It started almost as a little hum… a vibration in my head, felt more than heard. A connection between some deep part of my brain straight to inside my chest. In the days leading up to my college graduation I mostly ignored it. Easy enough in the midst of goodbye parties, long nights at the Terrace drinking pitchers of beer while the sun set over Lake Mendota. Graduation parties, visiting family to entertain… there was plenty to be distracted by. But the hum turned to an ache. A growing uneasiness. An angst. I tried to drown it. Alcohol, music, sleep. But graduation came, and as day turned to night, and evening settled in, I saw Liza, my friend, forged on those first few nights in the dorm freshman year, across the street from my apartment on her porch. I walked over and sat next to her and buried my head on her shoulder and just cried. Tears flowed with the pressure and force of the angst that had been percolating inside me now at a full boil. She held me as I just let go. And for a few moments at least I had relief from the discomfort that had entered my perfect world.
Walk with me, why don’t you? It’s about time, don’t you think? We have been avoiding this for quite a while. But it is best to bring this out from the shadows and into the light. Let’s take a walk… Thru a part of my day. But be careful. You won’t like what you see. I don’t like this path very much. It’s why I have not looked lately. I just keep moving forward, one foot in front of the other. Don’t stop. Can’t stop. Movement keeps things blurry. And blurry is less defined. And less defined is fuzzy. And who gets hurt by fuzzy? Fuzzy is soft and safe. Fuzzy can’t hurt. Fuzzy can’t reach into my heart and soul and hurt me from the inside out.
Maybe it’s the Jeep with its top down, whipping thru the wind on the highway.
Maybe it’s the music playing…a combination of new and old. Of fast and imploring. Of slow and restrained.
Maybe it’s the caffeine from my first cup of coffee in a week starting to work its way thru my veins to my heart and brain.
Maybe it’s the race, that has been front and center in my brain for a month now, finally coming to fruition.
Maybe it’s the actual connection between Chicago and Madison. More than I-90, but where my past and present continue to intersect. The innocence (and obliviousness) of my seventeen year old freshman self on Madison’s campus, to a departing graduate four years later. Or the somewhat irregular path of preparing for this race that leads me to the hills around town and the comfort of nights at the Union Terrace, mingling with friends old and new.
Don’t want to be a richer man
Turn and face the strange
Just gonna have to be a different man
Time may change me
But I can’t trace time”
Months have passed since I last wrote. Thoughts, musings, topics have flittered frequently through my head. But in the general chaos and anarchy that I call my life, (we are often living hour to hour in the Topin household) as soon as these thoughts gain some traction, something comes up and steals my head space, my bandwidth. And I get wrapped up in the whirlwind of my world.
But something of late feels a bit different. The ebbs and flows and highs and lows that seems to be the backdrop of my life..seem to no longer feel right…The familiarity of the cyclical nature of things feels…no longer safe..or comfortable…but constricting, and obstructing.
There you are amongst the crowd. One of thirty freshman. And my breath is taken from me. For a moment, the briefest moment, everything else on my mind fades away. The whirlwind of stress that has been the background beat for the last several months is now muted, and my focus is on you. My daughter. Maya.
There you are amongst the crowd. One of thirty freshman flittering about for pictures prior to homecoming. But you are not flittering. You are my little girl, but you are not little anymore. My whirling dervish, my often naked chaos creator, the little one who was too scared to stand up and “graduate” with her pre-school class, my troublemaker who smeared tuna salad in the baseboard heater while we slept, my little girl who it seems has now grown up almost overnight.
It’s been a rough day. No…more accurate a rough afternoon. Being home on “vacation” is usually not a good thing. My presence in the house is disruptive, changing the normal routines and patterns that have been established by my family. I throw things off, challenge the status quo. When the routine breaks down, stress increases. There has been yelling and screaming after school between Madison and me. Exactly what I did not want to happen is happening. I literally am fighting back tears as I am overwhelmed with frustration, sadness, anger. The enthusiasm and excitement to be at water polo practice tonight is replaced by fatigue and emotional exhaustion. But as 8:15 rolls around Madison is headed for the door.
“Where you going?” I ask.
“You want a ride? Go together?”
“It’s ok. I’ll drive myself.”
Off to the car he goes. Grateful that he at least desires to be at practice, I soon follow. Roughly 40 minutes later there is a full court scrimmage in action. Madison is on my team, intermittently in the field, and I’m in the goal. The tension of the past few hours starts to ease a bit. And then my family starts to do its thing.
So, first…an apology to my biological family. In no way what I am about to write is meant to minimize how much my wife, parents and sister mean to me. But outside of my “birth” and married family, I have been lucky to be part of several other “families” in my life. Not bonded by birth or blood, but forged in different ways. And it is amazing how much water polo has played a role in many of these different families that I belong too. My high school friends were all swimmers and polo players for the most part. They to this day are family to me. In college, another family was born. Quite broad but one large part was the college water polo team I played on. I have a wonderful group of friends and family at work that have helped me survive and thrive the past 9 years as a pulmonary and critical care physician. And now there is the newest family. The one forged from my current water polo team the Gators.
Its been about 5 years now that I have played intermittently with this team. We have practiced, scrimmaged and competed as well as shared many a beer and pizzas together. There have been relationships, break ups, weddings and child births. And although some of the faces have moved on over the years, others have come in. These men and women have taken me in as an equal despite my older age and diminishing skill set, and they have taken my son in as their own as well.
A couple of members of my water polo family decided they were not going to let my son be lazy today. Swimming back hard on defense isn’t enough. Extra strokes to establish good defensive positioning is the expectation now. And being a passive place holder in the offense doesn’t sit well with them either. They encourage mostly but sometimes yell to make sure he knows what he is not doing. Looking a little dazed and confused (and very exhausted) at the end of practice..they start to do with him what I cannot (for various reasons) . They explain to him how he is doing some things wrong and show him how to do some things better. Their voices firm but matter of fact. There is no coddling or praise for doing what is already expected. And I see my son listen and I hope the gears are turning in that teenage head of his. My water polo family has shown him by their actions that he is part of theirs. And for the second time that day, I fight back tears….
After practice my son heads home and I head out to the bar with a few of the guys to get a beer. We talk about Madison, upcoming weddings, coaching, life goals. And my day that was an unmitigated disaster just a few hours before, is gonna be chalked up in the win column for both my son and me. And the Gators have two more wins on its won/loss record as well….
I pull into the driveway, trying to leave that last of my work day behind. As I enter the house, I am greeted by the all too familiar semi-chaotic scene in front of me. Lola comes jumping to the hallway happy to greet, while my kids stay somewhat immobile in their current positions. Madison often on the couch, computer on as well as the TV. A token book maybe by his side. A phone there as well with the screen still lit up from recent use. Maya will be in the kitchen, simultaneously eating while sprawled out on the floor, music from spotify playing overhead, trying to do math homework in between answering the multitude of texts that keep streaming in. My frustration at the lack of focus in these two irritates me to no end as they have not remembered to put their morning’s breakfast away and the dishwasher from last night is still not emptied. I can’t look anymore, and just head upstairs to change…
Madison. I watch you pace along the pool deck with your new smooth shaved head. You settle in behind the starting block waiting your turn. The goggles move from forehead down to your eyes. Your gaze, straight ahead in front of you. Up the starting block you go. Waiting. For the whistle. “Swimmer’s take your mark”. Hands curl on the platform, legs spaced apart, while newly formed muscles from a season’s worth of practice tense…waiting… The Starter’s “gun” goes off, and you spring to life. How things have changed from the soft little racing starts you used to do. There is purpose behind this one. You slice through the water to remerge. Middle lane. Fast lane. Maybe a third of a body length behind those next to you. Butterfly. Arms synchronized out in front, pulling forward. You hit the wall, turn and power off. Purposeful. Focused. Intense. Now headed back. I can see you moving, driving forward. Shoulders…When did you get such broad shoulders? You pull slightly ahead with each stroke now. Into the second turn and back out again. You look smooth. Coordinated. It’s the third length of the four that it really hits me. Focused. Driven. You own this. This race, your season. You put the work, the time, effort. Morning practices, dry-land sessions. Not for me, your dad. For you. Time slows…just a little bit. This moment is so beautiful to me. Watching you…
Final length. Middle lane. You’re ahead and holding. I remember my arms, heavy, burning, wanting to stop. Finding what would push me, to push past the ache and burn. My team? My pride? You’re finishing strong, still smooth, closing in on the timing pad. Final strokes… you don’t stop. No coasting or easing up. You hammer your arms into the timing pad and the clock stops. The mixed joy and frustration of a personal best, yet short of your personal goal. I know how you feel. I know how I would feel. But I wish you knew how proud I am. The race is over but it still lingers. It’s still there in the pool and in my mind. I fight back the tears.
Maya. You’re in front of me. On the stage. Poised and still, awaiting the music to start. The song begins and so do you. Movements and poses I have seen hundreds of times around the house, are now being put together rhythmically to your music. Your eyes and face, staring ahead, with such intensity and focus. Every movement with a purpose. Some slow and rolling, others sharp and punctuated. The music builds and so does your pace. You’re flying across the stage, jumping, hanging there with air beneath your feet. Your breathing, controlled, by visible muscles under your outfit. My eyes are drawn to yours, but all I see is a burning intensity that is all your own. And as you do your ariel, time seems to slow a bit and everything else fades away except for you on the stage. This moment is so beautiful to me. Watching you do what you love to do.
The song is not over. Your timing is spot on. Arms and legs and body moving in perfect time to the rhythm and words. Your routine ends and it’s over. But your performance still lingers. On the stage and in my mind. I wish you knew how proud I am. I fight back the tears.
The weekend is over. Sunday night and homework is still not done. Scattered actions and the unfocused thoughts of two teenagers dominate the house as the reality of a school day tomorrow makes its way to their brain. And as I try and deal with my own frustrations over this, I do find some solace in replaying their recent success in my head. Their intensity, their focus. They both have it. They have it in spades. It is just at times extremely selective when and where they choose to use it. But as my kids find their way in this world, I look forward to watching them use their focus and intensity in what they love to do. I can’t wait to see how beautiful that will be….