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Thursday, December 31, 2009

My Mom

To this point, I’ve successfully avoided writing a story about my mom. The obvious question is why, but the answer isn’t easy. My mom takes the brunt of my emotional crises while trying her best to convince her 5’4” petite frame that she can help me get all 5’10” of my stubborn body off the ground. This relationship, to me, seems particularly parasitic, because after raising me for eighteen years I proceeded to almost immediately replace my teenage surliness with a neurological disease. And while I made it through college and grad school and remain physically out of her hair while teaching in Baltimore, I still spend most of my summers with my family in Ithaca. I should note, too, that while I reserve a certain amount of selfless stoicism for my students and friends in Baltimore, when I’m around my mom, self-pity, fear, sadness and anger creep into my daily repertoire of emotions with an alarming frequency. This leads to a whole new unproductive emotion: guilt.


In the spirit of honesty, too, I am more than a little angry with her sometimes. Mainly because I’m here and I’m scared and sad and lonely and -- let’s face it -- she is half responsible for that. Also, though, because moms are supposed to make things better, and she can’t.  She cannot make this better.

But man does she try.

I can’t remember now if it was last summer or the summer before, but it doesn’t really matter. All of my summers in Ithaca are characterized by long, lazy swims in Cayuga Lake. Except when it involves me, nothing about anything is really lazy, and pretty much everything requires a little bit of help.

(Or a lot of help as the case may be.)

Swimming in the lake takes a lot of problem-solving. My family does not own lake-front property, so it’s not like I can just wheel to the edge of the dock and dump myself into the water. Instead, my mom and I drive down a winding, gravelly, steep road to a secret and secluded spot at the water’s edge. There we have to park a few meters away from the beach to prevent the car from getting stuck in the gravel (which, incidentally, has happened), and I need to walk approximately twenty steps down a rocky hill to get into the lake. This past summer, it became painstakingly obvious that twenty steps were not going to happen, so I somehow convinced my mom that it was a good idea to get onto the ground and roll. Minutes later, dirty lake pebbles stuck firmly to my thighs, I rolled gleefully into the cold water. To clarify, the water was in the mid-70s – which sounds balmy enough unless you’re in it. It was also choppy. Specifically there were white caps, and once in the water, bracing myself amidst the tumult to adjust my goggles proved impossible. Declaring my leaking goggles “good enough”, my mom tossed me my buoy, I slipped it between my legs and took off.

Except I didn’t really “take off” anywhere – the waves made the quarter mile swim to my friend’s cottage seem like a complete impossibility. I felt like I had been dropped into an endless pool and the resistance was way, way too high. Three strokes forward and breathe to the right, three more strokes forward and another breath. On the sixth breath I tried to look forward and realized I was approximately one meter closer to my destination than I was when I started. I also got a mouthful of lake water in the face and a wad of seaweed wrapped uncomfortably around my neck. I kept going, but on the next stroke a wave managed to knock the buoy out from between my legs. I stopped swimming, attempted to stand on the rocks and watched as my blue buoy got sucked out towards the middle of the lake. Not knowing what to do, I inched closer to the shore and called to my mom, who was walking along the shore with my dog,

“MOM! I lost my buoy, I need to head back.”

It was shallow enough that I didn’t think I would drown, but a growing sense of panic was rising inside of me. Every time I got hit in the face with a wave, it grew, and when I looked for my buoy it seemed further and further away. I continued back towards where I'd started, but it proved difficult. It’s funny, when I explain to other swimmers that I can’t use my legs when I swim, the response is generally some variation of, “I don’t use my legs either!” What these people fail to understand, though, is that their legs are either significantly more buoyant than mine, or they use their legs more than they know. First of all, I am the densest person in existence – I cannot float. At all. If it weren’t for my strangely innate Will to Live, I’d stop flailing my arms for long enough to prove it to all disbelievers: I would drown. So without a buoy between my legs, I swim at a forty-five degree angle until my shoulders feel like they will spontaneously combust, then I either grab onto something, reach for a buoy (which I usually keep in an accessible location – not the middle of the lake), or panic.

Logically, the water was shallow enough that I could pull myself through the water using my arms. Two things, however, made that difficult: the waves, and the sharp mussel shells on the bottom of the lake. I attempted the arm-crawl technique for the first few minutes, but keeping my head above water was impossible with the apparent tsunami-conditions of the lake.  Plus I cut the bottoms of my hands.  So I headed out to the deeper water and tried to swim with all four limbs.  Luckily, since I hadn't gotten too far in my journey before losing the buoy, I finally saw my car on the beach, and could just barely make out my mom's silhouette.  I let the waves push me towards the shore, arm-crawled a few more feet and pushed myself onto my knees to pull the foggy, leaky goggles off my face.

"I made it!"

I then noticed that my mom was wet.  Her shorts and shirt were saturated.  My dog was in the car.  I immediately imagined the worst: my dog had pulled my mother into the lake.

"What happened?  Why are you wet?"

Before I relay her answer, I must offer a few crucial details about my mom: 1. She does not swim.  She knows how to, but I have no actual memories of my mother doing anything other than splashing around the shallow end of a sparkling clean pool when I was a toddler.  2. She finds the lake "gross".  When I tell her stories of being choked by seaweed, or encountering water snakes while swimming, she visibly shudders.  Even on the nicest, hottest days at Cayuga Lake, she stays on the shore and utters hyperbolic statements such as, "I wouldn't get in that water for a million dollars."  3. Even while walking along the shore of the lake with only my dog, she is put together.  I am a huge advocate of donning sweatpants, t-shirts and even the occassional pair of PJs in public, but not my mom.  Even in her scrubbiest lake clothes she would still meet the approval of Stacey and Clinton of "What not to Wear." 

So the question, again, was "What happened?  Why are you wet?"

The answer: "I jumped in and tried to get the buoy."

4 comments:

David Majeroni said...

great story, i love moms. i know ive told you this before, but i love reading your writing.

Kim said...

how your writing manages to be honest AND funny remains a mystery xxo -kim

Anique said...

Kate-- I love you and I love your mom. I remember when you told me about this situation (I think it was two summers ago, but maybe it was just this last summer). You write about it even better than you tell it. xoxo.

Lena said...

Your mom is amazing. So are you.