The summer after I graduated from high school I worked as a lifeguard at the Illinois Valley Yacht Club. Now I believe it is called the Illinois Valley Yacht and Canoe Club. (Does anyone else find that funny?) The year was 1977. There aren’t many things in my current life that cause me to think back on that summer. When I do, I think about all the post high school fun we had, but there are also three memories that have nothing to do with friends or fun.
- Teaching swimming lessons. When I got the job as a lifeguard I was told I would also be teaching swimming lessons...to toddlers. I was petrified. There is an assumption that lifeguards know how to teach swim lessons. Lifeguards know how to save people who are drowning, and just because I may be able to save someone who doesn’t know how to swim, doesn’t mean I know how to teach him to swim. Toddlers were alien little beings to me, too. I never babysat as a teenager so I had no idea how to interact with them. A toddler, a pool, me, and my complete lack of training in both swim lessons and children didn’t seem like a fun combination, but somehow, I managed to both teach them how to swim and enjoy it, too.
- The smell of chlorine and cement. To this day, a splash of chlorine on wet cement takes me right back to the summer of ’77. Every night our job was to clean up from a day of IVY Club members frolicking in the pool and locker rooms. To clean the floors of the locker room we would hose down the floor, toss some chlorine around and sweep it all to the drain. The combination of the two presents a nostalgic sort of perfume to me.
- The day a visiting boat docked at the IVY Club. One day in August of that year, a quite large yacht that was traveling the Illinois river docked at the Yacht Club. There was a photographer on board, Lou Sapienza, and for a few hours that afternoon, Lou chatted with me and took some photos. I think he might have sent me a photo a few weeks later. Although I was comfortable with the innocence of the afternoon, my mother was worried that continued contact might lead me into the porn industry. Never mind that he would go on to have photos published in National Geographic, Life, and Forbes to name a few. I never knew what happened to him until 2011 when he found me on Facebook and we reconnected. Lou does exciting things now like lead expeditions to Antarctica and Greenland to recover the remains of MIAs from WWII. I write posts to a blog.
So what prompts me to write about that summer now? Last week Lou sent me the photos from that day. Normally, when you view a thirty-nine year old picture, the photo itself has aged thirty-nine years leaving you with a proper sense of time having passed. These photos hadn’t gone through the aging process and looked like they could have been taken yesterday. So, when I looked at the girl in the photo it was eerie; it was weird. It was me...but it wasn’t. I really looked at her and remembered:
How much my hair irritated me back then. I so much wanted it to hold the Farrah Fawcett curl and it never would. Going out on a weekend night, I would keep those curlers in my hair until the very last minute. My friend’s car would pull up to the house. A honk signaled her arrival and that the curlers needed to come out. Hairspray went on, and then there was the mad dash to the car in hopes it had air conditioning so the humidity wouldn’t undo everything I had done. Today... I don’t have hair.
I didn’t like my thighs. My brothers used to laugh at me and call me “Thunder Thighs!” among other names. They weren’t the protective type. Being a basketball player didn’t lend itself to thin gams that looked good in “hot-pants” Remember those? Today they are called shorts. This didn’t keep me from wearing my red, white, and blue stars and stripes hot-pants during the bicentennial year, though. I thought I looked good...they even had a little cuff on them. Today, while I rarely wear shorts, I’m so appreciative that those same legs will take me where I want to go after the year I had in 2015 wondering whether I would be able to walk normally again. What they look like is...irrelevant.
I never liked the shape of my mouth either. I always thought I had a thin upper lip. Over the years I tried using lip liner to change the shape of my mouth and all it accomplished was looking like I colored “outside of the lines.” I thought the natural shape of my mouth made me look like I was either mad or sad, too. Maybe I was and didn’t know it. When I was younger I would bemoan the genes that caused this. Today, in the end, I realized that if you walk around smiling no one wonders whether you’re mad or sad.
Looking at the photos Lou sent made me remember the critical nature I had of myself back then. I stared a bit longer at her. She was just seventeen…would turn eighteen in two months! She hadn’t left for college yet and doesn’t know that she will become so homesick that first quarter being 2,000 miles away...twenty pounds worth of homesick! Everyday she will cross off the day on a calendar, counting down the days until Christmas vacation. She has no idea what she will do for a living after college, although she is pretty sure it will have nothing to do with swimming lessons. She hasn’t met the man she will marry - that is six years away, or contemplate being a mom - that is twelve years away. She doesn’t know yet how hard it will be to leave everything that will become comfortable and familiar in California at twenty-nine years of age to move to a state like Utah where nothing will be comfortable or familiar. She doesn’t know yet that she will end up raising her boys in the Pacific Northwest, come to love the weather and culture it provides and find her calling there as a personal coach. And finally, she doesn’t know yet that the most profound life lessons, suffering, and joy will come from a diagnosis of breast cancer. I looked at the photo, looked at my right breast in the photo and thought, “Nothing was there yet.” She was more worried about the size and shape of it, not the health of it. At seventeen one doesn’t even think about that, nor should one.
What I was left with after all this pondering were two things - how grateful I am for being alive and getting to a point of being able to appreciate everything that comes my way - the good, the bad and the wisdom that comes from living through life's experiences. And this brings me to the second realization. I have two children in their twenties. I think back over the four decades since those pictures were taken and wonder what is in store for my kids. We all want them to be happy and have a life free of heartache, and yet, has that been our experience? What will the Universe throw their way that will be in their highest interest, but they may not know it? A mother diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer? What else? It is my hope that how my family has chosen to handle my situation, and the love we have for one another, lays a solid foundation that carries them forward through any experience they may encounter in the years ahead...and that, that brings a smile to my face. Lou, thank you for sending those pictures!
P.S. I keep forgetting to share the news. My cancer marker is half what it was when I started this process a couple months ago. Woo-hoo!