The Clerestory Podcast S1 E25

The Oklahoma Tenant Farmer and Me
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Water Becomes the Sacred

What is “sanctuary”? To me, sanctuary is a refuge, a retreat from the noise and myriad voices competing for our attention. Just as the seasons change, our sanctuaries change, too. What offers salve to our hurting hearts, or clarity to our confused minds, evolves. We must learn to let go of the past, sometimes, to find the new holy places we need.

Today, the swimming pool is a sacred place to me.

I wade slowly into the water and stretch my arms in front. I inhale into the bottom of my belly, push off from the steps, and kick. The silky water slides around my body - cool, then warm. As I swim, I hear my breath – in and out – against the music of the morning seagulls or of the nighttime pelicans floating across the wide Texas sky, depending on what hour I swim. Sometimes, I swim twice a day, when the wall of pain becomes unbearable, and I know the water will soothe my aching heart.

The pool is my holy port of call, a balm for my weary mind and the lost places I find myself in wake of the overdose death of my first-born son who left me too soon, alone to navigate the long years ahead without him. My new - now former - husband couldn’t find room for my grief and walked away while I lay on the floor, howling like a desperate animal, pleading for him to stay. Not another loss. No, I wouldn’t survive.

But I have.

I tried walking, first, for miles, but for too many days, my body felt like a coat of iron mail. I bowed my head and shoulders, mirroring the battle within. It was my daughter who pushed me into the water. She knew instinctively I needed more than a walk on the beach. And that became my miracle. No dramatic parting of the Red Sea, just a swimming pool.

Water became my salvation.

In the last year, life offered my shut-down gray heart, the haven of sanity in the pool. Round and round, like Marlin the clownfish, searching for Nemo, my thoughts and breath keeping time with the sun and the moon. Minutes turn into an hour or two, depending on the circulation of sorrow. The rhythm of my breath and movement temporarily lessen the tow of defeat. My mind empties, giving me a brief chance to be something other than a grieving mother or ex.

A phantom of depression, though, always waits in the shadows for the moment to drown me. Pain can ambush my heart and rip the façade of escape away. I falter, going under, swallowing water, gasping for air. But then, somehow, I shake my head, spit the water out, the phantom retreats, and I continue, steady, round and round, because without the sameness of the circle, I will die. But I don’t.

Hours of swimming day after day, and night after night, from spring to late summer, I catch a reflection of a new woman in the mirror - my body, tan and lean. Twenty pounds of weighted grief lay at the bottom of the pool, thoughts of what could recede into yesterday’s story. I smile more days than not, thankful for what remains - the love of my three children and three grandchildren, my late son’s daughter who looks just like him with eyes soft and brown. His spirit remains with us. I have traded pain for healing water.

When people told me to let go of the sadness of my son’s death and my divorce, that it “it was time to move on,” I began to hide my sorrow under a mask of smiles, and I’m okay, to make them feel comfortable. Then, slipping into the water, going under, staying until I ran out of air, coughing and sputtering to the surface, hanging onto the edge, my forehead pressed against the warm tile, my tears mingling with the water dripping from my face until I could resume my stroke, again and again.

This past summer, it became clear to me that being broken by tragedy is not shameful. My repeated phrase, I have lost someone I loved dearly, is the lens I’ve seen the world through, but I don’t want to be defined by this sorrow anymore. What good would I be for my family, and even me? I’m too old to be young, and too young to be old, there are more rivers for me to swim.

My swimming pool, my water sanctuary, teaches me to swim against the grief, become someone stronger and braver, alive to the riches of love and family and new opportunities. With each circle, I exchange believing in loss for believing in love. I receive the magnificent gift of beginning each day with hope and blessings to offer myself and others.

The lessons I’ve learned from pain are like water, they pass over you, but will not drown you if you keep swimming. The sacred water opens and flows through the chambers of the heart.

English instructor 25 years, secondary and post secondary. Monthly OP-ED contributor for The Galveston Daily News (my local paper), Claes Nobel Educator of Distinction Award, among others. Published poet. Mother of four adult children, one of whom is in heaven.

Discover more from Leslie Cappiello.