At four years old, I won the Sheffield Water Babies cup. Though some memories are embellished by other family members' narratives or recalled mostly through photographs, my memory of winning that trophy feels real. I remember it in sensory details that only I would recall. I remember the sensation of the water in my nostrils as I descended into the swimming pool from the side, plummeting so deep that I could almost touch the tiles on the bottom, the sounds of dry land muffled and retreating as my ears filled with water. And I remember the view of bubbles in the water as I slowly rose back up to the surface, the sounds of laughter and relief from the crowd as I emerged and smiled and began to swim breaststroke down the big pool at Sheaf Valley Baths. I don't remember what I was thinking as I swam but I remember the comfort and ease of the challenge. All I had to do in order to win was to be the youngest child to swim a length and water was already where I felt at home.
At some point I must have wondered where my family were because I remember stopping mid-way to tread water and looking up into the gallery to see my father. I guess my mother was there too but it is my father that I remember because his presence was more rare and thus more special. And I remember pausing to wave gleefully to him and I remember, as clear as if it's a photograph, his smile beaming down on me. I've heard that the audience were charmed. As a parent myself now, I can imagine the scene. I remember too, standing on the podium and being handed a trophy that was almost as big as myself and I remember refusing to hold it because I was afraid it might get wet. My memory stops there but the family albums show me posing at home, dried off and holding the trophy with my brothers. Sometimes I joke that it was the high point of my life and that it has all been downhill since then. There are times when it has actually felt that way.
Last weekend I took on another swimming challenge to raise money for the charity Widowed and Young. The organisation had a free place at the Swim Serpentine event and no-one to take part and so, at the last minute, I said that I'd do it. Outdoor swimming has always been a love of mine and I knew that it would be easy for me to swim a mile around a lake in central London. Besides, Swimming through Clouds has become the name of my blog, so it seemed fitting and I've often felt guilty that I haven't run a marathon or climbed a mountain in Paul's honour. It seems to be a thing that bereaved people do. Everyone needs something that keeps them getting out of bed, something that keeps them moving (though they've no idea where they're going), a cause that helps them to create something vaguely positive from the unbearable pain of loss. Some people in these moments of heartache, take up new hobbies and new challenges and some of us return home. I am a returner. If you'd asked me as a child what I loved most in the world I would have said reading and writing and swimming. True to form, when Paul died, I immediately began to assemble a bereavement library and I wrote as if my very life depended on it. And through it all, I swam.
For me, there is something meditative about swimming. When I swim, the world and my cares recede. I imagine that returning to water is like returning to the womb and throughout my life, when I'm stressed, I gravitate to it - the sea, the pool, even the bath. Water makes me relax. But, though a bubble bath is great, swimming is better. With swimming come the endorphins that we all get from exercise and as we move the body, somehow we simultaneously clear the clutter from the mind. For some, I imagine the pounding of feet on pavement or wheels on tarmac creates the beat but for me the rhythm of the strokes is akin to the rhythm of the breath Sometimes I even find myself counting: 1, 2, 3, 4, breathe, 1, 2, 3, 4, breathe. I am focused, occupied only in the business of propelling myself through the water. Even in the early days of grief, when I was swimming, I could stop crying. When I was swimming I felt ok.
If swimming is one step up from the bath, swimming outdoors, for me, is the holy grail of wellbeing. There is so much written about the positive benefits of outdoor and cold water swimming and if I were a different sort of person I could quote research and analyse the effects on mind and body. But I am not a scientist and I don't need empirical research to tell me what I feel in my own mind and body. I only know that when I enter the cool water of a reservoir or lake, my mind is as still as the water's surface and that I feel at peace. When I swim outdoors, I feel like I am in my rightful place, part of the glorious whole that is nature, suspended between water and sky, like something bigger than me is holding me together. It's a similar feeling to the one I get when I sit at the summit of a hill or lie on a beach gazing at solar systems, the comforting feeling that I am small and my worries smaller, that nothing matters but the feel of the water, the movement of clouds, the fluttering of leaves at the water's edge. For those precious moments, everything is fine, just as it is.
But swimming the Serpentine was a different matter. There were rules to be adhered to. If the temperature dropped below 15 degrees, there was a wetsuit that had to be worn (wetsuits make me panic). If I chose to swim without a wetsuit, I needed a tow float (what the heck is a tow float?) There were forms to fill in (forms make me panic) and tags and labels to attach - tattooed numbers for my arms, timers for my ankles, baggage labels for my stuff. And there were crowds of people (crowds make me panic) and they were all wearing wetsuits (even though it was a blissful 17 degrees) and they were stretching and preparing like swimming is some kind of sport. It was all a bit terrifying. My swim friends had told me not to go to the front and so I took my time entering the water. I walked slowly down the ramp, aiming to give myself time to acclimatise but I hadn't prepared for the fact that the ramp gave way abruptly to deep water and I found myself descending, plummeting under, bubbling back up, trying to catch my breath. And then I smiled and started swimming and gradually the rhythm returned: 1, 2, 3, 4, breathe, the crowds spread out and I was able to look around at the trees and the water and the clouds. And it was ok. Halfway round, I wondered where my children were and I spotted them by the side of the lake. They were jumping and shouting, doing a little cheerleading routine. I stopped to tread water and wave. I thought of my dad and I thought of Paul and of the cycle of life. When I emerged, someone gave me a medal and we hugged and posed for family photos just as I had done when I was four, only this time I was the adult and the people who were proud were my children.
The truth is that aside from the crowds and the tags and the admin, swimming the Serpentine wasn't a challenge for me. It was just a little swim in the park. Pleasant, but a bit too busy for my liking. Compared to the challenge of grief, it was nothing. But I am happy to have raised so much money for a charity that do wonderful work, who were a life raft for me as I journeyed through what felt like impossible waves of grief and I am extremely grateful for my sponsors and supporters. Mostly though, I am proud that I came through it all and that I can still smile. And if there have been a lot of downs since that Water Babies cup, maybe now, the only way is up.