Lili waited for a smile of approval from her mother before she inched closer to the end of the diving board. Maman smiled, waved, and watched her 5-year-old daughter ready herself for another ‘perfect dive!’
Lili shrugged her little shoulders to loosen them up, took a deep breath, and, without hesitation, dove head first, splashing water to a minimum—always her goal. She stayed at the bottom of the piscine as long as her tiny lungs allowed her. When she swam to the surface, she dog-paddled back to the pool ledge, pretending she struggled to swim. Maman smiled because she knew Lili was a good swimmer.
Lili smiled back, climbed out of the water and walked back to the diving board as fast she could without running—the maître nageur always kept an eye in the direction of the diving board.
This morning at breakfast, Lili racked her brain, but could not remember learning to swim anymore than she remembered learning how to read or write. She saw herself jumping in the pool at a very early age to amuse her mother. She was four or five, maybe younger. She had clear memories of maman reading to her before bed and she saw herself filling page after page of secret diaries. But she could not remember being instructed to swim, read, or write.
Water and books had been in her life for nearly thirty years. They were her extended family and had always been there for her. They helped in times of sorrow—when her mother lost a battle to breast cancer. They made her twice stronger in times of happiness—when she earned tenure and her third book made the New York bestseller list in the scientific category.
Dr. Liliane Vincere was a conservation biologist. She spent most her days between her lab at the University of Michigan and the shallow waters of the Huron River. She studied amphibians’ mutation cycles in polluted swamps.
At conferences, she introduced herself by saying she was a Franco-Italian frog, born and raised just outside Paris, studying Midwestern frogs and turtles born and raised just outside Detroit. After an intentional pause she usually added: “One important disclaimer: I study frogs, I don’t eat them. I’m more Italian than French.” Her accent was flawless. People adored her brand of self-deprecation. They laughed and lined up to congratulate her after her speeches.
When she didn’t charm academic crowds in university auditoriums across the world, she entertained middle-aged women at the local YMCA. She’d taught water aerobics since High School; first in France (during the school year) and in Italy (during the summer) and now in the US.
“That’s how I stayed in shape and that’s how I give back to the community,” she often joked. This morning was her last opportunity to give back. Like it or not, she had to quit. Her mind wanted to continue but her body was forcing her out.
“Allez, Allez Mesdames and you Colonel, a few more jumps and you can wave goodbye to another 5.32 calories. Au revoir e arrivederci!” Lili sung in an exaggerated half French and half Italian accent.
She was standing a few feet away from the ledge of the pool, facing nearly seventy middle-aged women in colorful suits stretched to all shapes and sizes and one bald, tattooed, pot-bellied retired Marine. Three more series of lateral steps and it would be over.
A hot spring day was making its presence known through the large bay windows along the pool. Why should they come to torture themselves on a beautiful day like today? Lili thought, continuing to count her steps.
They should be outside bathing in the rays of life instead of a pool of chlorine. They should be strolling in their postcard perfect neighborhoods, walking their golden retrievers, dragging along their turbulent teens and their senile parents. They should be wandering in their flower gardens with an eye on slender tulips and tardy daffodils, on hostas spreading their large wings, and weeds beginning their invasive campaign. No, instead they chose to bob up and down out of breath for a whole hour.
Lili stopped counting. She went through the last crab steps silently. She needed to lower her own heartbeat, gather her thoughts, and catch her breath. She had to keep the excruciating pain under control. Excruciating despite her heavy cocktail of meds.
“Arms up, we shall start by stretching our neck and shoulders. And no more flabby triceps, will you please.” And then in a mock-exasperated voice: “Mesdames! Colonel!”
Lili stretched her muscular arms outward, shook her lower body, looking every bit like the competitive swimmer she’d been fifteen years ago. She shook her upper body, with one leg forward, belly dancer style. Nothing moved. Lean meat did not jiggle.
She continued the routine, showing off her tanned musculature, her broad back, and her fabulous hips. Men loved those hips; it turned them to stone (something of them, at least). Women envied that fantastic body.
A near perfect shell on the outside, she thought. A fragile shell on the inside, she knew.
Lili turned around when the aching was no longer bearable. She didn’t want them to see that she had to bite her lip to cope with the constant pain. Moving, simply moving, had become an ordeal. She took another deep breath, glad that her weakening lungs still cooperated. She faced the pool again as soon as she felt ready for the finale. The pep talk, first, and then the final announcement, she told herself.
“Another great session, Ladies and gentleman. Remember that good health requires proper balance. What’s the point of exercising if you don’t spoil the gains immediately afterward? Go get that pint of beer, that fat slice of cheesecake, or that box full of chocolate. Treat yourself with whatever you fancy, I say. Excess one way and excess the other, that’s proper balance. The French secret to staying steady chubby. So have a chubby week and see you next time, Ladies and gentleman.”
Lili flashed a large smile and blew kisses to the crowd. They applauded joyfully, paying tribute to her delightful lunacy. The last kiss went for the Colonel, her most devoted student. There wouldn’t be another time.
The Colonel had been in the water from day one. He was one of the twelve students present when Lili took over the class one cold morning in January, a few years back. By the next session the crowd had doubled and a year later Lili taught to pool capacity.
Word of mouth about her entertaining style and her motivational skills spread like an itching rash. Colonel Providence made sure that many a YMCA bunny got the itch. He recruited like a squadron dispatched in an urban high school to entice young man to join the armed forces. He became her second in command and could be seen every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday morning opposite Lili at the back the pool.
When Lili first met him, the Colonel was coming back from four consecutive rounds of duty in the Persian Gulf, six straight years without returning home to Michigan. He’d lost half his right foot and nearly a third of his skull the last time he went. He needed help to walk. He couldn’t talk back then. He could smile, but with herculean effort and intense pain. He needed the assistance of three lifeguards to get into the water. Now the Colonel jumped in and out of the water like a third grader. He was the one helping others get in and out of the pool. He could run, jump, talk, boo, cheer, and smile effortlessly.
They wanted more but there couldn’t be a next time. Lili’s class was one of the few spirited moments in their wavering lives. She’d witnessed more than once their silent cry for hope. It was all in their stare, a sparkle on the verge of extinction. They came to shake off despair turned to fat, and a defeated sense of self as big as a second ego. She tried to teach them more than the ability to raise arms and legs under water. It was confidence which she sought to bring to their lives.
What really mattered was the inside, wasn’t it? If the inside went through regular cleansing, the outer shell would transform on its own, wouldn’t it? If only that was true! If only it was more than just a message of hope.
Lili had a short minute to make her last announcement. She took a deep breath and clapped her hands to call their attention. “Ladies, Colonel Providence, today was my last session. I must hang my colorful Speedo.”
A mixture of disappointment and surprise echoed round the pool. Those a few steps from the locker rooms stopped and turned in Lili’s direction. It was in her best interest to make her announcement as brief as possible. They’d try to make her change her mind. But she couldn’t. The body that inspired them had failed miserably.
“Next week, there’ll be another good looking, slender specimen wearing a tight trunk, and gesturing madly. Added bonus: there’s a great chance that he or she won’t be as rude as yours truly. Not everyone can be so privileged as to be French!”
That was it, it was all over. She wouldn’t give back for a while. She couldn’t anymore. She picked up her clipboard and her keys and joined the crowd resuming its penguin march towards the locker rooms and lobby. She welcomed a few entreaties with an honest smile and accepted the many wet hugs, kisses, and firm handshakes that followed.
Last in line was the Colonel. He was as wide as the broad-shouldered Lili, though a head smaller. Lili could see a couple of scars crisscrossing near the peak of his shaved head. At the center of the eagle tattooed on the left shoulder was a round mark that looked like a bullet wound. There were similar marks further down on the shoulder blade. Lili stopped counting at eight.
At the moment, the Colonel stood upright, hands at his back, perfectly balanced, at ease like in the old days. “I’m going to miss you Miss Liliane,” he said in that deep voice that came from the depth of his hairy chest. He grabbed her strong right hand with both hands. Normally, he would shake it vigorously. But these days he was cautious, because he knew.
“I got my confidence back thanks to you, miss. I feel young again.”
“If I may say so Sir, you don’t look that young from where I stand.”
The Colonel laughed: “Thank you for making me laugh. Thanks for making me forget the pain and ignore its lasting memory.”
Lili wasn’t always irreverent: “It’s been a pleasure working with you. I will miss you, Sir.”
She held the door to the lobby, but released it when she noticed that the Colonel had one more thing to say: “You’ve been here for me, from day one. I want you to understand that I’m here for you,” he said looking up in her eyes.
“I’ve seen many wounded men and women in my career. Capitulation was in their eyes from day one. I don’t see it in yours. I see Life, with a capital L.”
Then after a long silence: “It’s ALS, isn’t it?”
The Colonel watched Lili’s eyes fill with tears. He didn’t need an answer.
“It’ll be a tough battle,” he added, smiling. “But you won’t quit. If it had been in your blood, you’d quit already. It’s not! You’ll fight till the end.”
Then, he pointed at Lili’s chest: “There is a big ray of life in that French heart of yours. Don’t let it drown, Lili. Don’t let it drown you.”
“It’s a promise,” Lili responded, after a deep breath.
“Ciao bella!” He added with a charming smile.
Lili pushed the door to the lobby. The Colonel went in first. She followed right behind and made the promise to follow his steps as far as she could. She would make the brave soldier proud.