When I was five I taught myself how to swim. It was a monumental moment in my life.
I never questioned why such an unathletic kid could be so good, relaxed and natural in water. I liked to swim underwater. The water would propel me forward as all conscious thought left my mind.
I was never the fastest swimmer but I had good form. Yet I was very near sighted and people in pools would yell at me to get out of their way, to be faster, and the reverie was ruined. Also I had sinus problems that seemed to become worse with age.
One part of my brain screamed: “Swim, continue swimming, it’s so good for you;” and the other part screamed: “I swim to be relaxed not to be yelled at. My sinuses can’t take it. I hate the constant headache and the stuffed nose.” Guess which side of my brain won this fight?
But I still had walking. Wonderful walking. My legs had been on almost every street in Manhattan; my eyes (contact lenses) taking in the vibrant neighborhoods that changed so dramatically every ten or twenty blocks. In the late 1980’s or early 1990’s, neighborhoods began contracting. The Flower District was no longer filled with plants in containers that spilled almost to the gutter; the Garment Center became walkable without men pushing racks all over, and so on.
For years I had Riverside Park almost to myself. When I lived across from the zoo at Central Park, I would almost jog (power walk it would be called now) through Central Park and then the whole of the Upper West Side to the upper “deck” of Riverside Park down to the walkway next to the water. I watched the New Jersey waterfront be built up.
Riverside Park became more and more popular.
I moved. First to Riverdale, The Bronx for five years, then to Riverside Drive where I watched Riverside Park become more and more popular.
I loved the new outdoor restaurants, the piers where there would be music in summer; hated the crowds, but that was the price of progress and popularity.
I lived for the day all the waterways in Manhattan would be connected so I could walk around the Island.
In summer I would go to the beach. I had certain unbreakable specifications. The sand on the beach had to be long and extend much much further than the eye could see. Except for Miami Beach, Brighton Beach, Brooklyn and Long Beach, Long Island, when I looked west the view should contain as few buildings as possible.
Jones Beach was my favorite. It was amazingly crowded. Filled with all ethnic groups, races, genders, it oozed both excitement and peace to me. I would walk and walk and walk until I was exhausted, and then I would walk an hour more because I could never find my chair and/or friends.
Then I would people watch. Each group had its distinct music, food, and smells. This was perfection to me. In America, few people but New Yorkers can appreciate being alone in a crowd.
Eight years ago, just before all the waterways in Manhattan were connected I moved to South Carolina, five blocks from the beach. I walked for three hours a day and never thought that this amazing connection of my feet to nature could be interrupted.
One day as I was walking I lost my breath. This happened more and more.
When I was thirteen months old I had pneumonia. The pneumonia led to frequent attacks of bronchitis and maybe the sinus problems that generally preceded the bronchitis.
After getting bronchitis one too many times I began going to pulmonary specialists. Why this area of South Carolina doesn’t have more specialists, in every area but especially in pulmonary problems will be a question that will haunt me forever. I began this search in one of the first years of this decade when I had horrible insurance. But lungs are important.
At the end of December, 2016 I took a long bus ride to visit a friend. By the time I arrived in Atlanta where it rained everyday I was there I felt sick. The next day I began coughing.
The bronchitis stayed in my lungs through March. I took a bunch of tests I found out later shouldn’t have been given to me then because anybody with acute bronchitis was doomed to fail and/or not complete them.
I became obsessed with pulmonary rehab as I wanted my lungs and by extension my feet back. Unfortunately because I hadn’t failed the tests I wasn’t eligible.
There was another reason my lungs weren’t working well. I have had panic attacks since I was seven and probably suffered with anxiety even earlier. No matter how much I tried—yoga, guided mediation, and other techniques, I would go through long periods of not being able to breathe properly.
When I thought about it I couldn’t remember the last time I had taken a truly deep breath. I am convinced that long periods of shallow breathing helped lead to long term breathing difficulties.
Something remarkable happened. I was given a nebulizer. Now I’m the least coordinated person standing. But I figured if I could learn to breath underwater, so that it was automatic and something I had never thought about, I could learn to use the nebulizer.
I would breath in and out, in and out. Often I would use the nebulizer without any medication just to practice breathing techniques.
I haven’t had bronchitis in a year (kinehorah). My xRays, MRI’s and anything else show no sign of any lung damage (again kinehorah).
The pulmonary specialists here thought that I should be content with that. The doctor told me not to travel. I couldn’t understand why: “What if you get sick?” She asked. “There are doctors everywhere.” More pulmonary specialists anywhere but here, I thought.
Stupidly I listened to her. I missed my aunt’s 90th birthday party. Something that I still feel horrible about. Three to four months later I missed her memorial service, for other reasons. I would have given a lot to see all my maternal cousins together.
When I had gone back to the doctor and told her how depressed I was because I needed a trip and I specifically needed to see family, she apologized as I “looked so well.”
As I’m in my 60’s, not early 60s anymore, I have the ability to control my time. I gave myself the year off from “being productive,” or writing, and apparently organizing my house—the one I had been so house proud of.
Yesterday I had the lung function test. What I found impossible to do last year was easy this year. And the tech kept saying: ‘very good,” “excellent,” “perfect.”
These lungs are going to be babied with exercise—lung exercises, cardio and anything else like nobody has ever seen before.
I almost lost what turned out to be the most important things to me; the ability to take very deep breaths; the ability to breath at all it seemed; the ability to walk long distances; the ability to write and the ability to organize and/or clean my house to the standards I would love to have. I never had that last ability, but…..a woman can dream.
Fortunately some people kept me social, and some others called all the time. In November I went on a vacation specifally to see old friends (and some family). The weather, oh my god, the weather. It was 80 degrees here and 20 in Boston with a huge wind chill factor. I wasn’t used to cold weather and gale force winds and thought I would die the second day when just walking a few blocks.
I won’t ever feel that way again. It did get better as the weather improved a bit and I got used to cold.
Last year I had vision surgery both because I wanted it and I know that good vision—and mine was deteriorating at a record rate—is essential to aging well.
There’s much we can’t control especially in this messy wonderful scary time of life. But if our mind, sight, teeth, vision, lungs, and heart work well we might be able to keep the demons away a bit longer.
I’m lucky, I know that. I had many decades of “this is the best time ever.”
But I never appreciated everything wonderful in my life. Maybe we’re not supposed to. Maybe we’re just supposed to live. Then have a crisis that changes everything. And if we come out of that crisis whole or partially whole, the world looks different. More beautiful. Worth sharing with loved ones. Worth fighting for.
Everything might change tomorrow. I understand that. But I have today, and I plan on enjoying the hell out of today. I will try to worry about tomorrow, tomorrow. That might not work. But it might work even better than I imagined.