Last Wednesday marked the first victory of the summer: I swam in Cayuga Lake. Let me attempt to explain why I consider this a victory.
My family lives in Ithaca, a small town in upstate New York that is known primarily as the home to Cornell University and as a haven for hippies. It’s a strange little town, and I never truly appreciated its idiosyncrasies until I moved away. I also never appreciated Cayuga Lake until I spent 8 years staring into the garbage infested, oil tinged and vile smelling inner harbor that serves as Baltimore’s # 1 tourist attraction. Up here in Ithaca, though, not only do I get to stare into a beautiful, cold, (relatively) clean lake, I get to swim in it too – which is easier said than done.
My family doesn’t live on the lake, nor is there public access in any MS-friendly location. We know people with highly sought after lake houses, but they generally include a million long, steep, uneven stairs that effectively prevent wheelchair access. Consequently, if I want to swim in the lake, I need to find a place where one can all but drive into the water, I need someone to help me traverse the sharp stones that comprise the lake’s “beach”, and someone to help me get out of the water post-swim. Last summer, thanks to my mom, I found that place – it involves a mysterious key, a rusty gate and a mile of gravelly dirt road that ends up – obviously – at the lake. There is a small patch of grass that accommodates my mom’s car, and an approximately 25 step walk to the side of the lake. With my mom’s patience and help, I usually manage to hobble from the grassy patch to the rocky beach, where I gracefully sink onto my butt and crab-walk into the sub-seventy degree water. Once submerged, I remove my too-small tevas, throw them back to shore, adjust my swim cap and goggles and swim away (have I mentioned how relieved I am that this is not a public beach?).
This whole ordeal was barely feasible last summer, and last summer I was considerably more functional than I am now.
My body wants nothing to do with leaving the bed lately. I put my bathing suit on and break a sweat; I walk down the stairs of my parent’s house grasping the railing so tightly my knuckles turn white; I sit to put on my shoes and spend another ten minutes wrestling with my own feet. When it’s finally time to go out the door and head towards my mom’s car, I use the last of my energy and concentration; every step is planned. If it’s not, I fall, and it’s no picnic trying to get me up. Truly, my body is a phenomenal pain in the ass.
Swimming in the lake, though, as difficult as it’s become, offers me the only peace and tranquility I can find within this body of mine. Thankfully my mom realizes this too; so she sacrifices her summer afternoons to drag me to and from the lake - an activity that likely rivals sticking her finger in electric sockets.
So last Wednesday, I struggled to my mom's car and the three of us: my mom, my slightly spastic dog and I headed to the lake. I couldn’t help but imagine all sorts of catastrophic-type circumstances. What if, while linking arms with my little mom, I lost my balance and wrenched her shoulder out of its socket? What if I fell and she couldn’t get me up (I am, after all, 6 inches taller than her)? Worse yet, what if I got half way through the swim and my arms stopped working and I drowned? I couldn’t even bank on a heroic rescue from my 60 pound lab mix, because her only rescue strategy involves frantically paddling toward me, then paddling/climbing on top of me, and finally pushing my head beneath the water and grabbing my ponytail with her teeth.
(I guess you could call these slightly hyperbolic possibilities.)
It is with these extreme (and slightly melodramatic) fears that my mom, dog and I arrived at the beach, met my friend and swimming partner, Chris, and began the slow and potentially treacherous walk to the water. While my dog sprinted mindlessly in circles, my mom and I worked out a system: she would walk forward a step and stabilize herself, and I would grab onto her arm when she was still (with an unnaturally tight grip) and mentally will my legs to move along after her. It wasn’t the fastest process in the world, but I made it – onto the shore and down the rocky beach to the water. Eventually, with assistance from Chris and my mom, I sunk down into the water crab-style and was free. Unfortunately, as soon as I was fully submerged in the sub-seventy degree water, my dog decided it was a perfect time to swim out to me and practice her rescue strategy. She also decided that the buoy I use to help me keep my legs afloat was more suitable as a floating chew toy, and – as such – it now resembles a chunk of mangled, swiss cheese rather than a swim buoy that any self-respecting athlete would use.
Chris slid into her wetsuit (which seemed like a workout in itself) and the two of us began our swim. I kept the buoy firmly between my legs, relying solely on my arms to pull me through the water; Chris – with a presumed tear in her rotator cuff – pushed herself through the water using only her legs. (I’m certain that if the two of us could somehow combine our functioning limbs, we’d be the Amanda Beards of Cayuga Lake.) We were undeterred though, and the two of us – slow as it was – finished our half mile swim with, if not grace, then at least a respectable amount of determination.
Back at the beach by my mom’s car, Izzy galloped into the lake like the incorrigible water-loving mongrel she is, and paddled furiously towards me; she was either ecstatic to see me and relieved that I’d returned alive, or she wanted the half-eaten buoy (I prefer to assume the former). I dodged her, distracted her with sticks, and began my ascent back onto the rocky beach. Chris and my mom helped me out of the water and back to the car where I hastily removed my cap and dried off. Chris, fighting to pull the saturated wet suit off, managed to smile and say, “This was fun, when will we do it again?”
I opened the door to my mom’s car and Izzy jumped in. She managed to get her muddy paws on both front seats before she awkwardly leapt into the back seat, shook furiously and began rubbing her wet (stinky) body all over the interior of my mom’ car. I glanced over at my mom who looked somewhat defeated at this point, and said to Chris, “Every day that we can!”