It was October on Walden Pond and too beautiful to be fretting about the way that she had snapped at her daughter. But here Virginia was, balancing on a rock, waiting for the water temperature to register on the bobbing thermometer, and brooding about why Elaine kept badgering her about respite care. All the respite she needed, all she even wanted, was this hour a day to come to Walden Pond to swim, and once the pond froze and she had to start walking instead of swimming, even that hour would be become less critical. Elaine had barged into the house twenty minutes late, slamming the screen door behind her, forgoing any apology for her tardiness, and immediately launching into her latest attempt to get her mother to take advantage of the relief services for homebound caretakers and leave Concord for a couple of weeks.
“You could go to the Caribbean. St. Barts. You loved it there. You could swim for as long as you want. Or go to Arizona and see Burt and Kay and the grandkids. You need a break.”
“I need to go to the pond and swim for an hour a day – or less if the water is too cold. That is all I need for now. And I need for you to drop the subject. Your father wouldn’t understand being left with strangers and I have no desire to travel alone.” Ask me the same question and you will get the same response, thought Virginia. Either Elaine thinks she can wear me down or it makes her feel good to badger me about taking it easy. Every day is the same, every conversation is the same. The only thing that changes is that every day and ever so slowly the water in Walden Pond gets colder – and every day, and much too quickly, Walter deteriorates.
Virginia pulled up the weighted thermometer and squinted to read the line of mercury without her glasses. Sixty-three degrees. Not bad for October 18th. Global warming was doing its stuff, but she still had to be careful to coordinate her swim time with the water temperature, especially after a bad experience with hypothermia last November. While she was able to get herself to shore when she felt herself losing control, there had followed an embarrassing hour when Virginia could neither stop chattering and shivering, nor could she talk or think coherently. When she had started to pull out of it, huddled under towels and blankets provided by people she did not even know, Virginia found her pulse being taken by a lovely young female EMT someone had finally insisted on calling. Her first emotion was mortification, but her second was an overwhelming and heartbreaking empathy for the similar confusion within which Walter existed most of the time. Walter needed her; she could not afford to take chances – but she had to have her swim. Since then, Virginia had limited her exposure according to the water temperature. Her regular swim was about an hour; once the pond got below sixty-five degrees she knocked it down to forty-five minutes. Below sixty degrees, she would cut back again, until her last excursions before the pond froze would be only a quick lap back and forth close to shore.
Virginia wasn’t the only person who maintained this daily discipline, and she wasn’t the oldest. Walden Pond attracted a regular group of disciplined Yankees who prided themselves on their ability to maintain such daily rituals, to immerse themselves in the waters that Thoreau had once bathed in, renewing himself daily in a ritual of self-baptism. “I got up early and bathed in the pond; that was a religious exercise, and one of the best things which I did. They say that characters were engraved on the bathing tub of King Tching-thang to this effect: ‘Renew thyself completely each date; do it again, and again, and again.’” Into Thoreau’s pond they all went and came out invigorated, if not renewed. For the most part, however, it was not a communal ritual. The participants knew each other – at least by sight and by habit – and looked out for each other as they sat on shore or traversed the placid lake, but conversation was minimal and usually limited to the weather and the water temperature. These swimmers did not post the results of their efforts to their blogs or participate in triathlons; this was a solitary undertaking, an enjoyment born of fulfilled promises to the self and to the spirit that had bathed here alone a century and a half ago.
All times of the year, Walden Pond was a magnet for tourists from every place in the world. They paid their $5 to the Park Department of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, parked their cars, consulted the trail map, visited a replica of Thoreau’s cabin, and then meandered around the pond to find the site of the original structure. They walked past a manicured beach and a boat ramp, through a fenced path meant to keep them away from an eroding shoreline, beside the train tracks that caused so much discussion of travel and technology in Walden, and then back through woods and up a path to the cairn of stones marking the temporary home of Henry David. They stood in silence as children ran in circles around the site, left a stone in the sprawling pile, thought about their own lives, and then finished the path around the pristine pond, which meandered across a narrow beach where the hardy bathers tended to hang out. On cool October days like this, tourists, who had been exclaiming for hours about the reds and yellows of the foliage and quoting from “Autumnal Tints,” would exclaim about the intrepid bathers and stop to engage those drying off on shore in conversation.
“Isn’t the water cold?” Tourists are not great conversationalists and are notorious for questioning the self-evident.
“About sixty-five. Just becoming a pond. Up until this week it’s been more like a bathtub.” The Yankees have more practice at this and their responses were better than the questions of the outlanders.
“Do you do this every day?” Tourists are predictable.
“Until it freezes over.” The subtext here is that the Yankees will keep answering these questions until hell freezes over, but it has to be admitted that without the tourists the Yankees would not appreciate their pond as much as they do. They appreciate it so much that they feel the need to be one with it every day in the most immediate way that they can contemplate. And they appreciate it more because they know that these stupid pilgrims can never understand. Maybe in some way, they fancy themselves the keepers of the secret of the shrine, but, of course, true Yankees would never admit to anything so romantic.
Virginia usually did not enter the water from the narrow beach, but went down the path a little further. She would deposit her tote and clothes on a favorite flat rock unless it had been preempted by fishermen – fishermen who no longer fished for the bass and pickerel of Henry David’s day, but rather for the trout stocked semi-annually by the Commonwealth. Today her spot had been left empty; Virginia finished removing her clothes, tucked her hair into the rubber cap (more for the retention of heat than to keep her hair dry), sat on the edge of the rock, and slid herself into the water. When the water was cold, Virginia always exclaimed involuntarily as the liquid enveloped her body, and she always said the same thing: “Oh, Mama!” Sometimes late at night, sipping her tea and trying to concentrate on a book after Walter had finally gone to sleep, Virginia mused about why she always exclaimed this particular phrase. Her mother had not been an especially warm person – more attached to her husband than her children and to her sons than her daughters – and had been dead for over twenty years. Virginia did not think of her often. But she supposed that there was something about being suddenly encased in that cold water that made her cry out for a warm maternal embrace.
While Virginia had no interest in a respite for a long vacation, she desperately needed to be sure that someone arrived to relieve her for her midday swim. It was not just that she needed it psychologically – although this was true. More importantly, one adjusted to the falling water temperature gradually as the pond cooled. If you missed a week – or even a few days at the right time of year – it was almost impossible to start again. She thought the reasons for this were probably both physiological and psychological, but they were real – and not just for her. She had heard other swimmers made the same observation. It was for this reason that she could not start her swimming upon the breakup of the ice in April; the water was far too shocking without a gradual inuring of the body and soul. When the pond froze over in December or January, Virginia took brisk walks for her hour away from Walter – around and around the pond, and didn’t start swimming until Memorial Day. But the swimming was far better than walking for a reprieve from the tedium of the day and a renewal of her resolve. She agreed with Henry David; there was something of the religious in it, a ritual cleansing and restoration. Of course, once she started swimming, she could keep going until the water was at the freezing point as long as she kept at it every day.
It occurred to Virginia that this power of consistency and incrementalism was not surprising. Life was like that. You could get used to anything gradually. Pregnancy was a good example. So was living with children. No one could abide teenagers, Virginia was sure, unless one lived with them from their soft and pliable infancy through the hardening of the adolescent years. The proof of this was how hard it was to live with them after they had been gone for a while – wonderful at first to see them again when they came home from college, almost impossible after a day or two to adapt to the chaos that had just seemed normal in the previous year. Getting old was another example of this. But for aging maybe the operative words were not “incremental change” but “gradual erosion.” It occurred to Virginia that if we aged suddenly – our hair and face bleached grey and wrung out overnight, strength sliced by half today and power and endurance by half again tomorrow, our minds suddenly conscious of always looking for answers rather than supplying them – we would all be suicidal. No need for nursing homes. But age happens gradually and old folks ended up being grateful for the ever-decreasing remnants of what they were left with.
But while some things could only be tolerated by habituation, there were some final steps that could not be taken gradually. For example, Virginia did not submerge her body into Walden Pond gradually. She went in up to her knees, wet her hands and rubbed them up and down her arms, and then slid in quickly and without hesitation – the only way she knew how to take the final plunge. She did not have the time to get into this cold water gradually; it would take forever and it did not work anyway. Some things were so hard they had to be leapt into before you had time to think. There were no incremental stages to some major changes. Like death. Virginia did not really think that old age prepared anyone for death – pain, perhaps, did that, but not age itself. Death was an all at once phenomena. Physical death at least. It occurred to her that perhaps Walter’s mind was dying a little at a time, but she thought his body would still rebel at the final moment. Just like her own body rebelled when she called out “Oh Mama!” Virginia let her body sink through the clear water to the sandy bottom and came back up to start a deliberate but leisurely crawl, moving her head from side to side with each stroke.
Virginia crossed and recrossed the small lake, staying on the end of the pond where the sun was shining, but still feeling warmer and colder spots as she moved through the water. She stopped thinking of anything but her stroke and the flutter of her legs, mindlessly counting strokes and laps. Once across was ten minutes. She could go back and forth three times and then even spend a little extra time patrolling the shore, as long as she watched out for fishing lines. As she finished up, she thought she heard strange voices and wondered if hypothermia was setting in again, but as she neared the shore she switched to a breaststroke and looked up to see a group of mature Japanese tourists on the beach singing to the pond and the golden trees, accompanied by a couple of strumming guitarists. They looked ecstatically at the lake as if they expected Thoreau to rise from the depths of Walden and walk on the water to welcome this group of Asian acolytes. I must be a disappointment to them, Virginia thought, but they smiled and nodded to her when she got close and kept right on singing, even beginning to sway and clap their hands close in to their chests in a kind of far eastern middle-aged enthusiasm.
Virginia pulled herself back up on the rock, worked her bathing cap over her grey curls, and rubbed herself briskly with the towel she had left warming in the sun. She then pulled thick sweat clothes over her damp bathing suit, grabbed her duffle bag and headed back up the path toward the parking lot, greeting other recovering swimmers by name and wishing good day to passing tourists. She threw her moist towel on the car seat and settled her equally damp bottom on it as she started her car, turned on the car heater, and headed for town. Virginia drove through the Dunkin Donuts dispensary for some hot coffee to go and hurried home to Elaine. It occurred to her that Elaine might be encouraging respite care so that she herself would get off the hook from coming over on weekdays. On weekends, one of her neighbors – either Shirley next door or Matt across the street – stayed with Walter so Elaine could spend time with her husband and kids. Virginia felt no guilt about asking for help for this one hour a day. It was all she asked for.
Concord was beautiful in October. Emerson and Thoreau had said so in the nineteenth century and – try as they might – the yuppies had not ruined it, thought Virginia. She would have loved to take a long walk, but Elaine would be eager to get off on her own errands. But not until she made her respite care speech one more time.
“You’ll at least think about it, won’t you?” Elaine was bundling herself into far more sweaters and jackets than she needed on this beautiful autumn day in Virginia’s opinion.
“No, I will not. I will not think about it. And life would be easier if you would stop thinking about it.”
“We’re just thinking about you.” All of a sudden Elaine had gone from “I” to an army of “we,” intimating that she had an enormous force behind her. “About making life easier for you. You are killing yourself in this house everyday. He is not getting any better. This was a good day – he didn’t know me, but he seemed to think I was someone who was supposed to be here. He’s upstairs watching that PBS children’s show he likes and eating a popsicle. Kind of a mess, but I put a napkin around his neck. But they’re not all good days. You probably don’t tell us the half of it. And you can’t go anywhere.” Elaine pulled her car keys out of a gigantic purse and looked very relieved that she was about to go somewhere. She headed for the door and Virginia thought she was done, but she turned at the last minute.
“And what are you going to do when Walden freezes solid? We all worry about you down there, but at least you seem to get some enjoyment out of it and you’re not the only one that does it. You polar bears. Soon you won’t be able to swim, and even walking once it gets icy isn’t a great idea – what would happen to Dad if you fell and broke a hip? Maybe you could swim over at the Y. It won’t be the same, but – ”
“I am not going to swim in a chlorinated pool and I am well aware that the pond will freeze over. Not as early as usual, no doubt, thanks to global warming, but it will freeze nevertheless. All in good time. But meanwhile I will go everyday because if I did not I would not be able to get in that cold water anymore.” Virginia realized that her voice was getting louder, while the words were coming out more and more slowly and deliberately. “And I will stay with your father everyday, because if I did not I would not be able to bear the sudden change in him. I could not bear it. He will freeze over someday soon too and it will be over, but until then this is the way I need to do it and you need to understand. And if you cannot understand, you need to at least have some respect. For me. For the way it has to be.” Virginia immediately regretted both the vehemence of her language and coldness of her tone. She started to shake as if with delayed hypothermia.
Elaine dropped her arms and started toward her mother and then stepped back to the door. Mumbling apologies, she left and closed the door softly behind her. Virginia went upstairs to clean up Walter and take him out into the backyard so that he could enjoy one more October day. And so she could soak up what was left of the October sun and stop shivering.