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Swimming on Cerulean Days

A daughter reflects on her mother's final months and allows herself permission to feel “blue”

By Sylvia Sensiper

The light at dawn is blue, a quality most noticeable if you snap a photograph around that hour. There is always a slight cerulean tint to the scene and the image will seem peaceful and calm, yet also project a sense of sorrow.

An aerial view of a swimmer in deep blue water. Next Avenue, coping with mother's death
"The pace and tempo of swimming the longer distance usually dissipates any blueness I may be feeling."  |  Credit: Mohamed Sameeh

Blue, it seems, is the only color used to denote an emotional state. And these days, I, myself, am blue. My mother's death was just a short few months ago and while I've adjusted and taken many steps to move ahead, lingering emotions sometimes emerge. 

My mom fell at the end of last year and when her health rapidly declined, we moved her out of her retirement home and into a hospital bed in our kitchen, engaging the local hospice organization to help us out. We were fortunate that my mother's growing dementia made her sweeter and kinder and she thanked us for bringing her home.

Blue, it seems, is the only color used to denote an emotional state. And these days, I, myself, am blue.

"I'm glad to be with people who know me," she told us early on and we knew we had done the right thing.

For most of my life, my relationship with my mother was fraught and it only improved after my father's death and I became the child on whom she had to depend. Her retirement community was a few blocks away and while she jokingly called me her "secretary," I was also her transportation manager, social director, financial advisor and health care consultant. In her final weeks and days, I felt compelled to provide her with loving care.

A Clarity of Purpose

The time was challenging and often sad, but there was also a clarity of purpose that made each day's decisions very simple. Feed my mother, change her pants (a euphemism I used to avoid the embarrassment of diapers), find her music she would enjoy, calm her down. I knew there were things she might want to tell me, and I just had to wait patiently nearby.

An experience nearly two decades ago had taught me to pay close attention to those near the end of their lives. At a similar time of year, in the spring, my husband's grandmother had called.

"I want to see you," Sittie had said and I heard her request as a desire to see our entire family; me, my husband Joe, her oldest grandson, and our son, her first great-grandchild.

Yet instead of listening carefully, I had placated her, saying we would see her at an upcoming family wedding in the fall. "It's just in another four months," I told her. 

Sittie had called that day with the knowledge that she was going soon and there were things she wanted to say.

Then a clue arrived via a birthday card, the good wishes scrawled in a spacious and jittery long-hand and sent two weeks early to ensure that it reached me even if she wasn't around. And at the wedding, one of Joe's cousins approached me to tell me, "Sittie loved you, she really loved you," a sentiment I hadn't really expected to hear.

That's when I realized that what I'd heard on the phone as a collective you was most likely a request to talk specifically with me. Sittie had called that day with the knowledge that she was going soon and there were things she wanted to say.

And so it went with my mother. In the first few weeks, she besieged us with requests for movement; to take her to Los Angeles, the place she called home for most of her life or West Frankfort, the small town in southern Illinois where she grew up. Yet as time went on, she confided her feelings, reassuring me of her love and offering something close to an apology for the conflict she had created throughout my life. 

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"You are my daughter," she told me, "and I've given you a hard time. But I'm older now and I don't do that anymore." Then three days before her departure, she made sure to say good-bye, "I'm going," she said before smiling slightly and turning to look towards the wall.

Healing by Swimming

"I'm feeling blue," I've said many times to my husband in the months following my mother's death and he always reaches out to give me a hug, his arms wrapping tightly around, his warmth a source of comfort. Then he gently reminds me that it's difficult to think through grief and it's better just to move and feel.

The pace and tempo of swimming the longer distance usually dissipates any blueness I may be feeling.

I consider this as I swim most mornings and at this time of year, the pool is 50 meters long, an azure stretch that is like the clear and open sky. This big expanse is more than twice the size of the facility where I usually swim and it's a welcome challenge in this time of healing.

When I ease myself into the water, reaching out to begin, there is always a bit of wonder about my body's ability to make it to the other side. The muscles tighten and then soften as I start out; my hips rotate as I reach forward and turn to take a breath; and the repetition becomes a motion of rhythm and flow.

All objects in water have some buoyant force that pushes against gravity, a natural law that means the object loses weight, and I take this fact as a metaphor. The pace and tempo of swimming the longer distance usually dissipates any blueness I may be feeling.

Swimming in the larger pool is both a fierce output of energy and an enhanced cadence of my watery ways. I feel an encouragement of movement. The pleasure of propulsion through the water. The effortlessness of floating on my back. These sensations are a delight that I take with me when I walk again on land, slowly transforming my sorrow into peace.

Sylvia Sensiper is a writer and photographic artist. Her writing has been published in Intima and in academic journals including Current Psychology and Children and Youth Services Review. Her photographs have been shown in a solo show at the Else Gallery at Sacramento State University in California and included in a number of group exhibitions. 
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