Way back in my first life, I loved being in or on the water. I used to enjoy canoeing, water skiing, fishing, scuba diving, boating, swimming and so on. A friend and I used to camp at a local lake and swim to a nearby island for exercise, about 500 yards away.
Since becoming a quadriplegic in 1986, I always wondered if I would float or sink, and could I swim? The thought of resuming one of my favorite sports was enticing. A quadriplegic friend let me know that she swims regularly, so it seemed like a great thing to try.
To test my buoyancy, my wife Terry and I rent a vacation house with a pool and hot tub in the back yard. She places our aluminum wheelchair ramp at the edge of the pool so it slopes into the shallow end. She walks up and down it to test it — safety first! It looks like it should work fine to get me in. Thoughts of swimming great distances for long periods of time flood my mind. I imagine leisurely paddling around, effortlessly gliding in the nice warm water, enjoying the hot sun. It is going to be so much fun!
“No need for a ramp. One push and we’ll get you in there real quick,” teases my friend Joe.
“OK, I want a life-jacket,” I say, remembering a failed kayaking attempt.
Earlier we turned on the pool’s propane water heater, totally unaware of just how much propane it takes to heat an outdoor pool. About $100-worth later, the pool is at 60 degrees or so. Yay.
“Good enough, let’s try!” I say, picturing $20 bills going up in smoke.
They put a lifejacket on me, snickering at the possibilities for the near future … do they know something?
Terry and Joe slowly wheel me down into the water. My feet touch the water and I feel a bit of a tingling sensation up the back of my neck, hmmm. Tingling feelings are usually reserved for pain-indication, but not nice warm water, right? I go down farther, this’ll be awesome!
“How’s the water?” says Joe.
“Seems OK, let’s do it,” I reply.
“Too cold?” asks Terry.
“No,” I say. Bear in mind I have no feeling below the chest.
The water now reaches my chest.
“OK, a little deeper, let’s see if I float,” I say.
“You should be getting there,” says Joe.
“I think it’ll work on my back,” I say. The cold water creeps up to my ears.
“How’s the water?” laughs Joe, no hint of sympathy in his voice.
“Friggin’ cold, thank you very much,” I say.
The water sucks my breath away. My body reacts, and any nonessentials are retracted to warmer climes. “Holy bleep! This is cold!”
There’s no turning back now! OK, pride and ego, gonna need your A-game to get me through this! We quads are notoriously cold almost all the time, even without Arctic waters! I start floating and get rolled onto my back. The lifejacket does its job — it seems face-up is much preferable to face-down when in water.
It feels kind of creepy at first, lying on my back with my head half under. The cold is numbing, and I see the smirks being exchanged, but I’m not complaining. After a few minutes, the situation seems stable, which is more than can be said for a few of the participants. Sometimes I think they just like to see me screw up.
Next to try swimming. I get my bearings. I sure don’t want to zoom across and hit the other side of the pool. I try to move my arms out to the side, slowly and cautiously. In the weightlessness of water, it is hard to straighten my arms. I try to throw them out to the side, over and over. It doesn’t appear to be having the desired effect. I try harder — now I’m whipping up a pretty good froth on the pool and, looking around, I see that there’s been no progress. Something must be impeding me.
I check to see if my helpers are holding me back. Nope. More thrashing ensues, and I do manage a pretty fair wounded-fish imitation. I’m grateful there are no great white sharks in the pool. I’m sure that I’m moving now, and look over the side to check. Out of the corner of my eye I see a dead bug floating by, pushed by a breeze. What a show-off.
Not to be out-swam by a dead bug, I pick up the pace. Evidently it must’ve been a water-bug, as I was far out-classed, and it kept zooming on. I thrashed and flailed. Apparently producing equal amounts of forward and rearward thrust is counterproductive. I wouldn’t be surprised if rescuers from Greenpeace show up.
About 15 minutes of movement-free floating later, I’m seizing up from the cold. It’s time to call it quits.
“I’m done, getting cold” I say.
“OK, let’s get you out.”
They drag me by the lifejacket over to the wheelchair. Now I’m moving! I’m pulled up the ramp and into the welcoming sun. My body starts to warm and un-seize. I’m disappointed by the results, but now know where I stand when it comes to swimming, so to speak — equally bad at both.
Life is all about learning. I learned that I can float with a lifejacket. I learned that I don’t swim like I used to. I learned that 60-degree water is way too cold for me!
I can now rest assured that if I’m on a cruise ship and it sinks 6 inches from shore, with the right wind, I will be safe.