In the midst of winter I arrive home from a long day of teaching, three appointments, and one meeting. I taught two classes, each two hours long, to students who were being required to think on paper against their will, and they didn’t like it. No they didn’t like it one little bit. They slumped down into the plastic bucket seats when I asked them what was the difference between an active and a passive verb, a complicated question, but they didn’t know that. They didn’t have a clue about the differences between states of being and states of doing.
My workday was followed by a band parents fundraising meeting where I discovered I had been selected by the other parents to head the Kit Kat Candy Bar Campaign even though I hate Kit Kat bars and my son is threatening to quit the trombone. Finally, when I collapse on my high-above-the-fray bed, my mind feels numb, as if someone has administered a monster shot of Novocain to my forehead. Propped up by pillows, warmed by blankets and the fur of animals lying on my legs, I feel buried, swallowed, my eyes too weary to read and my hand too tired to do anything but change channels on the remote control.
Outside the temperature is hovering at zero, and snow is banked up to the windows and crusted blue on the roof of the detached garage. My husband is out at a meeting of his own, and my children are upstairs doing whatever they do when they are supposed to be doing their homework. Their doors are closed, and their music is blaring. I should stomp upstairs to see what they are up to, but I am too defeated to even feel badly about my lack of parental devotion. I turn on the TV, and in a blank state start flipping channels until I hear the words Swimming to Antarctica.
That’s when I see her: my twin, my soul mate, Lynne Cox, long distance swimmer extraordinaire, who swam a mile to Antarctica in the coldest water on earth. Lynne stands in a one-piece bathing suit the color of an ember, like the snap of clay or fresh blood, with her hands firmly on her hips, and though I see no pool, no lake, no ocean, no blue whatsoever, I sense water is nearby, not far from the path of the camera, for everything about Lynne suggests water is always at hand.
We share a similar physical composition. Five-six, reddish brown hair tumbling to the shoulders, wide-eyed, with high color in our cheeks. I am smaller, about fifty pounds smaller, and could be folded inside Lynne like one of those Russian nesting dolls. But her mouth—something about it gets me: her mouth is like mine. It’s as if we share one small mouth. My mouth moves when Lynne answers questions, our teeth moving up and down in unison, the same salmon-pink glowing gums. I can picture Lynne’s mouth while she swims. It would be open. Of course it would; it is always a little open. When the reporter asks Lynne how she explains her unique abilities, I laugh and shrug my shoulders just as Lynne laughs and shrugs, in sync, as if I had been asked the question.
Though we have grown up on opposite sides of the country into different families, Lynne is living a version of life I could imagine as mine, like a twin separated at birth. In dramatic ways we couldn’t be more different from one another. Her life is Technicolor; mine is cast in modest Midwestern grey. I occasionally swim in an indoor multi-purpose pool sunk in the middle of a dull concrete building—in my off hours, squeezed in between work and demands of home. Lynne’s life is swimming, the beginning, middle, and end of her days. She has burrowed so deeply into one thing that she has become what she does. Lynne is a swimmer, a universally recognized swimmer. I am an anonymous blob trying to lose myself in water kept too warm for lap swimming. Lynne has always had a swim coach and support team, and she leaves no children behind to worry about her as she pulls herself through the ice floes to break another world record. I am the support system of my family, aware of what trauma I would leave in my wake if I disappeared below the water. The only world record I might break is how many times I make macaroni and cheese in a year.
And yet I believe there is something that binds us together despite our differences, something at play between us. I watch Lynne’s cheerful, optimistic face and wonder how such a summery woman risks her life swimming in waters that could kill her. Can anything explain why she subjects herself to such bone-chilling swims? Why at age fourteen was she already dissatisfied with swimming laps in a pool? Why was pulling up one lane and back going nowhere for her? When her coach suggested she swim the twenty-one miles of California’s Catalina Channel, “It was like going from a cage to freedom,” she says, lifting her red goggles to look into the camera. I had once felt that way too, but I kept swimming the indoor pool, counting laps until I reached the mile mark.
When I was fourteen, I imagined a life devoted to some grand defining pursuit, but I didn’t make a commitment to any one ambition. Swimming would drop out for a time and then reappear. Singing would become a part of acting, acting a part of writing. I just kept adding things to the portrait of who I was. I didn’t feel I was losing something I loved. Instead I was finding a way to transfer what I had learned and loved in one thing to another, weaving them together into a larger art. The pattern, begun happily enough in early life, continues into my present life. Only now my life seems fragmented, torn and defeated by so many allegiances. I wonder what it would be like to be devoted to one thing and one thing only.
Most humans are lovers of summer, of strong sun and heat, embracers of a green world. The easy life. They dream of sunflowers, their huge heads pooling gold. They dream of coastal towns dotted with surf boards and beach umbrellas and swimming short sprints buoyantly on their backs in the aqua blue sea. Lynne and I are lovers of the cold and the long distance. We are withstanding, abiding, pushing through kind-of-women. We swim on our stomachs, faces looking down into the depths below.
On the T.V. a terrifically fit male athlete lowers himself into a tank of water kept at the temperature Lynne endures. Within seconds he is seized with pain and in a matter of minutes incapacitated. They hoist him up out of the tank immediately, before his heart stops.
In such temperatures, Lynne’s heart doesn’t stop. She has an evenly distributed layer of fat insulating her body and can remain submerged in cold water for a long time. Her body can keep functioning in water temperatures that would kill the rest of us.
I was born in February, the coldest month of the year. When I think of my birth, I see myself lying naked in a field of snow under a full moon. From the beginning I knew the futility of fighting the cold. The more I stiffened against the freeze, the more acutely I felt the pain. Think, I told myself: How much more does the needle hurt when you jerk away from the jab? Think: If you relax and accept the prick to come, it hurts less. And I learned to let the cold take me, welcome it as one disarms a burglar by showing him where the jewels are stored. Come in, I say, here is my heart, take it.
Scientists believe Lynne’s body stores heat at its core, away from the surface of the skin where it would be exposed to the cold, but they can’t explain why her body does this or how. If you lowered a normal hand into water the temperature Lynne swims in, the pain would commence within seconds and in a very short time become intolerable and cause long term nerve damage. Either Lynne does not feel the pain or she manages pain differently. She believes it is easier to offer herself up to pain than to avoid being hurt. From an early age, she says, she trained herself to deflect pain, to shuttle it off to the side and focus all of her attention upon her swimming. Listening, I repeat these words out loud: to deflect pain, as if I had never heard them before, never thought them before, and need to make them my own.
Both Lynne and I appear lighthearted to others, our darkness buried at the interior. It’s baffling—in the same way girls are baffled that Barbie’s face is always frozen in a smile even when they know she’s sad because they set her car on fire. In photographs my head is always thrown back in laughter, which surprises me because I don’t think of myself as laughing all cares away. I think of myself as wedged between ice floes, struggling. Lynne is as baffled as everyone else by her cheery predisposition to withstand cold. There is a mystery to her gift, the gift of deflecting pain and making something out of it, that is at the heart of her swimming.
Listening to her speak, I picture a lit-up graph of her body. In the interior chest cavity, I see electric blue squiggles of pain, compacted and nesting, while the rim of fat is a solid electric red line, like the arteries of a highway bypassing the city’s business district. What Lynne calls deflecting pain, I call endurance, that capacity to turn pain around and use it. Pain usually gets the best of us, hollowing us out, like a parasite, like tragedy. Mostly pain begets pain. But some ride pain, use it as the engine that fuels them, like a fairy tale. A wounded deer leaps the highest. I withstand pain others try to avoid; I don’t know why or how. I dive into it in hope, in the optimism that I will haul myself up on the other side more alive than when I began. My ability to take pain, to swim through it, seems something I am rather than something I do, as if I too was born with a layer of fat rimming my body that allows my heart to keep going when others hearts would shut down.
The segment finally shows what it has been building towards: Lynne taking a practice swim in the thirty-two degree water off the shores of Antarctica. But in this practice swim, she falters. Her body temperature plunges, the blood rushes away from her core. Is she hypothermic? She signals that she needs to be rescued quickly. Almost in unison, I lift my arm up from under the covers and wave for help. I feel my heart beginning to shut down. I feel the cold overtaking me. There is real danger here: Lynne is struggling to stay afloat. She is being chilled through and through, the deflecting isn’t working, her core is being touched.
I watch a team of Lynne’s assistants sweep over to her in their boat and haul her nearly lifeless body from the water and wrap themselves about her in the manner of snakes forming a bolus in a winter den to conserve body heat. It happens all at once. She is swimming, and then she isn’t. On the screen Lynne’s body looks so small being hauled from the water, the size of a child’s finger in a red glove.
I falter too, bested by the cold, shivering under my burial of fur and blankets. Outside the windows of my bedroom, the world is still. The moon shines down on snow that has frozen into ice. I watch the rescuers embrace Lynne’s limp body, and I begin to feel blood flowing bone-deep, letting the heat fight the sag, hitching our hearts together into one.