From COLD COMFORT: The Deep
Read an excerpt from Christy Lorio's new chapbook
[Publisher’s Note: Although Christy Lorio’s chapbook Cold Comfort officially launched this week, we received so many pre-orders that we ran out of the first print run before the reprint arrived. We expect to receive the new shipment this weekend and will be ready to send out more copies next week. Because of your support, at the time of this posting we have raised over $1300 to support Christy and her family.]
Read on for an excerpt from Christy’s chapbook: the closing essay, “The Deep.” You can also check out our recent interview with Christy in an earlier post.
I sink into the water, letting the pool take me in. I hadn’t been swimming in two weeks because of an unexpected skin biopsy, a measure taken for an atypical mole. My dermatologist wanted to make sure my melanoma hadn’t come back. It hadn’t, the stitches came out, and now I’m able to swim again. However, my eyesight is having problems again. I can see, but everything is off, like trying to see through an electrical spark.
Still, the cool water feels good on my body. I extend my arms, holding on to my kick board and push off the pool wall, enjoying the weightlessness as my legs propel me to the deep end. I feel free in the water despite the burden of perpetual cancer treatment slowly breaking down my body. Everything was already heavy before my eyes went bad, but I was coasting along with stable tumors. I am used to this. I am used to living my life in three-month increments, from scan to medical scan. My life literally depends on these, to monitor the cancer. My best-case scenario is that it remains stable, that everything stays in place. I am in a relatively good place, two months out from learning that it’s my time to go.
I am suspended in the deep end, my face hovering above the water before I kick my legs again, trying to get my body parallel with the board. I focus on my form, trying to optimize my forty-five-minute workout. The only goal I have is to swim twice a week. I don’t care about improving my speed. I’m not competing with anyone, not even myself. I’m learning how to do things for the pure joy of it, something that makes me feel good.
My eyes get used to swimming without my glasses. I can read the time: 10:05 a.m. I’ve got about forty minutes to go. I kick back to the shallow end and ditch the kick board, lunging into a backstroke. I tilt my pelvis to the ceiling, trying to remain upright. I bend my arms, tapping into the ballet classes I took as a child. I use my hands to scoop the water, trying to be graceful and strong. My feet flutter through the water. Chemo has gnarled my hands and feet and left them in an endless cycle of inflammation. Even standing in the pool hurts sometimes.
My fingers tap the wall. I just finished another lap. I use the base of the spring board to do ten pull-ups, something I couldn’t do out of the water. I was so strong before my cancer diagnosis four years ago—hitting the gym three times a week, running 5K races. That strength is still there, hidden in muscle tendons, but activating it grows harder and harder the more chemo I have, the longer I stay alive.
Chemo is a double-edged sword. It’s kept me alive four years, but it’s also breaking me down. I try my best to stay active, but my obstacles seem insurmountable at times. I’ve made peace with never looking or feeling as good as I did before I started treatment, but it’s hard knowing I’ll never get back to the shape I was in, feeling good about myself.
It’s not that I feel bad about myself, but life is so difficult. I switch from backstrokes to side strokes, enjoying the way my torso stretches, unfolding in ways that lengthen my body. I can never figure out if I’m supposed to kick with the leg that is on top of the water, or the one that acts as an anchor below the surface. I alternate, letting my arms rest. When I flip back around, my left arm, the one that holds a scar from melanoma surgery, is underneath me. Melanoma, a secondary cancer I had, prevents me from qualifying in clinical trials. I have to be melanoma-free for five years. It’s been a year and a half, but that doesn’t matter much to me. By the time I qualify, I will be dead.
I stop between laps to do twenty kickbacks. I press my feet against the wall of the pool, then thrust my legs back, working my abdominal muscles. My stoma scar is hidden underneath my bathing suit, but I know it’s there. All that’s left of my small intestines hanging out of my stomach for nine weeks is a memory and a scar. Getting sliced open three years ago was brutal. You don’t know how much you rely on your abs for basic functions, such as standing up, until you have abdominal surgery. I swim to strengthen my core, to nourish my body. I’m reminded daily of how hard it is to remain alive. Simply walking up a flight of stairs winds me, but cardio in the water feels good. I expand my lungs, opening my body up to the possibility that I might outlive many of my cancer-patient friends.
I grab my kick board, trying to get in a few more laps before my forty-five minutes comes to an end. Swimming is pure joy for me. I can take my mind off cancer, focusing on what my body is capable of instead of what it can’t do anymore. The water is cool and pleasant as I glide through the water, as my legs propel me in the lane.
During my last minute, I stretch my limbs. I work out any stiffness, starting with pulling calf muscles, then my thighs and my arms. I always forget to stretch my neck. There is always some body part that I neglect, which is why I like swimming so much. It’s a full body workout, strengthening my core, my limbs, and my mind. It’s one of my few escapes from reality.