I have been extremely fortunate in one aspect of my illness; I am still able to swim, albeit with a sloppy breast stroke interspersed with doggy paddling when my arms get tired. This is yet another of my activities that causes people to raise their eyebrows when they see the wheelchair gliding over the tiles next to the pool, but most people refrain from comment.
Once in the water the buoyancy lessens the pain in my limbs, and I am able to perform slow lengths up and down the pool, with a couple of minutes break between each 25 metre stretch. Admittedly others using the pool can become frustrated if they get stuck behind me, but I try my best to keep to one side, and give others the space to move around me. It is also in the pool that I have had some of the most positive responses to my disability besides my writing, as people are amazed at someone at least attempting to live as normal a life as possible.
There is one particular experience from a swimming session that makes me smile every time I think of it, and is something that others love to hear about.
One of my swimming costumes actually came from the children’s clothes section and is bright blue, with pictures of a coral reef and a rich ecosystem of tropical fish covering the fabric. On this particular occasion I was wearing some starfish-shaped earrings that I am rather fond of, and the combination of the indoor lighting and water made my hair appear slightly red.
There was a small boy with his mother who had been watching me swim slowly up and down the pool for some time, and I made sure I smiled at him as I waded past to climb out of the pool. I hauled up my body, which honestly felt like a block of lead without the support of the water, and swung myself into my wheelchair, something I had done countless times before. The young boy had watched me do this and turned to speak to his mother.
“Mummy, mummy, look, a real mermaid!”
I have never seen anyone look so embarrassed or so hopeful that the ground would open up and swallow them whole as the boy’s mother did at that moment. I didn’t realise that it was possible for all the colour to drain from someone’s face, only for them to blush a brilliant red so quickly afterwards. Before she had a chance to apologise I smiled at her and then started to laugh, which prompted everyone in that section of the pool other than the boy to start laughing, including the mother. I bent over to speak to the boy, and said;
“I’m afraid I’m not a real mermaid, but I’d like to be one.”
I moved away from the pool still chuckling and when I got home 20 minutes later I noticed that I was continuing to smile so long after the event.
The imagination of a child is an amazing thing; the fact that the boy had taken pieces of information that seemingly contradicted each other, such as my ability to swim but not to walk, and string this into what is actually quite a logical conclusion when you really think about it, astounds me to this day.