I stand on the shore on a Sunday in July while dark birds hover above, and I squint into the early sun that barely peeks through the mist. Martha and I drove several hours through a downpour to get to this wide lake in off-the-main-road Massachusetts.
It’s days before an operation on my weakening heart and I watch swimmers churn toward me, the Australian crawl, the lake chopping, moments near the end of a half-mile through foul brown water, the initial chunk of Martha’s first long-distance triathlon, and after this, a twenty-eight mile race-bike ride with a six-mile sprint to the finish, a three-legged action she’ll call “grueling” when she looks back years later. She’s the oldest competitor at fifty-four (instead of a race number an organizer scratched “54” in black marker on Martha’s right bicep and left calf), and yet she is 132 pounds at 5’11” after furious years in pools and on a road bicycle, and sweat-drenched runs on pitiless asphalt.
Martha’s grandfather, “Spider” Clute, is in the sports Hall of Fame at Cornell. The Yankees tried to sign him in 1913 but his fiancé said NO: It’s me or them, she said, me or those drunk godless ballplayers. Martha’s grandmother didn’t yearn for the life she’d have as the wife of a professional athlete. Even so, there’s a family black and white of Grampa Clute in a Cornell uniform stretching for a throw at first-base, the “Spider”-body a double for Martha’s, not an ounce wasted . . . pure elegance and grace.
I peer out and think I’ll never be able to find her in this broil of bodies, the dip and swirl of red-winged blackbirds. A few swimmers back I glimpse a pair of black arm-warmers like the ones she wears, elbows high, the body level, head down, no unnecessary motion, smooth, strong, steady. Is that her? Martha fears the swim the most. Though she splashed summers as a little girl, a swimsuit her all-day attire, each day, every day, in the lake at a family camp, she has never swum competitively. Never. She fears her upper body will give out. She’ll flounder. She’ll stray off course on the open water. She’ll drop behind and be the fool, she’s sure. She’s old. The youngsters will stomp her. She can’t beat them.
But those black arm-warmers . . . they must be her. And the woman I see isn’t the swimmer I remember from a year ago. That one thrashed, arms flailed, head bobbed high, body twisted side to side, too slow, too slow, nothing flowed. This swimmer glides . . . she skims the angry water, each stroke of the arms a mirror for the next. She’s efficiency and control and power. She’s feet away and rises out of the water, tanned body shimmery in the sudden sun, she’s smiling at me and I’m crying, tears streaming down my face and I couldn’t explain why . . . . She’s fifth out of the water.
Kent Jacobson has been a teacher in prisons and a Massachusetts inner-city for nearly thirty years. His nonfiction appears (or will soon appear) in The Dewdrop, Hobart, Talking Writing, Backchannels, Under the Sun, Punctuate, Lucky Jefferson, and elsewhere. He lives in western Massachusetts with his wife, landscape architect Martha Lyon.