Every day since I woke up an Amsterdam ICU in 2019, I’ve been in training, training for life. It’s no longer about one race. It’s about staying in this game of life, as well as I can, for as long as I can.
I used to train for running races
When I was in my 20s and living in New York City, I took up recreational running as it was just taking off. I put in the training miles on early-morning runs along the East River, and my husband joined me for weekend runs in Central Park. Soon, we were participating in races organized by the New York Road Runners under Fred Lebow, co-founder of the NYC Marathon. My husband and I both completed half-marathons, but my most notable running moment was shaking the hand of legendary Norwegian marathoner Grete Waitz’ on a Manhattan sidewalk. Her gracious manner and winning ways made her the completely approachable queen of New York City.
I stopped running, stopped training
Plantar fasciitis put an end to running as my go-to activity fifteen years ago. Although I continued to exercise, mostly in the water, I stopped thinking of it as training. It was about looking better, or getting thinner, or feeling stronger. I took it for granted that I would simply keep going.
Illness stopped me in my tracks
All that changed on May 5, 2019, when I was stopped in my tracks in Amsterdam by a ruptured aneurysm. For six weeks, my body battled to survive. When I woke up, I was rail thin — okay, yes, my first thought was YIPEE! —and unable to move.
Muscle atrophy comes on fast when you are intubated, and if I hadn’t been strong to start with, it’s very likely I would not have made it.
Then, I was back in training
Everything — leaving the ICU, returning to the United States, living independently in our South Florida home, navigating the world again — everything depended on me recovering my ability to move.
Moving my tongue, my jaw, my neck to be able to chew and swallow, and strengthening my fingers to be able to feed myself. Getting my arms able to lift myself, my torso able to sit up, my hips able to roll me over. Standing up with help. Standing up alone. Walking with help. Striding alone.
I did it all. I got back to living my life.
Surprise return to running
In relearning how to stand and to walk, and through my daily 60-minute exercise routine of walking, stretching, swimming, biking and strength training — I’ve improved my body mechanics. As I recently wrote, I’ve built back better, with a mid-foot heel strike that is easier on the feet. As a result, I no longer have heel pain, and, a couple of times a week I’ve even been able to get back into jogging.
It might be an old-lady shuffle, but from where I was two years ago, this is running!
Physical activity as medicine
This week, I also came to understand physical activity as medicine, thanks to the legacy of my hero, Grete Waitz. I learned that she was just one year older than me, and that she died a decade ago of cancer, the same disease as took NYRR’s Fred Lebow in 1994.
Grete continued running as she was treated for cancer, and her belief in the therapeutic value of physical activity led her to found AKTIV Against Cancer, a foundation whose mission it is to have physical activity become part of cancer treatment, just as exercise is prescribed for people with Type 2 diabetes or heart disease.
My parents watched the procession of looters shuffled by, the sounds of their humble slippers, the Venezuelan alpargatas, mimicking the sound of prairie wheat blown by the wind. The parade disappeared into the night. In just hours, dawn would peak over the Andes, ushering in the first day of Venezuela’s freedom from tyranny.
“It’s going to be a long day,” my father said. ”Might as well get a little sleep.”
My mother lay at his side, eyes shut and mind wide open. Never in a million years had she imagined while growing up in Winona, Minnesota that she’d be a 30-year-old part-time diplomat, mother of two bilingual kids, and boss to a live-in maid, trying desperately to figure out how was she going to her household through a South American revolution.
Dad muttered something in his sleep, and Mom rested her hand on his shoulder. The baby-faced blond GI who’d wooed her at Macalester College had charmed her with his intelligence, wit, and gift of gab, and she knew that her smile, chestnut hair, and dancer’s grace made them look elegant wherever they were. He’d been looking for adventure, and boyohboy they were in it now.
The pitter-patter of little feet told Mom that I was up and in search of Fina, leaving Susie to sleep in for another hour. Slips of quiet Spanish made their way from the maid’s room beyond the kitchen. Mom roused herself to get the coffee water on, an old habit.
Fina had become my world when she rescued me, wailing, from the spot between the bed and the wall I wedged myself into the day my parents and I were at the home of another Embassy family. In short order, Fina had moved in with us, and I had my first full-time playmate. Spanish was my first language. After my sister arrived, I knew I could still steal my Fina time first thing in the day.
I danced into the kitchen in my pink robe and Venezuelan alpargatas sandals. Like baby Susie, my fair hair and blue eyes revealed my parents’ Norwegian heritage. “Buenos días, Mommy!”
Mom scooped me up. “Good morning to you.” She kissed the top of head, remembering our first year in Caracas when my scant hair and lack of pierced ears had caused caraqueños to think I was a boy. She gave me a squeeze before depositing me onto my regular chair at the little kitchen table.
Josefina walked in, smoothing the skirt of her cotton dress and tucking back a strand of her black hair. She had on one of the flowered dresses Mom had insisted she wear instead of the head-to-toe black outfit Fina had worn when she first came to work for us. Mom would have no mourning clothes here. To my mother’s midwestern sensibility, somber clothing was appropriate for funerals but not for the everyday wardrobe. Cheerfulness would be the order of the day.
“Fina.” Mom nodded with what she hoped was confidence. There was no need to get her going again.
The living room phone rang. Dad spoke into the receiver briefly.
“Well, looks like we’ll make it,” Dad called out.
“That’s good,” Mom said, waiting for more.
Fina tied on her apron. “Señora.” She smiled, holding her lips tight over her bad teeth. “Yo me ocupo.” I’ll take it from here. “¿Geni, Corne Flex?” The Kellogg’s cereal was a staple in our house. She poured me a bowl.
Mom smiled to herself, remembering Fina’s first days with us, when she’d carried the box of Betty Crocker cake mix to the breakfast table thinking it was cereal. “Gracias, Fina,” she said, and joined Dad in the living room.
“Well, things are settling down,” he said, “but the communists are emerging. The Boy Scouts, in fact.”
“But that’s an American organization, isn’t it?” Mom said.
“International, but this region is headquartered in good ol’ Havana. So these kids, commie-trained maybe, have seen an opportunity to be helpful, and, damn it if they aren’t doing just that. They’re directing traffic all over town.”
“Well, the craziness of last night could hardly continue,” Mom said.
“It’s been months brewing, Nan, so, no, it’s still crazy,” Dad said.
Fina brought in their coffee. “¿Algo más?”
“No, gracias, Fina,” Mom said.
The maid nodded and returned to the kitchen where I waited to chat away about our day’s plans. I had no idea anything was going, and Mom wanted to keep it that way. Happy and normal.
“So,” Dad continued, “Things will be more crazy as Caraqueños realize the shackles are gone. Best we stay off the streets for a while longer.”
And so our little family spent the rest of the day indoors. While Dad kept the telephone tree information flowing through the Embassy, Mom worked up a batch of Grandma Amerson’s lemon bars, and Fina oversaw Susie and me playing in the aluminum washtub next to the cement laundry sink behind the kitchen, keeping an eye out for the rats that lived in the drain. A poison-laced banana had kept the varmints away during my grandparents’ visit.
The day limped along. Mom typed her weekly letter to her parents. Susie and I played store with Fina in Spanish, had lunch, napped, played dress-up in Mom’s old modern dance costumes and Fina’s Sunday shoes, had dinner. After our baths, we cozied into our hooded towels while Mom read us a bedtime story. If you ignored the radio, it would have been just another family day at home.
But it was my father’s job to stay tuned in. As the press attaché, Dad had developed a wide network of contacts among journalists and newspaper editors, academics, and political players. The American press included trusted contacts as well, like Tad Szulc of the New York Times, who covered the growing resistance to Pérez Jiménez. Many of the Venezuelan journalists and professors Dad first met in 1955 had become involved in clandestine work against the military dictator. Periodically, things would come to a head in their conversations, the Venezuelans questioning how America, beacon of democracy, could support the tyrant. Dad’s personal sentiments bled through his official response.
Now that the reviled Pérez Jiménez had been overthrown, Dad would be able to celebrate the success of the revolution with his contacts.
If they survived. The radio blared the latest: shots had been fired as a mob surrounded the headquarters of the dreaded national police.1
1Pérez Jiménez’ Seguridad Nacional enforced press censorship, restricted organized labor, and banned political opposition. (Amerson, Robert. How Democracy Triumphed Over Dictatorship, The American University Press, 1995. p. 4)
His newly-minted BA in electronic engineering secured my friend and neighbor Oscar a coveted summer internship with Amazon — that is, unless an offer from the aerospace giant McDonnell steals him away to fulfill his childhood fantasy of building spaceships. Either way, it’s a promising start for a new college grad with a 4.0 GPA.
What makes the achievement even more remarkable is that Oscar is in his 50s. This is his second BA and his third career. And he thanks failure for making it all possible.
Oscar, who is from Colombia, spent his formative years inspired by the machinery of a steel mill company town, where the amenities were plentiful and the freedom to explore was unlimited. His academic and leadership skills made him a star at home and in the community.
I was the president of the school theater club, the captain of the swim team, and the provincial director of the Red Cross. I was the center of the universe.
Grew up too fast
When Oscar moved to the Colombian capital, Bogotá, for college, he quickly realized that being the solitary high-achiever — the big fish in a small pond — had not prepared him for the challenges of university life.
He hadn’t learned how to do the normal childhood things, like playing or hanging out with friends. And the rest of the students had gone to prestigious private schools, where they’d learned English well enough to handle the American engineering textbooks.
I was at the bottom of the food chain. I didn’t know shit about anything.
Academic failure and renewal
Distracted by weekend volunteer work that tapped into his leadership skills, Oscar soon found himself on academic probation. His mother interpreted the situation as the system’s failure and scraped the funds together to have Oscar study English in the United States. He stretched those limited funds to cover a full academic year and returned to Colombia with a command of English, a new networking ability, and renewed purpose.
Oscar sailed through the rest of his college work and graduated with a degree in electronic engineering.
Oscar’s first job out of college in Colombia was as a software engineer designing the systems that made ”point of sale” terminals work.
The sound of a terminal printing a receipt still makes me ridiculously happy.
However, when it came to innovation and money, engineering proved a dead end. The opportunity was in sales. Oscar pitched his skills to high tech companies, inventing Latin American sales jobs for himself with Colombian, then American, and finally, Chinese companies.
I went over to the dark side for 25 years.
He was a self-made success, supporting his wife and children in their new South Florida life.
Business failure, reinvention
But, as the tech business shifted to China, initiative and hard work could not overcome an inflexible business model and haphazard customer support half a world away.
When fifty percent of your success doesn’t depend on you, that’s an awful feeling.
Oscar toiled away against diminishing returns until, exhausted and defeated, he found himself unemployed at age 51.
Oscar had one special asset: his wife, Coni. She had seen her husband in his glory leading Red Cross volunteers in Colombia, and she suggested that he return to the work that had brought him so much satisfaction. He’d supported their family while she was home with their children, learning English, and developing a career, and now it was her turn to support him.
After a quarter century of non-stop travel and never-ending problems, the simplicity of helping a hurting person sounded like a balm. Oscar decided to become a paramedic.
Physical failure, reinvention
Oscar quickly secured his EMT certification, but being a paramedic in Florida requires getting firefighter certification as well. Oscar, still an accomplished athlete, welcomed the challenge, knowing that he would be ”the old man” of the class. He made it through six months of grueling training under the blistering tropical sun, wearing heavy gear and lugging even heavier equipment, as his body grew haggard and his skin pale from exhaustion. Only weeks from completing the certification, he felt his shoulder rip. Unable to use his arm, he was out.
But Oscar would not quit. After extensive physical therapy, against medical advice and knowing full well the risks, he reenlisted in the rigorous program. Six more exhausting months, and his body again failed him. He was done.
My physical abilities have always defined me. But here I was, for the first time in my life, unable to finish something I started.
Back to engineering dreams
As her husband nursed his physical and psychological wounds, Coni again saw a way forward: Oscar should continue his engineering education.
When Coni said I should go back to school, I said, “I can’t do that.” But she kept encouraging me. And so I did.
All those years of experience did not translate into current engineering knowledge, so Oscar found himself starting from scratch with challenging coursework. And he was twice the age of the other students.
But Coni was right. He is really good at this stuff, and the joy he has found in recovering his academic skills infuses his life. He is beloved by his classmates and respected by his professors, on tap for a prestigious internship, and back to being an early-morning regular in our community gym and swimming pool.
Thank God that I could not finish my paramedic training. It would never have been enough.
My father lifted an arm and waved at the corner of the living room ceiling as the sound of the Venezuelan president’sairplane faded away. ”Adios, el president.”
Our maid Fina let out a short cry, and my mother shot Dad a look. Wit had its time and place, and the early hours flight into exile of dictator Marcos Pérez Jiménez was neither. “¿Fina, café?” She said.
The maid headed to the kitchen, mumbling rosary incantations under her breath. My mother followed to check on Susie and me. We were still curled into our sheets. The resiliency of kids. She walked back into the living room and dropped onto the edge of the couch next to Dad, her hands on her knees as if awaiting instructions.
“The telephone investment seems healthier now, eh?” Dad said. The $250 purchase and $24 a month had been prohibitive when we’d arrived in Venezuela.
“Yes,” Mom said. “Do you think we should call Mother and Dad?”
“Well, no need to alarm your folks, I think. Let them keep the Caracas of their visit.”
“I suppose.” Mom sighed. She was grateful that her parents had avoided this mess when they visited two years before. Tonight, Caracas felt like a different place from the easygoing, eternally springtime city she and Dad had fallen in love with.
My father turned on Radio Caracas. Sporadic news bulletins interrupted the familiar rhythms of Venezuelan folk tunes on the nightly program, Música Criolla. Each announcement reflected a still-evolving scenario. That the completely united army had overthrown the regime. That some army rebels, along with other armed forces and civilians, were taking the credit. That there was violence downtown. Excited voices urged citizens to stay at home, to remain calm, to refrain from harming foreigners.
“So, should we be doing something?” my mother said. “What’s the plan?”
Dad turned down the radio and leaned forward, his elbows on his knees. “We’re to sit tight. Hard to tell what’s going to happen, but better to be here together than to get caught up by a crowd in the street.”
He wasn’t sure how much my mother had heard about the deadly chaos of rampaging mobs in the coup d’état that had brought PJ to power in 1952. The folks at the Canadian Embassy had approached their American counterparts several months before about consolidating evacuations. That had seemed like a remote possibility, but maybe not anymore.
The Embassy was in downtown Caracas, several miles away from Zucatarate, the tree-lined residential neighborhood on the western edge of town where we and several other Embassy families lived. It was time to touch base with one of those colleagues.
“Let me give Russ a call.” Dad spoke quietly into the receiver as Fina arrived with the coffee.
“¿Algo mas?” the maid said.
My mother forced her lips into a smile.“No, gracias, Fina.”
The maid nodded. “Pues, buenas noches.” Fina returned to her room.
My mother nodded and took a sip of the strong brew. None of that wimpy American coffee down here. There was so much they truly loved about this place. She took another sip, allowing the liquid heat to relax her back into the sofa.
Dad hung up the phone and turned the radio back up a bit. “Okay, so maybe there’s something,”
My mother snapped to high alert.
“We may want to hide the car,” he said.
“Hide the car?”
“They’re looking for PJ’s head honchos. Russ just had a mob in front of their house thinking his diplomatic plates were Venezuelan issue for the regime. Lucky for them, the men headed down the block before Russ shot his gun.”
“His gun?” Mom sat up straighter. “We don’t have a gun.” She paused. “Dad’s hunting gun.” Her father had given his duck-hunting rifle to Dad.
“Well, yes, we have your father’s gun, but no, I don’t think it’s going to come to that.”
The radio crackled as an enthusiastic announcer broke in. “¡Periodistas!” Newspaper editors! He continued in Spanish. “You are finally free. Tell the public that the dictator is gone!”
“Imagine that,” my father said. “An uncensored paper. First time in ten years.”
“The car?” my mother prompted. The diplomatic plates on the Oldsmobile sitting in our driveway a few feet from the street could easily be confused with those issued for the Venezuelan government. “Do you think maybe we should put out the American flag? I mean, we’re the good guys, right?”
My father considered the suggestion. “Well, we know we’re the good guys,” he said, “but I’m not so sure everyone agrees. Better play it safe. Got some Crisco?”
My mother retrieved the blue tub from the refrigerator. Dad scooped out a handful. He opened the front door slowly, paused, and stepped out. The air was still and heavy with the scent of ripe mango. The pop-pop-pop of fireworks echoed from downtown, or was that gunfire?
My mother huddled in the doorway as Dad took three long strides across the little yard to the Oldsmobile and crouched down to smear the license plate with grease and dirt. Satisfied, he hurried back inside. My mother shut the door and secured the lock.
Dad turned off the radio. “Let’s try to get some sleep.”
The words were barely out of his mouth when a car careened around our corner, brakes screeching, horn blaring in defiance of Pérez Jiménez’ edict against honking. My mother froze, her eyes wide. Would the Olds’ camouflage work? Would my grandfather’s shotgun be necessary? But the driver and his euphoric passengers flew by cheering and continued toward downtown.
“Like winning the big game,” Dad said, downplaying the anxious moment with a shrug of his shoulders. Another car swept loudly past. “I think all the action’s downtown. Nothing more to do except get that rest. It’s going to be a long day.”
Mom looked in on us girls again. Susie and I were still fast asleep, untroubled by the noise and innocent of the drama unfolding around us. Mom wondered if she’d be up to the task of creating a routine in a city that was in chaos. My preschool would be closed, so both us kids would be home, and Mom hoped that Dad would stay home as well. She’d need to watch Fina. Susie and I would absorb her mood without understanding it. Everything needed to be normal.
She climbed back into bed.
“Everyone okay?” Dad said.
They lay still, eyes closed and ears open. Another few cars gunned past. In the distance, car horns bleated off-key against the staccato rhythms of gunfire. The night wore on.
As dawn made its tentative advance, they heard a whispering from the street, like prairie grass in the summer wind. It grew steadily louder. They crept to the living room window and peered through the glass slats and metal bars. Out of the fading night emerged a parade of men and women, their passage marked by the soft whoosh-whoosh of the alpargata slippers worn by the people that lived in the shacks up the hill. It was like an Easter processional, only instead of the statue of a saint, each person carried a chair or a television or a file cabinet.
“Looters,” my father said. “They’ve broken into the police station.”
Next time from EMBASSY KID: A MEMOIR: How this young Midwestern family — a farm boy and a small town girl, and their two daughters — found themselves in Venezuela
Tom Rhiel, one of the three angels behind Kaleidoscope Wojo — who included my essay Surviving Amsterdam in a recent anthology — wrote a touching tribute to his niece Kate, a young woman whose life was longer than predicted but way too short for those cheering her on. Kate’s optimistic and altruistic commitment to life inspired her circle of friends throughout her life. Tom’s tribute — portions of which I’ve included here, with Tom’s permission — allows Kate to inspire those of us she never met. Tom says that Kate would have liked this idea, too.
The question of why certain things happen to people — and particularly you — isn’t as important as what you did while you were here. You taught us so much. We never stopped learning about ourselves as we watched you live your life.
Kate was born with frailties that normally mean a very brief life, and she underwent 200 surgeries. Maybe being aware of the finality of those hours made Kate’s life mean so much to those she loved. As the Tim McGraw song goes, if you live like you were dying, you fully live. And it’s never long enough. My close encounter with death in 2019 was my own wake-up call, but it’s easy to forget. I am so glad to be reminded that this is all fleeting.
You got to know all too well the finality of death at such an early age as dozens of the children you became friends with at Children’s Hospital succumbed to their illnesses. Contained within the sadness of losing these people in your life was the celebration of life that you shared with each other.
The news of your passing hit like a hundred hammer blows to the gut. How many times had we recoiled at the possibility that this day or that day could be your last on earth? You always amazed and delighted us by pushing on, staying with us for 38 years. Except that wasn’t enough. Not nearly enough.
It is so easy to be inward looking. The pandemic has only reinforced our social isolation. Kate put others first, even when she had the chance to keep things for herself. During her Make-A-Wish Foundation visit to the DC Disney store she could pick out anything she wanted.
Attendants quietly bagged anything Kate seemed to like. When the shopping trip was followed a restaurant meal, Kate made sure that the limo driver was also having lunch.
And Kate’s close understanding of death even led her to want to help others through this inevitable conclusion through the study of thanatology in the Montgomery Scholar college honors program. How about that? Such maturity at such a young age, when many of us hide our heads in the sand.
You were wearing Big Girl pants long before anyone knew what that meant.
This was the ultimate gift this remarkable young woman gave her friends and family: letting them do for her. That’s grace. Inspirational.
As your world was narrowing because of ever growing health challenges you began to let more people in. You discovered just how caring people can be as the number of cheerleaders grew and a community formed around you, ready at a moment’s notice to start prayers, the sending of positive thoughts and energy and any other force they could muster for you to cling to, for you to draw strength from. You touched so many in such a powerful way.
We want to think of you now blasting across the universe, Sammy in your arms, as black holes come ablaze as you whiz by the two of you grinning mischievous smiles, hoping you’re causing a bit of trouble for the cosmos.
And, finally, there remains the mantra of love, such an important reminder that we must tell the people we love how we feel. Since 2019, I do not leave words unsaid. Since 2020, none of us can afford to stay mute.
Every phone conversation, every in person gathering ended with the same expression: “I’ll love you always and forever.” Time is infinite, Kate. We will love you always and forever.
A few weeks ago, I wrote about enjoying the chance encounters with neighbors that help us connect as a community, Why Small Talk is Big Time. That piece inspired my friend N in Boynton Beach to share how she took on the challenge one morning to offset all the negative chatter in this crazy world with some happiness.
Here is what N told me.
The news is full of quarrel
Before I went out to do a few errands, I read the newspaper and saw all the now-usual stories or people rudely shouting at each other without either side listening to the other. And as I headed to the bank, I decided to spread (as someone or other once said) sunshine and light.
N, a reader in Boynton Beach, FL
Harassed bank teller all smiles
The customer ahead of me at the bank was absurdly slow. When I got to the teller, she was obviously fuming and immediately began apologizing. I held up a hand and said, ” You obviously did your job efficiently, you were just being polite to a person who needed to chat. Please don’t apologize, just take a deep breath. I’ll be quick and I hope the rest of your day is better.”
Wow! She almost jumped, before she took care of me and asked me to please come back tomorrow. (I didn’t, but oh well.)
N, a reader in Boynton Beach, FL
As if she’d gotten a new Mercedes
Then I went to the post office. Someone was struggling with two boxes. We were both masked. So, I took one and helped her inside.
She was so happy to be helped, you would have thought I had given her a new Mercedes.
N, a reader in Boynton Beach, FL
Chiming along makes his day
Walking out I heard a postal worker loading his truck with difficulty, start to curse, pause to control himself and then continue in a totally furious voice,”Mary had a little lamb.”
He was so mad it almost sounded obscene, but I decided (from 25 or so feet away just in case he was mad enough to attack) to keep my game going, so I sang out, “Its fleece was white as snow.” And he started cracking up.
N, a reader in Boynton Beach, FL
A 90 minute shower of sweetness and light
So in under 90 minutes I spread three bits of sweetness and light during a pandemic.
N, a reader in Boynton Beach, FL
Wow. How easily we ignore these opportunities to make someone’s day, or, worse yet, let others’ anxiety and anger spill over into us.
There’s a new bounce in my step. Part of the feeling comes from some good news: A cyst that cropped up on my pancreas has disappeared. Good. Moving on.
But most of the bounce in my step comes from a new energy. Maybe it’s that I’m swimming again. Or maybe it’s that I’m spending more time with a good friend.
Supporting my friend
My dear friend and neighbor C. took swimming classes this summer, taking the plunge at the urging of her husband to overcome a life-long fear of the water. In just three weeks, she progressed from a panicked doggie paddle to this, which I recorded when I got up earlier than usual to attend her graduation day swim. (Yes, I do testament to the 50’s with my exclamations of ”Holy mackerel!” Another one I seem to use a lot is “Phooey.”)
C invited me to help her continue to practice her newfound skill by joining her at our community pool a few mornings a week before her work day.
It was a big ask: being fully retired, I’ve gotten very accustomed to sleeping in, waking slowly over breakfast and the newspaper, and doing some writing before getting out the door for a two-mile walk with our dog.
But C. had made so much progress — not just the crawl, but backstroke, breaststroke and sidestroke! — that I simply couldn’t say no. Swimming alone is not a good idea — although I usually do water exercise once or twice a week, it has been a long time since I’ve done any serious swimming for lack of company.
So, I set my alarm, organized breakfast and the dog, and started showing up.
Helping a friend got me healthier
That was a month ago. Three mornings a week, I am up early, knowing that C. is doing the same, and we meet at our community pool. We catch up and goggle up, and then we’re in the water.
I have watched C continue to develop her new skill. As her arms and legs settle into their rhythm, she is finding freedom in the water and emerges into the warming air with a huge smile on her face. Swimming is a joyful exploration.
My old swimming routine was just waiting for me. The slow ten lengths of freestyle, my body gradually releasing the night’s tension. The mix-up of breaststroke, freestyle, backstroke, and a sort-of butterfly, the variety entertaining my mind and challenging my body. The hypnotic burble of breath and bubble. The final laps bring me home, panting.
We stretch and talk, or talk and stretch. And talk some more on the walk back home. Then we each disappear into the requirements of the day, knowing that, in a day or two, we’ll do this all again.
My friend’s company was just the support I needed to reclaim an old habit. And swimming has become another vehicle though which our friendship blossoms.
Friendship and exercise, what a great combination
The happy buzz of endorphins percolates through my body all day long. I feel stronger, more connected, and more committed to my health. And grateful for a friend’s support.
I thought I was doing her a favor, when in fact it was I who received the blessing.
They were awakened by the telephone. My father was on his feet and halfway to the living room as my mother glanced at the clock. 3AM. It must be family back home in Minnesota, a very long way from Venezuela. She reached for her robe and hurried to join my father as he spoke into the receiver.
“Bob Amerson here.”
My mother’s eyes widened as she waited.
“Roger that.” My father hung up. “That was Harry.” Harry Casler, Dad’s boss, was covering the Embassy lines this week.
Mom exhaled in relief as she plopped down on the sofa. It wasn’t a death in the family. Dad continued. “It’s happening — PJ is finally out.”
“Oh,” Mom said, her voice tight.
President Pérez Jiménez — PJ, as they called him at the Embassy — was the ruthless Venezuelan dictator who’d wielded power since before we’d arrived in Caracas. Clandestine political movements and dissident elements within the military had risen up against the Pérez Jiménez regime, because of corruption, restrictions on civil rights, downright torture. Everybody knew of something that they could blame the Pérez Jiménez regime for. Finally, on January 23, the pressure had forced the dictator out.
“Harry said he’s flying into exile, just took off from La Carlota near the palace.” Dad spoke over his shoulder as he went to retrieve his slippers and bathrobe. “So we should hear him overhead in a couple of minutes.”
“The girls,” my mother said, trying to keep her voice low but insistent. He was going to wake up my baby sister and three-year-old me.
Dad rejoined her in the living room. “Okay,” he said. “We knew things were about to break loose. The Junta Patriótica strike got all that rioting going on downtown, and they’ve finally succeeded in ousting PJ.”
Dad’s network of contacts within the underground resistance had kept the Embassy abreast of what was a highly combustible situation.
“But who’s going to stop the rioters now?” Mom said. If Pérez Jiménez was out, so was his security police.
“That’s what makes this moment so interesting,” Dad said.
Mom’s nostrils flared. This was not an academic exercise. Her family’s safety came first. “With Janie and Susie down the hall?”
Dad gave her a quick hug. “The bad guy is out. The good guys are in,” he said. “There might even be a chance for democracy. And what a front-row seat. Just think, this might have happened while we were on home leave last year back in the States.”
“Yes, that would have been…” Mom’s words trailed off. It would have been so much better to be safely in the Midwest while this crazy country figured itself out. But that wasn’t the deal they’d signed up for with Washington. The deal was adventure, and this was sure it.
“I’ll go see to the girls.”
Mom walked down the short hallway to the second bedroom and swung open the door. Susie was soundly asleep, curled around her baby blanket. And if the telephone had awakened me, I had dropped back into toddler dreams.
My mother jumped. Josefina’s unshod feet hadn’t given her away as the maid approached from her room behind the kitchen. Like us, Fina, as we called her, was one of the many European migrants that had flooded oil-rich Venezuela seeking work. Maybe because we were all foreigners, maybe because we needed each other, or maybe because Fina simply adored us girls, she’d become part of our little family.
My mother closed the bedroom door and assumed the authoritative role that she’d grown into over the past three years. La señora de la casa, the lady of the house, couldn’t betray her nerves, even though it still felt pretty unreal to this modest Midwesterner to have a maid.
“Josefina,” Mom said quietly. “Pérez Jiménez se va.”
The long-awaited news of the dictator’s departure alarmed the maid. “¡Ay Dios mio!”
“Cálmese,” my mother said. She put a steadying hand on Fina’s sturdy shoulder.
“Las niñas.” Fina made a move toward the bedroom door.
Mom tightened her grip. The last thing they needed right now was two kids worrying about why they were awake in the middle of the night.
My mother looked Fina in the eye. “Cálmese,” she repeated, as if she were telling one of us girls to settle down. She could do more with a quiet tone and a look than an excitable mother could do with a yell.
Mom steered Fina down the hall and into the living room, where Dad had settled into the soft, pheasant-print sofa, a wedding gift from his parents back on the farm in South Dakota. The contrast between the Midwestern prairie images and the bright colors and fruity smells of Caracas normally coaxed a smile, but tonight the distance felt much farther than 3,000 miles. Sitting and waiting didn’t help.
“How about some coffee?” Mom said.
My father opened his mouth to respond, then looked up to the ceiling, and he raised an index finger. “Harry said we’d hear the plane. And here it comes.”
The two women followed his gaze. A palmetto bug scurried across the ceiling toward the corner over the bookcase. The faint rumble of a propeller airplane sounded in the distance, growing louder as it approached. It built to a roar. As the airplane thundered overhead, the bug dropped to the linoleum, and the glass ashtray on the coffee table trembled. The sound slowly diminished into nothing.
Dad half-raised a hand. “Adios, el presidente.”
Next Tuesday: Chapter One, Part II: The mob comes roving.
This is the first of a new series of inspirational stories I’ll be posting as I continue my path of recovery. I hope they will inspire you to appreciate each day we are given — whether you have palm trees or pine trees or buildings outside your door, it’s a great day.
Leylah Annie Fernandez had a goal
Earlier this year, when Leylah Annie Fernandez was a little-known 18-year-old Canadian tennis player living in South Florida, she said that her goal was to be in the top ten professional women players in the world. The sport writers were skeptical.
Not anymore. She turned 19 on the day before playing for the trophy in the finals of the US Open tennis tournament, having beaten top-ranked opponents on the way to Arthur Ashe stadium, beginning with Naomi Osaka. She’s zoomed into 23rd place on the roster.
In the on-court interview after her stunning victory over Osaka, she was asked if she ever believed she could best Osaka. ”Yes,” she responded with a huge smile. ”Just before the match.”
She stepped up
There’s a lot to be said for someone like Fernandez, who has lost a lot of first and second round of matches on the WTA tour this year, producing a completely different level of tennis under the bright lights of Arthur Ashe stadium, for stepping up in close matches against a series of true champions and executing better than they did. That’s what great players do.
It’s steel honed by hard work. The daughter of immigrants from Ecuador and the Philippines, Fernandez moved from Montreal to my neighboring town of Boynton Beach in 2018. I assumed that the move was to permit her to train at a prestigious (and expensive) tennis academy, like Chris Evert’s school. Then I read that she trains on public courts and at the beach, and that her father, a former soccer player, is her coach.
Check out this training video, and remember that it’s hot and humid — sweat dripping off your face when you go for a walk — down here.
…a world-class fighter who walks between points with the steely determination of someone on her way to break up a bar brawl.
Fernandez didn’t win the US Open championship. That went to another brown-skinned daughter of immigrants, England’s Emma Raducanu. These multicultural, multilingual teenagers have just set a new bar for grit, resilience, and joy in the game.
While Raducanu — the first qualifier to win a Grand Slam title — expressed wonderment at her unlikely win, Fernandez, whose top-100 ranking got her into the tournament, may have been tripped up by really, really being sure she would prevail. Recovering from this loss, she said during the on-court interview, would be hard. And then she added this.
I know on this day it was especially hard for New York and everyone around us. I just hope that I can be as strong and resilient as New York has been the past 20 years.
This quote from Tom Bissell’s New York Times book review resonated as I took in the passion of a stormy sea at our favorite South Florida beach recently. The waves smashed onto the beach, releasing some of that pent-up energy into the air and the rest onto the sand with such force that my bare feet tingled.
…human presence is only a thin film stretched over mystery.
Scott Russell Sanders
Yet we have polluted it
And yet, thin film though we are, humans are managing to meddle with nature with irrevocable results: sea level rise floods more and more of our coastal areas; warm ocean waters gin up hurricanes with wind and deluge that rend lives and livelihoods; wildfires burn out of control across the globe.
We are off-handed in our support of the status quo, blaming convenience as we buy what want, toss it out when we’re done, and turn a blind eye to the results. But look at the results, plastic that I collected on this very beach.
By including local municipalities, businesses, and organizations and having them show their support and involvement through our buckets and encouraging them to hold multiple cleanups throughout the year, we will be creating even more awareness and cleanup events throughout our communities to get involved in.
Let sunlight flame in a blade of grass, let night come on, let thunder roar and tornado whirl, let the earth quake, let muscles twitch, let mind curl about the least pebble or blossom or bird, and the true wildness of this place, of all places, reveals itself.