two (simultaneous to stretching): I observed. I watched swimmers who entered the water first get tired, flip over to do back stroke. Some alternated between freestyle and sidestroke. I saw some struggling to swim with their heads above water. I realized that I am not the only person who struggles with swimming. Even if these other women are faster, they’re not necessarily better, and swimming isn’t necessarily easy.

Three: I strategized. If I get tired and can’t make it from one end of the pool to the other, nothing is stopping me from hanging onto the ropes if I need to. If I need to rest at the end of the pool lane, there is no person who will tell me not to rest. If, while I’m swimming, I need to flip over and do backstroke, there’s no reason not to.

Four: I breathed. Breath from your diaphragm. Nice. Slow. Full. Breaths. No more being short of breath. Nice. Slow. Full. Breaths.

Five: I comforted someone else. As I quietly breathed and stretched and watched and thought, there were four girls behind me who were talking and talking and talking about how scared they were. About how crazy they were to think they could do this. I turned to them. I said aloud: “If you need to rest midway, hang onto the lane ropes. Nothing is stopping you from doing so. If you need to take a minute at the end of the lane to catch your breath, take it. No one’s gonna tell you not to. Just do whatever you need to do to finish. Because you can finish." Then, firmly, I added, "You can do it.” Hearing the words come from my mouth made me remarkably calm.

Six: I had a revelation at the perfect moment. Just as I was about to enter the pool, I thought, You love to swim. You LOVE the water. Why are you scared of a thing that brings you such joy? Get in there and have fun for god’s sake. If you’re gonna do something you love, have FUN while you’re doing it! Simple and startling revelation. My god, I am right! And getting into the water, I felt really, really happy.

Seven: I remembered something as easily as I'd put it in the bottom of my psyche. My mom could never swim. She was scared of the water, and I have never been.

Eight: I had an idea. Mom, I’m going to take you on the funnest swim you’ve ever been on. Get on my back and let’s GO.

GO. The woman called. And I WENT. Steady. Steady. Steady. Until I bumped someone’s foot. Oh my god. I need to pass her. I shoved my head back under the water and passed her. Oh my god. I just passed someone. Mom, are you having fun? Let’s go. And I swam. And swam. And swam. Freestyle all the way. I passed someone else. And another woman. And another. My husband counted six. A record ten minutes and 58 seconds later, I was done.

Here is the thing. I hadn’t thought once of my mother at the last event. And even at this one, I wasn’t thinking of her. I thought I was doing this entirely for me. But something about deciding that I would swim for her made it easy for me. And, yes. I felt her presence as real as I felt the water.

We swam like whales, me carrying her on my back, her laughing. When I got to the end of my 350, I could have done another 350. Bliss. This is what swimming is supposed to feel like, and I got to let my mother experience it with me. It was the most fun I’ve had in a pool in a long time.

I ran out of the Natatorium and rushed to my bike. When I got out of the transition area and mounted my bike, the conversation continued. Come on, mom. I’m taking you on a bike ride. Let’s GO.

My mom, born in India in 1938, wanted to learn to ride a bike as a girl. And she’d begun. When her father told her it wasn’t a thing that girls should do, she stopped as quickly as she’d begun.

Riding on River Road, I envisioned her – aviator sunglasses, circa 1980, a red, white and blue scarf wrapped around her head and tied under her chin, red lipstick, pale blue jeans, a white cotton sweater with short sleeves and tiny flowers embroidered on the front. There she was riding on my handle bars and laughing. The faster I rode, the harder she laughed.

I noticed the wind only once, and when I noticed it, I heard my own voice inside: Mom, you ready to ride really fast? And we pushed through.

When I got back to the transition area, I dismounted, put my bike up and ran, ran, ran. I didn’t need to stop once to walk.

There was a photographer on site, and when I saw the event photos, I noticed that I have the stupidest grin across my face in each and every snapshot. Mom and I must’ve been having a really good time.

While the class I trained with had not been training for this particular event, three of the girls in it decided to register to compete. So when I first arrived, I was thrilled to see them all. My instructor and one guy from the class came to cheer everyone on.

After the race, we decided to go eat together. One of the guys, k. stayed to hear them announce the results because he had to work in the afternoon and wouldn’t have time to sit down to eat.

At the restaurant, I was on a surprising high, knowing that my mom had been with me at every turn. But of course, I chose not to share this with everyone. I think I made a remark to one girl that I focused by talking to my mom who’d passed away. But it was more than just talking to my mom. I felt her presence in a way that was as absolutely real as feeling the wind brush across your cheek or feeling the sun warm the back of your neck. And I hadn’t asked for it the way I’ve asked for dreams. I didn’t even consider it as a possibility.

While we were eating, k. showed up, a smile across his face and a metal hung around a pink ribbon in his hands. “Herpreet! You placed 3rd in your age group.” I was stunned and happy and disbelieving.

My mom and I went for a swim and a bike ride. And it was the most fun we’ve had together in years. I discovered the best reason of all for continuing to do triathlons. In memory of my mom. Maybe I’ll be lucky enough each time to do with her two things she never could do, two things I love to do, and two things I am getting better at every day.

I spent my entire Sunday feeling more proud of myself than I’ve felt in a long time. And blessed to know that my mom will show up when I need her to, but also, now and then, just to have some fun – she was that way. Feisty. Spontaneous. Adventurous.

Mother's day is this weekend. And my mom's birthday is this month. On the 27th. She would've been 70. So she gave me a gift showing up, and it allowed me to give her a gift. This swim and this bike ride. And when I ran, I think she just let me go. I think she just stood back and watched.

I wish everyone could have heard her the way I could hear her laughing on our bike ride.

And I’ll tell you the rest tomorrow, because, now I’ve got to do work that pays. And because. This is a lot for me to digest still. All of this. I am still digesting.

SONG: I Found a Reason, Velvet Underground.

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