Moving Through Water, a Memoir —by Susan Duff On New Year’s Eve, Paul and I had dinner with friends at our house in Springs. We danced to Motown until well after midnight. The next morning, we drove to the ocean for the annual polar plunge. A
dismal sky hung like a shadow over Atlantic Beach, but the gathered crowd was spirited. A man wore a toilet plunger on his head, solidarity with those going in. Women in parkas served hot chowder from wind-blown pavilions.
Paul joined the group of plungers steeling themselves for the icy dip. I stood to the side, clinging to my chowder cup with mittened hands.
The starting gun sounded and Paul raced into the choppy breakers with the others. I lost sight of him when the whooping mass splashed back to shore.
Wandering into the wet, shivering mob, I found him quickly. He’s taller than most men and has a distinctive gait. “An old anti-war wound,” he’d joke when someone asked about his arthritic limp.
Paul grinned with chattering teeth as I bundled him into a towel and hugged him close. “It’s going to be a great year,” he said.
Four days later, Paul had surgery on his failing hips. His surgeon had promised he would walk without pain, his limp gone, within weeks—by early spring, he’d be riding a bike to the beach.
Two months later, in March, Paul couldn’t stand or walk without crutches. A rare complication of the surgery had locked his hip joints into a painful, crippling mass. He’d have to wait at least a year, maybe more, the surgeon said, before they could fix it.
In April, the dank days of a reluctant spring arrive at our door; they linger on like moody houseguests who overstay. One chilly night, pulling the light summer quilt up to my chin, I regret having stowed the flannel bedding. I did everything too soon this year— blocking the fireplace before the evenings got warm, setting out the potted plants before the last frost, trying to rush spring into summer and hurry the year along.
By early May, the damp gray gives way and a few sunlit afternoons tiptoe in. Paul’s better now, wobbling along with just a cane for support. O
ne day at noon, we head out to Louse Point for a swim, our first bay sortie of the season. Paul hopes the salt water will buoy his fused hips and failing legs. I’m secretly pessimistic, hoping I’m wrong.
We walk toward the water along a sandy path bordered by rosa rugosa’s fuchsia flowers. Paul’s cane sinks in, and his bare feet are clumsy on the shifting sand. He drops his towel and cane on the beach and reaches for my hand. We approach the water’s edge and wade in holding hands. His footing falters over wet stones, sharp crab claws, and broken shells. I hold tight to his hand.
When we reach deeper water, he lets go and dives in, swimming toward the boat moorings in Accabonac Harbor. He swims more slowly than he did last year, but his hips and legs are high in the water. I whisper thanks to the salty bay as I watch him swim away, then I pull on my fins and catch up. We swim in tandem—his athletic free-style, my lazy backstoke.
When we turn around to head back, I pick up my pace and arrive, breathless, in water where I can stand. I yank off my flippers and pitch them ashore, then turn to face him as he swims toward me.
When he stands in chest-high water, I hold out my hands for support. He wades up the small incline of soggy sand that sucks on his feet. I tug on his hands, resisting his weight to steady his steps. I wade with him, walking backward, holding on, through ankle-deep water to the dry shore. He can’t flex forward, so I bend to pick up his cane and towel. We squirm into sweatshirts and shiver in the late afternoon sun as we look out toward Gerard Point, speechless and exhilarated.
In June, Polly and Gary come for a visit. At noon on Sunday, the skies still uncertain, we head for Louse Point anyhow. Our daughter jogs, her boyfriend bikes, Paul and I drive. The younger two sit on the beach while we plunge into the cold bay, immersing ourselves in the destructive element, as Paul likes to say.
After our swim, walking up the path, I ask Gary what we can give him for his birthday next week.
He pauses, smiles slyly, then says, “You’ve already given me everything I ever wanted.”
I watch as he glances at Polly. I think they’ll marry soon. I hope Paul can dance at their wedding.
In July, a sticky heat wave descends on Springs and slogs on for days. Paul and I are impatient. Time is moving too slowly. We’re only halfway to next winter when they said his hips could be fixed.
Old marital beefs re-emerge. I nag him for driving too fast in Fourth of July traffic: “Slow down!” I yell. “Everyone else on the road has been drinking all day.”
Making dinner with Paul and a visiting friend, I’m distracted by conversation
. “I told you fifteen minutes ago to grill the corn on both sides,” Paul snaps at me. “Now the fish is ready and the corn isn’t!”“What are you so mad about?” I snap back. “It’s just freaking dinner.”
The damp heat lifts and a sunlit parade of showy summer days marches in with fanfare. Our house gets crowded and lively with visitors. Our life seems so normal, I almost forget it isn’t.
Paul and I swim together twice a day now. In the morning, we drive down a hill bordered by thick woods. Early light sneaks though the branches and tie-dyes the dark winding road in shades of yellow.
We arrive at Albert’s Landing before the lifeguards and are happily alone on the pale beige beach. The sand stretches out into clear silky water, its surface sequined in the morning sun. To the east of the wide horseshoe bay, the white, lace-like sands of Napeague line a shore that meanders toward Montauk Point. To the west, where forested cliffs rise up from the beach, treetops shimmy in the morning breeze. We swim side by side along the cliffs, the sun at our backs.
Our evening swims are at Louse Point, Paul’s sacred spot. He says this is where he goes to worship.
He wields his cane in the sand with more confidence now, walking steadily along the path to the water. The rugosa blossoms are almost gone, and small orange globes now ripen along the beach’s border—rose hips, I think. It must be mid-summer.
Paul drops his cane on the sand and wades into the water ahead of me. He plunges and swims away fast; I tug on my fins and catch up. Swimming next to him, I navigate among the paddle boarders and kayakers.
Last summer, I liked to look up at the herring sky and white-bellied gulls on our Louse Point swims. Now, I watch Paul’s face as he comes up for air with every other stroke. He’s smiling again.
After our swim, I still take his hand as we wade onto the beach. He doesn’t need it now, but I like the habit. We stand for a while and watch the sun nestle into dark green trees on the far bank. It feels so much like last year, I sometimes forget what Paul can’t do. I start toward the path before I remember to go back and pick up his towel and cane for him. On a Friday in July, the surgeon’s nurse calls Paul from Manhattan with this month’s test results. I listen in, hopeful, on the other extension.
“Your progress is amazing,” Nadia says to Paul. “You could be good to go sooner than we predicted. Maybe by October. You must be doing something right.”
My eyes sting, but I start to grin.
“Swimming,” I say softly. “Just swimming. Twice a day. In two magical bays.”