“Are you sure you can swim 300 metres?” my husband, Pete, asked, when passing me the pre-requisite details he’d researched for a freediving course I want to do.

“Pffft, of course”, was my immediate reaction. I’d always been a fairly strong swimmer. But when I further reflected on it, I realised that it had been a while since I had swum any distance and, being on the wrong side of middle age, 20kgs overweight, and not terribly fit, that I’d better check. Pete agreed and, at Christmas, presented me with a 20-swim pass to the local aquatic centre.

I confess to being reluctant to begin the task, concerned that I’d sink like a stone trying to swim freestyle laps. Since I finished school almost four decades ago, I’ve rarely swum freestyle, resorting mostly to the more comfortable, less arduous breaststroke. I was worried that I wouldn’t even manage one lap without gasping for air half-way through. But, once in the water, I was surprised to find my freestyle technique and breathing capability in much better shape than I’d anticipated, and I swum a slow finless 500m in half an hour, alternating freestyle with breaststroke. Two sessions later, I was up to 500m freestyle in half an hour, and in the next session 700m in the same time. Mission more than accomplished.

I did not get back into the water for a month after that. There was so much going on with my mum, who lived 12,000kms away in South Africa, and I lost my motivation for a while. Late December, I started to suspect that she was dying. She’d broken her hip in mid-October 2020, after falling while dancing, and she’d had a hip replacement, which dislocated a few weeks later. The dislocation was a traumatic event that seemed to be a turning point in her cognitive and physical capabilities.

A young friend moved in to care for her fulltime during what we hoped would be her recovery. But over the subsequent weeks, she mentioned other distressing physical symptoms, such as breathlessness—which was diagnosed as bronchial pneumonia—burning, itching skin, hallucinations, extreme fatigue, nausea, and weight loss. She was under the care of medical professionals, who didn’t seem to think there was anything wrong other than her hip trauma and the pains of old age, but instinct told me that she was checking out. Because of the COVID-19 restrictions in Australia and South Africa, I couldn’t travel to be with her, and this weighed heavily.

My mum in her last months with her live-in carer, Chelsea

In mid-February, I forced myself to get back in the water and found that it helped me cope mentally with my distress about my mum’s situation. She’d recently suffered a second dislocation of the same hip replacement and had been operated on by a different and, it would seem, far more competent and humane surgeon in a different hospital.

On the day I swam 1km for the first time, I heard from my brother, Mike, that she had stage-4 cancer of the lungs, which had metastasized, clearly some time ago, to a number of other areas. When the surgeon had stitched her up after repairing the second hip dislocation, he’d found a lump in the nearby soft tissue and had it biopsied. It was malignant. Refusing any further treatment, three weeks later, she slipped into unconsciousness and died.

Since then, I have spent more time in the water, progressing to breathing on both sides and swimming 2km in 1 hour using a resistance-reduction freestyle technique. In the aftermath of my mum’s death, I felt like handblown glass, an intense sense of fragility that shocked me. Swimming became a meditation, a medication—What did she know? For how long?—and an unhindered time for reflection: the mind wanders, and wonders…what happens to our DNA when we die and are absorbed into earth, stone, and mineral? Why did she get lung cancer?

“It’s strange to be an orphan in the world”: so many people had that to say. But, no, my unmooring was more from a sense that she had kept a secret to smooth the path to the acceptance of her dying. The last time we spoke when she was still conscious, she said, “I’m 82 years old; I have to die of something.” And then, “Kari, it’s not as bad as it seems, you know?”

Courage, acceptance, and equanimity in the face of death.

Mum in her younger days

In mid-March we travelled to the Victorian coastal town Mallacoota for a break with friends from Melbourne. On the night of the 13th, the town, which just over a year before was the scene of an apocalyptic firestorm, was struck by a violent thunderstorm, which blew out the area’s electricity. Earlier in the evening, a friend of my mum’s called me so I could talk to her on his phone, although she could no longer speak. At this stage, her friends and congregation were keeping a 24/7 vigil at her bedside.

Later that evening, I sat outside in the pitch black aftermath of the storm and saw my mum’s beautiful face for the last time via Zoom: a pale, heart-shaped vision, her once-gorgeous blue eyes now deep dark pools as she seemed to be trying to respond to me. She slipped away less  than 24 hours later.

After her death, I signed up for The Conqueror Virtual Fitness Challenges English Channel challenge, a goal in the pursuit of fitness and peace. During the 24 swim sessions it took to reach the finish line, I continued to reflect on the love and help my mum was afforded over her life and, particularly, in the last 6 months by so many: my brother, her friends, the people of her congregation, and our family and friends. And how much generosity and kindness we, her children, have been shown by all the people who loved her, some of whom we’ve never met.   

During the three to four times a week I continue to swim, my thoughts are inextricably with her, not so much on the events leading up to, and surrounding, her death, nor on the things that divided us—religious philosophy, mostly—but on the many good things that we shared—a sense of humour, a love of nature and art, and the many road trips we enjoyed together when she visited Australia.

I miss her 💙

Road trip Thredbo, Snowy Mountains

The act of swimming can be one of healing and health, a way to wellbeing.

Why We Swim, Bonnie Tsui