This time last year I was preparing for my second embed with the 1st Battalion 5th Infantry Regiment 1/25 Stryker Brigade Combat Team in southern Kandahar Province. I’d spent a month embedded in December 2011-January 2012 and I’d returned to do a story on the women soldiers of the Female Engagement Team for The Christian Science Monitor.
By late March last year, I was in a hospital bed in Kuwait, struck by some “fever of unknown origin” and a wicked infection that set up camp in my lungs so fast it was like a flood of refugees fleeing a war zone.
I am grateful beyond words that the illness didn’t take me. It gave me new-found respect for the importance and beauty of my lungs and the power of my body to heal herself.
The docs cautioned me to take it easy. I didn’t honestly. Job interviews. A move cross-country. A new teaching job in the fall, teaching two new classes. I asked if I could do yoga, run, swim. My doctor looked at me: swimming? No! Walking.
With the illness, the steroids that probably saved my life and the inactivity that followed, the pounds on my body went up and my confidence went down.
I banned my family from taking photos of me and I asked friends not to post images of me on Facebook. It was too painful. I did not recognize myself.
A student first semester asked if I were pregnant. It was a great teaching moment in my journalism class; however, it was heartbreaking for me, doubly cruel in its implications. And I thought I looked great that day.
I followed the doc’s orders. I did my best to rest and take care of myself. I didn’t want to relapse.
Over the break, the doctor gave me a green light to swim. My lungs were clear, my heart strong.
I decided I’d join the Master Swimmers group at Allegheny College. The pool is walking distance from my home.
People often tell me I’m brave. They might mention my considerable public speaking. Or my years spent in combat zones, most recently walking on patrol with an infantry platoon in the Horn of Panjawai’i.
True, I do take risks. I do things that scare other people…and scare me sometimes.
I’ll tell you though, it took real courage last Sunday to put on my Speedo swimsuit–too many pounds overweight than I’d care to mention–and walk onto the pool deck.
Kirk, the coach, is a young, kind man. I told him I’d swim in the outside lane–the slow lane. I had no idea what I’d be able to do.
300-yard warmup. No problem.
As I swam, I realized I hadn’t swum since I left my beloved swimming group at Oregon State in 2010. I spent a winter in Alaska and another winter in Afghanistan. Three years.
The workout continued. I kept swimming. The woman sharing the lane with me said: “You’re a strong mama.” I smiled.
My body is a miracle and she continually surprises me.
At the end of the workout, the coach said I’d swum 2,600 yards. That’s probably enough for your first time back in the water, he said.
Sure, I didn’t have the core or the arm strength for more than 15 yards of butterfly at a stretch. And I didn’t do many flip turns because I didn’t know if I’d have the stamina.
I didn’t get winded. I did feel strong. I called my friend in Rhode Island and she said: “Two hundred more yards and you could do the Save the Bay Swim. Now there’s a goal. July 2013.
I went back this week and I swam 3,000 yards.
It’s a start.
This year I made a commitment to myself. To regain my health and strength. To uncover/liberate the athlete who was once a Pac-10 rowing champion, who ran marathons.
Mostly, I have to admit, I’m happy to be here. I’m happy my lungs are healthy.
And I think Dorie the blue tang in “Finding Nemo” has it right.
Just keep swimming, swimming, swimming.