Waters of Bethesda

Three weeks before Christmas of 2003, shortly before my 62nd birthday, I joined a health club solely for its 93-degree therapy pool. I like to do range-of-motion exercises under water, but the only chances I have are when we’re vacationing. My husband, Marv, joins me in a pool for 10 minutes max. Then he sits poolside and reads Business Week while I do an hour of 100 of everything. I start with jumping jacks. Then I jostle major joints from head to toe. Rotations, flexions and extensions, adductions and abductions.

I learned this routine in an aqua aerobics class as a thirty-three-year-old college student. A friend and I went to the university pool between classes to stay fit while we, as nurses, studied the hazards of immobility. Weight gain. Muscle atrophy. Urinary stasis. Pulmonary embolism. No way did we want these afflictions simply because we were quarantined in the library for a few years completing a bachelor’s degree.

My aerobics routine has provided structure for my pool visits over the years and saved me from swimming like the five-year-old who flunked breathing when taking lessons in the Long Island Sound. My joints have worked out in pools from New York to California, Florida to Vancouver, and Dijon to Cancun.

Two months before joining the club, I was warming up with jumping jacks at a Howard Johnson’s, producing Atlantic-sized waves, when the only other pool occupant bobbed over to me, leaning on Styrofoam-like wings under her arms. A tiny woman, about 75, with short, coarse, gray hair capping a wrinkled face. She asked if I was a new member.

“Member?” I asked.

“For three hundred dollars, you can use this pool anytime it’s open. There are lots of members—young to old. Why are you here?”

“I participated in a book reading at Barnes & Noble last night—across the way, here in Skokie, at Old Orchard Mall.”

“You a writer? Me too. What do you write?”

I told her I write creative nonfiction. That nine lines of three pages I’d submitted to a day diary had been published, and that’s what I’d read. I tried not to sound too proud when I added that over one hundred people had been present, and the editor had asked the few contributors there to also sign books at the end. I’d signed, “Peace, Lois.” Others wrote short phrases about making the most out of every day.

“Nice,” the woman said, “I write an advice column in a singles magazine under a pen name. Last month I told my readers it was an ethical issue not to tell a potential sex partner if they have an STD. It’s not enough just to use protection.

“You’re not here to hear about my columns. Here, use my dumbbells. They will make you feel wonderful.”

My new geriatric sexpert showed me how to use them to push and pull my arms against the resistance of the water—around, up and down, in and out. Lay language for my range-of-motion terms.

While plunging my arms through the water, my face heated up and felt as if it were turning raspberry red.

“Too bad the water’s so hot today,” she said. “I’ve complained to management, but something’s been broken for a few days.”

“Oh, I like it hot. I’ve got some aches and pains—so this feels great.”

“What’ve you got? Arthritis?”

“No, fibromyalgia.”

She asked for an explanation. I told her that on busy weekends like this, the pain tends to flare up. I wondered if my story would fit into her advice column. How to have comfortable sex with your arm and leg muscles feeling like sirloin steaks on a red-hot grill. Maybe she’d advise the use of a special cooling marinade.

For days afterward, I felt buoyant and free from pain. Something about the exercise, and perhaps the warm water, had worked.

A few weeks later, my muscles sizzling again, I went shopping for a place to exercise. I have weights, treadmill, stair stepper, and exercise ball at home, but I need the camaraderie of people to get started and to stay with a routine.

The closest place to my home, two miles and five minutes away, is a women-only circuit place in a strip mall. Not knowing if I could tolerate this type of 30-minute routine—alternating machine with aerobic exercises every 30 seconds, I explained my concern to Bernice, the retired catalog worker, who was in charge.

“No problem,” she said. “The owner’s mother has fibromyalgia. So we know about it. We can give you a guest pass. We usually give day passes, but you’ll need one for a week. Come in every other day to avoid stressing yourself and see how it goes.”

I felt a flood of relief. Someone who knew about fibromyalgia. Even how to pronounce it.

“We also have machines in the back.” She gestured for me to follow her and positioned me for a two-minute sampling on each of five machines. “You’ll love these. The owner got these just for her mother. They help you stretch and they massage tender points.”

Tender points. She even knew the name of the pain culprits. This was good. I walked out stretched, massaged, and elated. The place was close, cheap ($79 down, $39 a month), and set up for my particular need.

One week and three 30-minute circuits later, my sirloins were burned black. The lovely machines in the back room had not alleviated the flaming up of my muscles. I remembered my sexpert with the pool membership. The invigorating feel of using her aqua dumbbells. I decided I needed to find water. Warm water.

There are three health clubs within seven miles of my home in a southern suburb of Chicago. I investigated. Two are old buildings with low ceilings and dark paneling. Dismal, even on a sunny December day. The third is new with high ceilings and white cement block walls. And it has a warm water pool flanked on the south wall by massive rectangular windows. Sunny, Miami in May.

I signed up without testing the water.

Seven mile, eighteen minute commute. Membership fee of $200 waived that month. Senior rate of $55 a month—I just qualified.

Now I had a new problem. How would I justify this expenditure to Marv and his Business Week mind? What story could I cook up about why I needed the $55 per month, plus much more gas at $1.65 a gallon (and wear and tear on my Beetle) when I could have a $39 deal right next to my house?

I over analyze, Marv over pragmatizes, if there is such a word. His response, after all my worrying, was: “You want it. Go for it.” End of discussion. Meeting dismissed. I should catch on, after forty-two years of marriage, that I always worry needlessly.

If hell is cold oatmeal, as one minister told me, then heaven is a 93-degree pool.

The absolute best part is slipping down the steps into the pool on a bright wintry day, feeling the sun-soaked water envelop my body inch-by-inch. On the first step, I can hear the warm water’s invitation to my troublesome pebbly arches: “Come right in. We are here to melt you, to disperse you, to make the plantar fascia smooth again.”

During my worst fibroflares, my arches contain a line-up of pain-filled pebbles that my massage therapist rubs firmly to release. And I mean firmly—to the point that I ask him if he wants to be kicked.

On the next step, the water hits my ankles, the sides of which can scream with searing pain. Try cupping your hand around the back of your ankle. Pretend your fingers are holding shards of glass. Pinch hard, right behind the ankle bone.

As the warm water creeps over my ankles, my shoulders start to drop.

Down two more steps—my tibias feel as if it they are cushioned by the warmed towels in the locker room. Either side of this bone can become a pathway for red-hot stones. Another reason for my massage therapist to plant his palm firmly on each shin and stroke upward, stopping to place a fingertip on each stone and press with teeny-tiny circular motions for about a minute each.

I try to withstand the pain of his fireplace-poker finger. I try not to kick his nose to the moon. I try to be playful and say, “You can stop anytime.” I try not to say, “If you value your life, get your oiled mitts off me now.” I try to keep breathing. I try not to cry the load of tears smothering my chest.

He chuckles, softly. His white beard makes me imagine grandfathers I never knew. With a kind, husky voice, he says, “Gottcha good this time, huh? You must’ve eaten some cake.”

Cutting out sugar, flour, and dairy helps to keep the fibromyalgia under control. Not always. Just sometimes. Often enough to make me obsess about a double chocolate brownie with three scoops of Haagen-Dazs vanilla ice cream and a quarter cup of Smucker’s hot fudge. With a side of sugar cookies. Plus three chocolate malted milk balls and fifteen semisweet chocolate chips. Chased with a diet cherry Coke.

Floating down off the sixth step, I’m finally immersed up to my chin in a Roman-like bath. I imagine the Great Bath we visited a few years ago in England. Hot water—46 degrees Celsius. Coliseum-like walls fronted with pillars. Open to the heavens. Sun shining. An atmosphere of warmth and healing.

I warm up with jumping jacks. I begin the range-of-motion for my neck, shoulders, and arms. As I push and pull the dumbbells in all directions, I feel my muscles stretch, lymphatics drain, and circulation increase. I picture pebbles, shards, and stones drifting away. Pain decreases. Endorphins rise. Euphoria reigns.

I float home.

I’ve gone three times a week. Twelve times total. When I think about the pool, I feel an out-of-body sensation of slipping slowly down the steps into womb-like water. My body feels free as a fetus to kick, float, and stretch. There is no pain. I feel warm and wrapped and safe.

Yesterday was Christmas. Marv and I attended church. We sat in our normal spot, about ten rows from the front on the left aisle.

Looking around, I absorbed the Christmas chancel gardens of white poinsettias, orchids, and amaryllis. The cobalt, teal, and purple redemptive images in stained glass. The high gothic arches, the carved angels on pedestals lining the balconies, the glittering mobile of stars symbolizing the current Light in the City campaign to expand ministries to underserved populations.

When the lights dimmed for the minister to start his sermon, I slipped down in the pew to settle in. I clasped Marv’s warm hand and hid our hands under the sleeve of my black leather coat that hung on my shoulders.

I felt at home.

And this was strange for me. The church is Fourth Presbyterian of Chicago—a church Marv and I will join on January 18. The day after my birthday. Sixty-two years after being born into a Christian Reformed church parsonage.

Why did I suddenly feel at home? I examined my feelings, imagined them tumbled like torn bread on the communion table in front of me, and one simple thing occurred to me. The church’s magnificent reach-out ministry grabs at my love, as a suburbanite, for all things city. My immersion into the gratifying ambience beckoned me to explore the needs of my soul, to engage in spiritual range-of-motion exercises, to ask, and it shall be given unto you; seek, and you shall find; knock,….

I began to feel the love of God. A presence assuring me that someone larger than I is in charge, that I am never alone, that I have a place and purpose in this universe. Gentle waves of spiritual well-being rippled into my consciousness. Before I could find answers to the knock, the organ was sounding a triumphant postlude.

On the hour drive home, I was mulling over my feelings when I had a major deja vu. “I had a certain feeling this morning in church that I’ve felt before,” I told Marv.

Always a man of little speech, he said, “What feeling?” as he turned off Michigan onto Congress.

“Warm and wrapped and safe.”

“What other time?”

I hoped he wasn’t thinking I’d say “in your arms.”

“At the health club. In the pool. Slipping into the warm water feels the same as settling into the pew beside you at Fourth Pres.”

Silence.

“This is a major awareness for me,” I said, my voice loud, pleading.

More silence as Marv swung into the outer lane.

”Maybe it’s a healing thing,” I mused. “Like the pool of Bethesda, in Jerusalem, in the Bible. Being at Fourth Pres feels like being in the warm water of my therapy pool.”

“Good. I’m glad. Now maybe you can stop needing to justify the monthly expense of your pool membership. You’ve already gotten more than your money’s worth.”

He usually tries to say the right thing. Not many words, but enough so I know he’s making an effort to understand. He smiled at me, turned off Congress onto snowy I-94, and reached for my hand. “So, when’s your next trip to the pool?”

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