Life can get really busy at times, and years can pass before you even begin to notice the declining health of your parents. And in moments, everything you knew to be true can disappear. Much like a tiny crack that appears in the bottom of the swimming pool of The Swimmers by Julie Otsuka, award-winning author of books like The Buddha in the Attic and When the Emperor was Divine, it first appears innocuous before the full realization sets in; your parents are human, and will also die one day.
To many, the inevitable may feel so far off that they don’t even need to worry about it. But, for many others, it can happen sooner than they realize, or even tomorrow. There is no guarantee in life when your parent’s body will suddenly just give up.
Though we’re never truly introduced to the character narrating Otsuka’s story, we know that it’s a collective voice that speaks the inner truths of many people. The narrative follows a group of swimmers who find solace and healing in the underground swimming pool, from the clear lanes (slow, medium, and fast) to the way many of them find a grace they don’t normally experience on land. In the pool, they become lithe and can leave their troubles behind while they do laps back and forth.
No matter what your background is, in the underground pool, you’re among family (unless you’re one of the people who only comes after Christmas and New Year’s because you promised yourself you’d get into shape all of a sudden). We’ve all seen those people at the gym where they start off strong, don’t follow any of the rules, then disappear next month. It’s all good. We get it. But for the dedicated swimmers, they feel their world is disrupted in those couple months, but will always resume its peace.
One of them, Alice, a former lab technician suffering from the early stages of dementia, morphs into a beautiful mermaid once she’s in the water. No longer an old lady, she’s someone who can withstand anything.
It’s not until one day when someone notices a crack in the pool that their safe womb is pricked. At first, people are wary, wanting management to repair it. Even when management and pool specialists tell them it’s nothing to worry about, many of the core group of swimmers stop going, finding other ways to deal with their stressful lives aboveground. But then more cracks appear. And soon, the pool has to be closed for its annual maintenance. Only this time, it becomes apparent it won’t be reopening.
The same sort of cracks happened for Alice’s brain. The forgetting. The repeating stories. The burnt pots. The blank stares at her daughter’s face, forgetting her name. Not knowing who her husband is. And when things finally get really bad, she’s whisked off to Bela Vista, a memory residence for people suffering from dementia and other afflictions.
When the story switches to Alice’s daughter’s perspective, it soon becomes clear the guilt that remains as she watches her mom decline over the years. And though her relationship wasn’t always the best – she moved far away at the first moment, only coming to visit when she could – how else can children handle their lives when their parents aren’t acting as the parent anymore?
Otsuka’s writing is short and sweet, perhaps to reflect the perfunctory moments of clarity dementia patients experience. To the point, her writing strikes a topic that many people may not always think about but really need to consider. Our parents spend an inordinate amount of time raising us and the moment we’re old enough to leave, we do. But when their health declines, we return, sometimes out of obligation, other times out of pure guilt. Either way, it’s a scenario that runs in the back of people’s minds and Otsuka perfectly captures it here.
The Swimmers is a heartbreaking story about living out your life in comfort until something unexpected happens. And no matter how hard you try to maintain some semblance of normality, those cracks will always remain or deepen. And for Alice, it was the crack in her mind that allowed her essence to slip through, eventually. Though we never like to think about it, our own mortality becomes an issue when one of our parents die. It’s unavoidable, unfortunately, and something we should all talk about more often.