It wasn’t my usual graduation, and I’ve attended many—six of my own and over fifteen as a college prof. I didn’t wear my flame-red regalia with its royal-navy, velvet, six-pointed tam. I didn’t process with former colleagues to Pomp and Circumstance. And, afterward, I didn’t mingle with parents of my nursing students to thank them for sending their children to our college and paying my salary.
The idea for this graduation was born in my doctor’s office a few days before—on a Monday. I needed to have a prescription refilled—one the doctor couldn’t reorder over the phone because the original script had come from another doctor on a previous health care plan under a different insurance company. I intended a five-minute visit—long enough for my Harry Potter look-a-like to print in his precise handwriting the name, dose, and directions for the one medication, then add “90-day supply” to meet my new mail-order requirements.
Instead, Dr. Potter, with his shaggy brown bangs and round wire glasses, had other plans. “As long as you’re here, I want to listen to your lungs. Take a deep breath in…” He danced his stethoscope from place to place over my white knit shirt. Then he listened to my heart, inspected my ankles—he must have seen how slim they were between my jean capris and three-strapped leather sandals, no edema—and palpated my shoulders. He told me my neck muscles were tight. “Are you sure you have no problems?”
“Absolutely. For once, I’m fine,” I said from my perch on the end of the exam table. “I’ve told myself I’m not having fibromyalgia anymore, so I don’t have it.”
Harry laughed, crushing my chart against his white-coated chest. “That’s positive thinking if I ever heard it. How do you think it will go?”
He’d been my doctor for a year—a resident who told me on my first visit to him, at the clinic where I go for healthcare, that I looked like his mother and that he’d be at the clinic on Mondays for three years. Since he seemed to like his mother, I said I’d get sick only on Mondays.
I told him that my so-called positive thinking had worked once before for a ragweed allergy. The allergy started just before seven in the morning in August of 1962. I was a senior in nurses’ training working nights on the fourth floor men’s ward. I glanced up from signing off charts, looked out the window at the white steeple of a red-brick church in the distance, and sneezed. I did not stop sneezing from mid-August to the first frost in October for thirty years. Since the first sneezing started a few weeks before our wedding, I’d reminded my husband, Marv, many times that it was the impending stress of marrying him that prompted my immune system to rebel. That part of the story, I did not tell Dr. Potter.
But I went on to tell him that in August of 1992, I’d gotten a new faculty position an hour from home. I knew I couldn’t drive that distance with the sleepy side-effect of antihistamines. I called on God: “You know I can’t handle this new job with ragweed. I’ve been miserable every fall long enough. Please, if it be your will, take it away.”
“And,” I said to Harry with a big flourish of righteous accomplishment, “I’ve not had ragweed since. Twelve years already. And, now I’ve found if I don’t allow my fibromyalgia to control me, I can be in control of it. Make sense?”
“Yeah. A positive attitude will certainly help.” Harry nodded and grinned. “So, since you’re feeling so much better than last time, I want you to step up your exercise program.”
This announcement led to a twenty-minute discussion of the value of weight-bearing exercises (walking, jumping, jogging) and calorie-burning aerobics for aging souls, in addition to the stretching exercises and mild aerobics I already did three times a week in a warm 93-degree therapy pool. I joined other saints, or martyrs—depending on one’s point of view, nursing aches and pains in body parts hidden under the bath-like water.
I squirmed on the exam table, wrinkling the tissue-like paper under me. I could feel its silky texture in my hands as I imagined tearing the used portion off after my visit, stuffing it in the waste can, and pulling down another length from the roll hidden under the top of the table. Like I’d done between patients when I worked in a doctor’s office in the late seventies.
It was past time for me to leave—my parking fee was growing. The year before when I’d been here the office validated the parking ticket so there was no cost to park. Now my fee was going to flip from two to four dollars in a few minutes.
After I assured Harry I would hop into a more rigorous exercise routine, I walked the half-mile to the parking garage, paid four dollars, and headed fifteen miles to the health club. I slipped quietly into the warm therapy pool, letting myself down as if into a toaster set on low, and slowly swished my dumbbells up and down and back and forth. There was no one else in the pool that day and I relished the silence to think. How would I step up my exercise program?
Three days later, I returned to the club in the early morning, a new time for me. I sank gratefully into the therapy pool. A lone occupant said good morning. I started my routine. Minutes later, women ranging in age from 40 to 80 and in size from 4 to 44 came through the door of the locker room on the far side of the large high-ceilinged room. They gathered around the adjacent lap pool that separates the therapy pool from the locker room.
I asked my companion if there were a class starting in the other pool. She said, “Oh yes. There’s always one on Thursday mornings. A wild one. All I see is people jumping and water flying. I wouldn’t go if I were you. They go way overboard and that pool’s way too cold.”
Indeed, that’s what we therapy-pool exercisers called the other pool—the cold pool. A chilling ten degrees cooler than our bath-like luxury. At 83 degrees, it was enough to make one’s blood freeze, form a clot, cause a heart attack. Or a stroke.
At that moment, I felt a hot flush in my cheeks. A wave of heat crossed my chest. I’d been having these hot flashes lately in this warm pool. A rekindling of post-menopausal fires that I thought had been put out for good. Suddenly, I needed to cool off. So, without thinking, I strode toward the steps of the pool. My mind crackled with sparks of self-talk: “You could make the break now. You could plunge yourself into the cold water. You could ‘step up your program’ after six months in this comforting pool to the challenging pool next store.”
It was a major decision. If I crossed over, would I be able to keep up with the class? Or would I have to return in embarrassment to my less demanding set of exercises?
I walked up the five steps. As I stepped onto the floor separating the pools, I began to hear a familiar beat in my head. It prompted me to march the fifty or so steps to the stairs down into the other pool. Dum, dum, dum-de-dum, dum, dum. Fa, fa, me-fa-so, re do. My mind sparked with recognition. “Pomp and Circumstance.” Could it be I was on my way to another graduation? Wearing a one-piece navy swimsuit with two white bold stripes across the chest and white aqua-aerobics shoes? The closest thing to a flame-red robe and navy tam.
The ceremony began. I marched down the steps of the cold pool, immersed myself up to my neck, gasped for a breath, and hoped my heart would keep beating. I moved quickly up and down through the water to try to warm myself. I could hear my body saying, “What did I do to deserve the cold treatment?” I shivered. Goose bumps popped up on my arms. My hot-flashed face cooled immediately. It may have turned as white as a Lake Michigan buoy.
The teacher—thirties, spandex, head-set microphone—bounced at the side of the pool. An energizer bunny.
“Morning, ladies! Let’s go! March in place. Stomp your feet. Raise those knees…”
I went into a zone, similar to how my son described his basic training in the Army. “You keep up with the drill sergeant’s commands. Hurting or not. Tired or not.” Hut, two, three, four. Hut, two, three, four.
“Jumping jacks. Bunny hops. Skis.” Bunny screamed relentlessly with a look of permanent ecstasy on her unlined face.
My arms flew up, down, around. My legs extended forward, backward, sideways. My feet jumped side-to-side the length of the pool. My waist even twisted and bent.
I was almost oblivious of my aqua classmates, so hard was I trying to keep up. I did see some gray heads and thought, if their hearts were not arresting, mine could survive.
“Jump and turn, Jump and turn. NO, ladies. A whole turn. Not a half-turn,” our commander said.
I had done the half-turn. The person behind me had done the whole turn. We were face-to-face. Oh no. She looked familiar. Regular-color brown hair. Younger. Young. How did I know her?
On command, I completed my half-turn to face forward again. Away from a potentially embarrassing encounter. What did I look like? Sluggish, breathless, pasty?
I dared not look at the wall clock. I had no idea how long this class lasted and didn’t even want to know how many interminable seconds might be left. This was the most active graduation I’d ever attended. Usually I sat in the front row of the chapel and watched graduates’ feet march across the stage in front of me. Flip-flops to spike heels for women. Tennis shoes to leather loafers for men. Occasionally bare feet.
The recessional finally started. “Take a deep breath in, raise your arms over your head, clasp your hands, stretch, higher, lower your arms, exhale,” the bunny said, slowing her instructions and lowering her voice. “Now wrap your arms around you, hug yourself, tell yourself ‘good job.’”
I limped to the side of the pool. The teacher saw me and jumped in the pool beside me. “You’re new in my class. Welcome. Hope you enjoyed yourself.”
Enjoy myself. Webster says this means “to have a good time.” Was this how I’d describe the hour-long wear and tear on all the gears in my body?”
Wanting to be a perennial ageless good sport, I said, “Oh, I did. I’ve been coming here for six months and have always gone to the therapy pool. But today I decided on a whim to graduate and come to this pool to try the more demanding exercises.”
“What a fantastic graduation. I think a lot of those people,” she waved her hand toward the bobbing gray heads in the therapy pool, “could come over here. They just don’t know it.” She threw some floating Styrofoam noodles on the side of the pool. “Well, I’m glad you tried this. I teach it every Thursday, so feel free to come again.”
As I turned to walk up the steps, legs feeling like wobbly strips of rubber, I heard a voice saying, “INA, right?”
I turned to see my backyard brown-haired young swimmer. That was it. I knew her from state-level meetings of the Illinois Nurses Association when I’d been active some years before. We submerged ourselves again in water to keep warm and chatted about nursing—my retirement, her rehab position; my health, her mom’s health. I told her I considered this foray into the lap pool a graduation. She agreed. Her mom was a therapy-pool regular and would never be able to change. We agreed that it’d be fun to see each other regularly in this class.
That meant I’d have to go again.
I carried my gym bag, instead of a diploma, out to the parking lot. I gave myself my own graduation party. I drove a few blocks to Borders, picked up a few books to peruse, ordered a sugar-free chocolate mocha, settled into a black leather couch, and started with Leslea Newman’s Write from the Heart. In a potpourri of inspirational words, Newman seemed to read my mind. She said women have interesting things happen every day that deserve to be written. And they should grab a pen and wow the world.
As I drove home, the words “It wasn’t my usual graduation” flashed into my mind. By the time I pulled on my driveway, they simply had to be written. I made chai in my favorite mug—cream with forest-green trim, rounded at the bottom—that my daughter gave me. I picked up my purple pen and navy notebook from my study, sat in my favorite blue chair in the living room, put the mug on the adjacent end table my husband made, took a deep breath, and began to write.