My heart was still racing thirty minutes into the swim, my arms and legs flailed, there was no ease or even any discernible rhythm to my body’s movements in the green murky water. I concentrated on just trying to move fast in my failing effort to burn off the energy my nervous system released. I barely moved through the water.
In the days before the swim, I had surveyed my body for any open cuts. It is my yearly routine. Just the year before I had read in the news about some sort of invading bacteria that had killed a person who swam in a body of open water – was it a lake or a river? – I couldn’t remember. I knew objectively the risks were nearly nonexistent. Plus, people had been swimming in this particular lake for years. We were at a University of Michigan sponsored family camp that was held annually at a girls’ summer camp in the Adirondacks. The mile-long Schultz’s Island swim was a yearly tradition. But, still, I checked my skin. And did the other thing I do every year I have attempted it – I asked my next-door cabin neighbor who is a Psychiatrist (how lucky is that?) – what he thinks of the cut on my big toe. I had pulled off a cuticle after accidentally watching the news.
He said to me, just like the year before when I showed him a scrape on the top of my foot that I got from practicing swimming in my short pool at home, “it’s fine.”
“OK,” I said before rambling on “I just wanted to check, because, did you hear about that person who that got that brain eating bacteria? I think he had a cut or something”
He ignored the second statement. Psychiatrists have practice with people like me.
Even though I have now done the swim three times, it still undoes me. As did the deep ends of pools when I was a kid. From the backseat of the station wagon I would research which motels had pools and beg my parents to stay at those. But when we arrived and they sent me out to swim – the sweet reward after hours and hours in the car – I just stared from the edge until someone would come in with me. And never did I go in the deep end.
The fact that I started participating in this tradition of swimming to Shultz’s island is a testament to family camp itself. Every swimmer is required to have two rowers – two friends or family members who have passed the swim test – row next to them. On the day that the swim commences, swimmers stand on the edge of the lake and the rowers push their boats into the water and head over to the starting point. The swimmers then have to walk out into the dark water, where it is shallow but opaque and withstand the various sensations of tangled seaweed and other detritus that threads between their toes. Sometimes there are little schools of fish. I can only describe the feeling as unsettling.
In the first years that I attended family camp, (Michigania East), I considered the Schultz’s island swimmers to be of a different breed. They would walk up and receive their award as I sat and watched, wondering deeply about their bold bravery to swim across a deep dark lake. Some of them were kids. But then, over the years, I got to know them at breakfast before the swim and in long afternoons at arts and crafts. Some of them were not regular lake swimmers at all, they just did this yearly thing. I would ask them questions, like, “how did you train,” and “what does the water look like out there,” or, “are there any shark like animals/ jelly fish for instance?” One woman, I’ll call her Janet, was the one who actually inspired me to consider thinking about it as a real possibility for myself. She swims the breast stroke the whole way and does not even put her head under the water. We took the swim test together one summer and I watched her swimming laps, back and forth, her head easily perched above the murk the entire time.
One summer, two months before camp, I practiced the breast stroke in my pool at home. I measured the length of the pool and figured out how many times I would have to swim to make it a mile. When that number was unimaginably high, I thought back to how long it took Janet to swim the mile and tried to swim for that length of time instead. I consulted with one of my son’s friends, a swim team member, about my stroke. She tried to teach me better efficiency. When my hair got in my eyes I discovered the magic of a swimming cap. When I swam into the pool walls, I invested in goggles. By the time family camp rolled around, I was able to swim for thirty minutes straight. It was close enough, I figured.
The thing about family camp that sets it apart from any other experience I have ever had, (except for college) is the recurring experience of being in a supportive community year after year. Initially I understood family camp to be a place my family went with other families that was held at a camp. We have attended for over a decade, now, as have many of the other families. New people get folded in each year but there are returning members that even attended when they were kids. This year I realized that family camp actually means that for one week, my family is just part of a much bigger one. There are the same quirky people that any extended family contains — the loud exuberant aunt, the cranky empty-nester that yells at the roaming little kids who wake up too early, the guy who is already doing laundry on the second day. But in the midst of all the usual strangeness, there are the people who are paying attention to things you say aloud — maybe even impulsively, things like
“I wonder if I could swim to Schultz’s island.” It might have been a statement that your little nuclear family had understandably ignored, because, well, they are used to your frequent impulsive statements that are just sometimes something to say. A harmless way to imagine the impossible.
But at family camp, if one isn’t careful, these random things said aloud gain traction, and suddenly at breakfast people are like
“You could totally do the swim,” and “it’s not hard at all,” and “we will be your rowers.”
And just like that, you, a normal non-lake swimmer, will find yourself in a dark murky lake that makes your heart pound. You will swim all the way across and all the way back because there is a rowboat with your husband and your grown son right next to you. They will be yelling, when you take each breath, “you are almost there, you can do it, only a hundred more strokes.” And you will see the swimmers ahead, the ones who cleared away all the sharks, and keep swimming, seaweed and all, because you can hear the clapping in the distance, the clapping on the shore.