Snapshots from a swimming friendship

In this year of sorrow, plunging into the water has been essential for me and for my friend with cancer. (Photo: NYTimes)
Three mornings a week for nearly seven years, my neighbor Lessly and I swam together at our local pool. Often we shared a lane, at practice with the Masters swim club or just on our own, doing a workout she’d conjured up on the spot. She was a strong butterflier; she loved to send us charging through sprint repeats and drills that turned my arms into noodles by the end of a set.اضافة اعلان

We loved swimming together, and we loved the community in our women’s locker room, a damp little maze of shared benches and open showers. It was a tableau on aging. There were bodies and bottoms of every sort on display, from squishy baby to saggy lady. In that place, there was never a more cheerful and enthusiastic ambassador for water to treat all of life’s ills than Lessly. Though she lived around the corner from me, I rarely ran into her on land. I almost always saw her at the pool, beaming and chatty and ready to go. Our swimming friendship was rooted in joy.

A little over a year ago, Lessly, at 52, was diagnosed with stage four oligometastatic breast cancer, which had infiltrated her bones. She cried underwater when she found out. We kept swimming. In the first weeks after the diagnosis, she talked through her treatment plan with all of us in the locker room after practice.

“How great it is to have this community of women around me to help me through this experience,” she said, smiling in the shower through her tears. When she started chemotherapy and had to take days off from the pool, I began visiting her at home, just to stretch and keep company together.

Then the pandemic hit, and the pool closed.

Soon after, she wound up in the hospital with sepsis. She told me about the glorious view of San Francisco Bay from her hospital room; one night, she had a dance party by herself, watching the rain fall on the empty streets of a locked-down world. The water lifted her, even from afar.

Our swims were replaced with walks, the length of which depended on how strong she was feeling that day. Sometimes she would just talk to me from the sidewalk, maintaining a carefully distanced bubble around her immunocompromised self. She wore a mask long before everyone else did.

In the before-times, I was rarely home before dark; now, at random hours in the afternoon or early evening, my family would hear Lessly’s voice calling my name from the street. My husband or sons would look out the window and announce her arrival: “Mama, Lessly’s here!” Sometimes Lessly’s husband or 14-year-old son would escort her to our front steps, stopping to say hello before continuing on and leaving us to our chats.

Water was never far from her mind, nor from mine. We devised ways to stay afloat: I kept surfing, supplementing with open-water swims in the Bay, while Lessly began to swim in a friend’s backyard pool. Afterward, she came by and reported on her workouts. “I did a whole 10 laps with an inflatable flamingo!” she crowed with glee. “And it felt so good.” When public outdoor pools began to reopen, she set phone alarms to be first in line to snag a lane reservation.

Water has long been a form of healing. For so many of us, it’s a restorative, an antidote for depletion and depression. Time and time again it has carried me, through my own injuries, surgery, rehab, miscarriage — and through illness and death of ones dear to me.

In this year of sorrow, plunging into the ocean or pool or lake has been essential for me — it is momentary relief, forgetting and unburdening. Immersion is cleansing and conducive to play, even when things are heavy. Our dopamine levels rise, our metabolisms rev up. We can’t help but feel that outdoors, buoyed by water, we can breathe easier, even in — especially in! — a pandemic.

My friendship with Lessly began as a joyful thing at the pool, but it has deepened immeasurably over these long, dark months of loss. The water, in all its shapes and forms, reminds us that levity exists. It has kept us living.

In late summer, Lessly described two pivotal swims to me. The first one came just before surgery, when she came to grips with the fact she was losing her breast; the second was when she found out her mother was dying, from her own longtime struggle with cancer.

“It was feeling like the water was carrying me when I was dealing with these giant emotions,” Lessly said, her voice breaking. The water felt like a friend, telling her what she needed to hear: You can do this. Keep going.

Her medical team encouraged swimming as a post-mastectomy recovery activity, because it promoted healing. So, in early fall, after her mastectomy but before radiation, she got up at dawn to swim in the kiddie pool during Masters practice — though a little ridiculous, it was what was available. And it was worth every minute to be in the water around her community.

Swimming encourages a nakedness of body, but also of spirit. It has been a privilege to be the witness in water for my friend. In this stripped-down state, we allow ourselves to see each other for who we really are. Our yearlong conversation about all the different ways water can heal you has been beautiful sustenance. There is renewed clarity.

In December, after 30 years of living on the same street in Berkeley, Lessly and her family made the decision to move to her dream house up north, cantilevered over a mirror-calm pond, with spectacular views of a river valley.

“The pond tinkles like music,” she told me. “My stress levels have decreased by 75 percent. The solitude, the serenity, the nature, the eagles, the coyotes. There’s constant flow.”

Our friendship has taken us from pool to ocean and bay to backyard kiddie pool to lake and mirror pond. These days, Lessly is watching and waiting; she gets periodic Positron Emission Tomography (PET) scans and regular infusions to block estrogen and rebuild her bones. She can’t wait for summer — and to receive a vaccine, so she can swim at a nearby indoor pool.

Me, I can’t wait to swim with my friend again.