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The Commute: Katies Swim

Fri, Feb 21st, 2003
Posted in Columnists

Like so many people, Im grappling with a certain amount of anxiety these days about the world situation. By the time this is published, our country could be at war. More locally, we worry about a state budget over four billion dollars in the red. What will be lost?Ive been trying to give this feeling a more specific name than anxiety, and the best I come up with is fear. The way I often feel today reminds me of a time eight years ago when I experienced a number of fears. At that time, I came to believe that fear was always associated with potential loss.During a week in July, 1997, I stayed home with our toddler daughter while my husband took his annual fishing trip. During this time, my doctor called to tell me Id need a biopsy, preferably within the next two weeks. My first inkling that all was not right had come in the form of a postcard months before. In someones careless handwriting were the words, "Found a few abnormal cells. Please call." Subsequent tests had not alleviated concern, but it was still a surprise to me that we were at the biopsy stage. Nobody ever used the term "cancer"; they always said, "pre-cancer." And nobody seemed to be panicking. They peppered their speech with encouraging phrases like "impressive cure rate," and "caught early." The biopsy would not even require hospitalization. Still, I longed to tell somebody, but my husband was unreachable by phone for a few days. When I called my mother, I couldnt get the words out. So I focused on playing with my daughter. Every time she went to sleep, my fears returned.There was the big one, of course: early death. But the other fears all seemed connected to motherhood. Would I be able to have any more children, even if the biopsy was "curative." Did it really matter whether I could have more children? By far the biggest fear was of not seeing my daughter grow up, the pain of that separation for both of us.The point of this is not suspense, so I will tell you the biopsy was curative, and my husband and I had another child in 1999. But I knew none of this then.It was July and hot, so I took my daughter to the beach for the first time. She boldly splashed around in the water in her pink and orange swim suit, miniature Minnesota Twins baseball hat. When she wandered out to what I considered "too far," (the water was past her knees) I would stand up from my perch on the sand and gently retrieve her, trying to entice her to a relatively safe activity, like digging up shovelsful of sand and dumping them in a bucket. But the water called to her. She waded out again and again.One of those times, just as she was turning back towards me to laugh, proud of herself, she lost her balance and fell over backward in the 12-inch deep water. I was at her side instantly, frantically reaching for a part of her I could grip and pull up out of the water. Im haunted by the split-second image of her white face under water, eyes and mouth open, Twins hat still in place. From underwater, her eyes locked on mine. She sensed the separation: she in a new, silent world of water, and I on the other side. In an act mirroring birth, I pulled her up out of the water and held her to me while she coughed. I kept my hand on her chest, feeling her heartbeat.I had never known a fear like that, and I thought Id never recover. Three minutes later she was wading out again, baseball hat a little droopy, hair hanging in wet strands. She turned again to smile at me. She never fell again. I stayed rooted to the sand watching her, gazing out over a world where I suddenly saw my place as less defined by attachments, and more by that from which I could be separated.

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