Rowing: a metaphor maybe

This summer has been a difficult one for me. We moved my mum into a long-term care home. She didn’t want to go. Mum has followed a slow cognitive decline over several years but a fall early in the spring of 2020 broke a couple of her ribs. The subsequent pain medications prescribed, coupled with the social isolation of the pandemic, contributed to a rapid decline. When she walked out her front door this past spring, snow still on the ground, wearing slippers and no coat, she was lost before she reached the end of her own driveway.  

With reluctance, I enforced my power of attorney, signing the papers committing her to long-term care.  

It felt—no, it feels—like I’ve served her a terrible injustice.  

There is a heavy pain in my chest, something that feels ancient. Some mornings I wake from dreams with my cheeks wet with tears, my lips contorted to a grimace. I realised ‘ve been grieving mum’s loss—the person she used to be who is no longer—for years, but without the ritualistic significance of a funeral. Corporeally she survives. But mum is gone. 

It’s hard to talk about mum with people who do not know her. She was not the mom you might have conjured between the first paragraph and this one. She was plagued by sorrows and suffered severe self-doubt. She was incredibly funny but also unbelievably cruel. She weathered storms of emotion from the bottom of emptied liquor bottles; on, then off, then on, then off the wagon in the years I was growing up.  

I will write about these complications one day.  How painful this love is. But not today. Composing these lines I feel a tightening round my forehead, my ears feel stuffed, and the call through the dusk from the crickets is muffled, far off. It’s like I’m underwater. There’s a pressure in my body alerting me to stop writing.  

Writing has been incredibly difficult this summer.

This wasn’t what I was going to write here today.  

I have written other posts, one for June, one for July, that, thankfully, I postponed publishing.  Age provides some wisdom, I guess.  And patience.  So, I broke the promise I made to myself to publish here once a month. It’s better this way. 

I was going to write about how I decided to take up recreational rowing this summer.  How I hadn’t been in a rowing shell since I was in high school, over thirty years ago.  How I used to love it. How the opportunity to learn to scull (two oars instead of one, which is called sweep…yeah, I didn’t know that either) summer evenings on the lake sounded like a great idea.  And it has been. In many ways. How the single racing shells are light and fast, only millimeters thick, slicing the water’s surface, skimming above the weeds. 

The hardest part is balancing the boat when you move your body from the top of the stroke, “the catch”, through the stroke, keeping the blades on the oars square when you pull through the water, your bum scooting backwards on a wheeled seat atop runners, then, feathering the blade fast at the end of the stroke when you lift it from the water by pushing down. Repeat, repeat, repeat. 

The boats tip frequently, but I’ve managed to keep mine from flipping so far.  I have had a few close calls, performing truly inelegant air punches and contorting my body into stiff shapes to counterbalance the slippery tipping point.  I was going to write about how I command myself, out loud, out there on the lake, to keep it the fuck together, to keep my wrists even and my stomach tight, to breathe out when I pull the lake water with the force of my oars.   

I was going to write about the spectacular silence of the boat’s glide when the oars clear the water and the boat remains poised, perfectly balanced, and my body moves without my thinking. It happens so infrequently and only improves with practice. 

I was going to write how the coaches, young people, motor up beside me, nod at my technique, say, just keep doing what you’re doing. I was going to write that there’s a metaphor about writing somewhere in here, but I won’t. And yeah, so what if I tip?  But the bay where we practice is shallow and the weeds sub-surface are thick and million fingered and the water snakes nose along among the geese and ducks and, sometimes, a bevy of swans.  

I stay stiff and tight and fucking serious in my rowing scull, muscling myself against tipping.

The youth rowers practice a short distance off.  The sun pools the horizon streaking ribbons of mauve and peach across the sky.  And one young boy removes his feet from the foot stops, unfurls his body from sitting and stands up tall on his seat rails, his toes holding his oars in place while he laughs and wobbles with complete control.  

And I laugh at the stupidity of myself. How I’ve lost my sense of play.  How stiff and tight and fucking serious I’ve been about my mum. And my writing. 

How I shouldn’t be so afraid of swimming with water snakes. Or crying.