Being Black Under Water: Swimming Through Loss and Into Grief

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by Deborah Whaley

“Tell the nurse to give me more time.”
“What?” I said.
“Tell the nurse to give me more time.”

These were the last words my mother cried in response to the hospital staff allowing her organs to shut down without medical intervention. Less than twelve hours later she struggled to take her last breath in front of my eyes. To breathe was her daily struggle. She was, at that point in her heart failure, using an external oxygen tank. My mother oscillated from stage three to stage four heart failure for a year, and her weak heart function affected her ability to breathe. Chemotherapy treatment underwent to save her life after a diagnosis of cancer caused her heart failure. But before her heart failure escalated, my mother was very active; she was petite and slight in stature. I nicknamed her “the energizer bunny,” because she was always on the move. I asked her why she worked so much and did not rest more, and why she was always moving. She replied, “There will come a time when I am unable to keep moving, so I do all I can now that I can.” She was right.

My mother, Emma, was a beautiful Black woman; she was generous, and an intuitive soul, who mothered and loved unconditionally. It is painful she suffered from heart failure, because she had the biggest heart. In the immediate months before her passing, my sisters and I spent months by her side helping to take care of her and my parents' household. I was with her daily most of the summer before her passing and spent the night in the hospital with her for weeks at a time when she would go into cardiac distress. In the few months before her death, she was at times mentally distant, often resting and sometimes agitated, but still sweet and full of love and life. I would tell her, “I love you momma,” many times a day, and she would open her arms as wide as she could to convey non-verbally what she would tell my sisters and I often: “I love you too honey; to the moon and back.” When I had to leave her side and the state where she lived, California, to go back to my teaching position in Iowa at the end of summer, I would call or text her every day to tell her that I love her and that I was praying for her healing and her ability to breathe. When we spoke by phone, I would tell her not to try to talk too much, since talking made it difficult for her to breathe. I would also ask her how she was feeling, and she would reply with the same answer nearly every day: “I’m just laying here trying to catch a breath.”

Struggling to Breathe and to Swim

My mother fought to breathe, to move, and to live when her heart failure took over. Since her passing on November 8, 2015, I, too, struggle to breathe. At first, I thought my inability to breathe was psychosomatic, and that perhaps because she could not breathe I was unconsciously transferring her illness onto myself. I know now that my belabored breathing is indicative of post-traumatic stress associated with caregiving and watching her slowly and painfully die. A regular swim (and yoga) practice is the only thing that temporarily helps me to more easily breathe. I fight to submerge myself under water not only to breathe but to also keep moving so I can do all that I am responsible for above water. I started a regular swim practice before she passed while caregiving for her and after I developed a condition called frozen shoulder. My shoulder pain, along with back and sciatica pain resulting from daily cleaning, cooking, errands, lifting, and worry on a daily basis that my mother may not wake the next morning, was assuaged by evening swimming in my parents' pool. When I could not use both my arms to swim because of my shoulder pain, I would let my left arm go limp and kick my way through the water. No matter how bad I hurt or how tired I was, the water would help to soothe my pain and carry the weight of my worries. Under water, I would process everything that transpired throughout the day, and swimming helped to prepare me for the next day of caregiving. It is difficult to find time for self-care when someone who is experiencing incapacitation or who relies on someone newly incapacitated now relies on you. My mother knew this and was happy to see me take up swimming again -- perhaps it reminded her of when I was a pre-teenager and she and I would go swimming on the weekends. Sometimes while swimming, I would look up and see her watching me from her bedroom window in her pink terry-cloth robe, matching slippers, and silk bonnet, smiling at me and giving me the “thumbs up.”

I began swimming when I was approximately five years old. Before my parents’ bought a house with a pool, their homeowner’s agreement necessitated they pay mandatory dues to a neighborhood swim and racquet club, which at the time (early 1970s) was a racially white space. What this meant is that my parents had to pay for a recreational place that when we tried to use it, neighborhood parents and their kids would at times subject us to angry stares and racial epithets. We also endured manufactured reasons from staff at the front desk as to why we could not enter. These excuses included: “You need an ID” (children at this time did commonly have an ID), “We cannot find your last name on the roster,” and “We have no record of you paying your fees.” Swimming can exist as an obstacle for many, especially people of African descent, due to legal segregation of the past and current modes of social segregation.

Lisa B. Thompson penned and op-ed about how Black parents’ worry and work to protect their children from the racial hostility they incur at select public pools and other recreational, public accommodations. An article in the Washington Post reveals that in the 21st century, racially insensitive signage at public pools situates these areas as an unwelcoming space that disproportionately surveillances Black children. Other Black folks fear the water. In a compelling feature story in 2012, the Black news anchor Tamron Hall admitted while filming a profile on the Black American Olympic gold-medalist and swimmer Cullen Jones that she was afraid of the water and never learned to swim. When Cullen gave Hall a swim lesson on national TV, it was a powerful moment, perhaps encouraging other Black folks to consider learning to swim. In 2002, when Maritza McClendon became the first Black American to break an American record in swimming and later, in 2004, became the first Black American to earn a place on the U.S. Olympic Swim Team, she and other Black women swimmers in the public sphere asserted that Black girls and women can, do, and should swim. Veda StampsFlexible Wings, which is a young adult novel about a Japanese and Black American girl swimmer who dreams of being in the Olympics, the film Pride about the racial struggles of the real life Black swim coach Jim Ellis in the 1970s, the historical texts Contested Waters and The Land Was Ours trace the relationship between blackness, gender, race, class, and swimming. Despite these informative news stories, popular narratives, and histories, some view blackness and swimming as incompatible.

Legal desegregation and free community pools makes swimming more accessible, but as fitness expert Robbie Ann Darby writes, racism continues to drown us; people of African descent continue to drown at a disproportionately high rate. Nearly 70 percent of Black children do not know how to swim, which as accounted for above, reflects the history of racial segregation and contemporary race and class barriers. Yet, there are other reasons why swimming is difficult, especially for Black American women. As a child, my sisters and I had to go through an inordinate amount of work to protect our hair from the chlorine used in pools, something for which frequent washing and swim caps made for women with straight and thin hair did not alleviate. We would thus wear braids during the summer to not impede the ability to swim in a carefree way. Today, leak proof swim caps made for women with thick, dense, tightly curled hair or braids has allayed concern about the chemicals being used in pools that cause racially unique hair damage and styling inconveniences. However, hair is only one physical obstacle that some women who wish to swim face. Though swimming has benefits for many who are able-bodied and differently-abled, finding a well-made swimsuit is difficult and expensive, and fear of body shaming and public ridicule can keep women and men of all races from entering a pool. Manufacturers sew swimsuits for frequent and endurance swimming for competitive swimmers with a particular body frame, which do not always fit women with developed breasts, hips, and buttocks. Despite the roadblocks and stereotypes, many of us – I included – fight for the right and feeling to be under water.

In the 1970s and 80s, when my family would visit their friends who were also Black and who had a pool at their house, we were excited for the opportunity to swim without physical scrutiny and external restrictions. My father, who as a young adult worked as a lifeguard at a socially segregated pool in Yuma, AZ, would take these opportunities to instruct me how to swim. He, like other parents in general, wanted to teach me how to not drown in a variety of circumstances, and how to do common swimming strokes for children: the Frog and the Dog Paddle. As I grew older, my sisters and I took swim lessons, and as the youngest by six and eight years to them, I naturally trailed behind them in skill. When I was in my pre-teens, my mother and I would visit her friend Karen on the weekend. Karen, like my mother, was a registered nurse and nursing supervisor, and as they talked shop, I would swim in Karen’s pool as they looked on between their chatting. Sometimes we would all swim together in the pool -- laughing, feeling free from the weight of their work or my school week. A former competitive swimmer, Karen would encourage me to master different, more complicated strokes, which I struggled with, but I eventually found ways of swimming that allowed me to move at my own pace.

Those days swimming at Karen’s were freeing for me and for my mother for many reasons beyond socialization. My mother worked the typical double shift that many women do, by doing unwaged work in the home and doing long, waged hours as a nurse. She had a household to run and with my father, had four children to take care of and to keep safe in our predominantly white neighborhood and school district. As I look back, I realize now that those weekends swimming with my mother constituted a chance for her to spend time with me, her youngest girl. Swimming was a reprieve from the struggles of home, and a way to shake off the long shifts she worked during the week. Looking back, I realize now that even then, she was trying to catch a breath.

Feeling the Water

It is ironic for me to have first learned to not drown under water and to use it as recreation, when now I swim because being under water saves me. Swimming allows me to breathe and move through the loss of my mother and to work through the unbearable pain that suffocates me. I am the only one in my family who likes to swim in the late evening, which means that when I am at my parents' house during the summer, I am in the pool alone. Though while in Iowa and when traveling I swim in public and indoor pools, and I enjoy the company of fellow swimmers, I find it peaceful to swim alone at night. I do not count how many laps I am doing nor do I worry about how fast I can get to the other side of the pool, which are things that typically consume the competitive swimming experience. Instead, I concentrate on how it feels under water.

Swimming is quiet and yields a feeling of solitude un-matched by any other type of exercise. The softness of the water on my skin when I emerge to breathe, the stubbornness and heavy weight of the water when I push it aside with my hands, the tingling splashes of water that drips between my toes as I kick is what I recognize most as the serene and invigorating feeling of being under water. No matter what pool I am in – and indoor pool or outdoor pool – I wear tinted swim goggles. This allows me to see every detail of the pool, to explore the crevices, elaborate or worn tiling, and to marvel at how the light creates shadows at the bottom of the pool, which sparkle like diamonds. When swimming in my parents' outdoor pool the water is cold at night and we do not heat our pool. The good thing about this is that in order to stay warm, you have to keep moving. I like that feeling, because during the day when it is warm, the focus for many is the opposite – most want to swim to stay cool during the summer to combat the heat, rather than experiencing the feeling of moving through and being under water. Day swimming is recreational. Night swimming is intimate. Summer swimming serves a whimsical purpose during a hot day. Winter swimming, especially in the Midwest where I live, requires dedication.

Experiencing the feeling of swimming is a matter of my life and my mother’s death. Swimming and yoga is the chief vehicle through which I am able to grieve the loss of someone who was my best friend, who gave birth to me, who gave me my first breath. Since I am responsible for everything associated with my household and the occupation that I love – teaching, writing, and service – requires sixty hours a week of work or more, taking time to grieve, to breathe, to process is challenging. It is especially difficult to breathe as I remember the years of struggle and pain my mother endured; I hurt for her because although she worked as a nurse -- a profession that helps to save lives on a daily basis -- medical intervention could not prolong her life. This reality sometimes overwhelms me, stifles me, and makes it difficult to move air in and out of my lungs. Swimming forces me to breathe through this pain; it allows an hour or so for my physical and mental health.

Under water I hold my breath and I rise to release it; the practice of holding and releasing my breath as I move air forcefully through my lungs exists in contrast to when I am out of the water. On dry land, I often feel like I am suffocating from grief and from racism and sexism. And it is the experience of being constantly stifled that makes swimming my lifeline, as it offers a reprieve from the complications of daily life. Medical management of grief, though essential and helpful for many, can also numb. Regurgitating aspects of grief with a professional can feel therapeutic, but it is also exhausting, voyeuristic, and triggers emotions without resolution. For me, it is more effective to swim in order to rehabilitate my body while my body releases endorphins -- a natural chemical that reduces pain and elevates mood. Ann Cvetkovich informs that it is productive to understand strives for wellness in response to trauma as something most people experience and as politically vital to self-awareness. Further, Cvetkovich illustrates the benefit of moving the body under water. Indeed, swimming is my time of self-awareness and it is a resolution to self-care. I never wait to feel like swimming or to feel like doing yoga. I press myself to do both to breathe and to live.

Drowning Among the Living

Grief is inconvenient to those around you. Any explanation of experiencing grief to not serve others has a short time span. It is also my experience that when you talk about someone close to you who passed on, a common response from others is worrisome or blank stares and silence. Speaking of my mother often is something that I did before she passed, but because she passed, talking about her seems to create anxiety among others, something for which I did not expect. Perhaps they worry that I am not “getting over” the loss in what they perceive as an appropriate time frame. Maybe they feel that a barrage of emotions will follow my discussions about the time we shared and they are not equipped to or do not want to have to respond to my grief. I do not think this is selfish on the recipient’s part; we all have our pain and emotional baggage and even if we want to many are not able to carry more that what rests on our already burdened shoulders. Still, it is difficult for me that when speaking about my mother since her passing, most people want to hear that I am doing better, so that they can feel relieved to not have to respond.

Indeed, silence and avoidance of someone grieving speaks volumes; it can mean that someone is afraid of death and of grief; it can mean that they truly do not know how to respond to another’s grief. If one is met with silence and anxious looks when they speak of a loved one who has passed, it will eventually train the griever to stop speaking. The more the griever ceases to speak the likelihood of submerging grief sets in, and that is how society manages grief. Your newfound silence will make those around you very happy; they will tell you that you are stronger, but what this really means is that they are relieved you appear ready to go on serving their needs. There is no judgment in my assessment of how others respond to someone else’s or my own grieving. There were times when I reacted similarly before I lost my own mother.

The best advice to prepare me for my mother’s passing was from a man I was dating at the time, who is a widower. He shared, “You never get over the loss—you find healthy ways to incorporate it into your life.” We spent six, beautiful and heartfelt months discussing life, loss, and grief, and then a month before my mother’s passing we drifted apart by the weight of all three. This was the personal cost of loss. Anyone who tells you that grief will get better over time is only saying that they and perhaps you will learn to practice shutting down feelings, temporarily forgetting, and creating distractions. The second best advice I received came from a friend and colleague who lost her mother and father. She relayed that, “You will go on because you have to go on.” The former advice set the framework to understand that grief has no timeline. Self-help books, therapy, spiritual guidance, working long hours, new relationships, and a dozen other things may appear to manage grief, but it is a life-long process. The latter words of advice helped me to understand that when my mother passed, I still had to go to work, clean my house, pay my bills, run errands, take care of myself, and move throughout the space of the living.

Other friends, colleagues, and acquaintances said and meant that they were sorry for my loss, listened to my memories and shared with me their experiences with death, took me for a swim or out to the movies, called to see how I was doing, came to my house for tea, brought me flowers, offered to or did substitute for me at work, and sent me thoughtful, hand-written notes. There were many times when I did not want to socialize or engage at all, because of my grief, and those close to me understood my distance was not about them but rather, about the weight of loss. Helpful advice and these actions were far from the well meaning even if perfunctory platitudes that were more common among coworkers, extended family, and friends. I share these responses not out of ungratefulness, but to encourage people to refrain from saying these things, and to relay how while swimming, I was able to decode platitudes about death:

“She is in a better place”: I am confident her spirit is in heaven, but this brings no comfort to me. Being in a better place does not mean that her not being on earth is better for my sisters and I; she did not want to die. Her dying wish was to have more time.

“At least she is not suffering”: Yes, she is not suffering and I am glad that she is not struggling daily to breathe, but we wanted her to not suffer on earth, and to receive a heart transplant.

“How old was she?” Nothing is more insulting then suggesting that because my mother was older it was “okay” for her to die, as opposed to someone in their 20s or 30s, I suppose, which some deem as “gone too soon” or more tragic of a loss. The question of her age is sometimes followed by, “Was she sick for long?” which similarly rationalizes and disregards the tragedy of loss, because in the mind of the questioner, the death was not a surprise and therefore requires less or no sympathy.

“I too lost a parent/my parents”: This is shorthand for they got over their parent(s) death and you will too or that your grief is not special and requires nothing different than how other’s processed their parents’ death. While sometimes these words relate and create empathy, when it stands alone as a response it is dismissive. 

“She lived a full life:” Yes, my mother accomplished a lot of things, but there were so many more things that she wanted to do, and I pain for her and she was pained by all of the things left that she dreamed to have an opportunity to experience and to do.

“It is God’s plan:” It is not “God’s plan” that my mother died and it was not “her time to go.” She was a devout Christian and servant to her God and to the medical profession. I choose to believe that it is God’s plan to find more treatments for heart failure, to cure cancer, and to not have to prescribe forms of chemotherapy that facilitates heart failure.

“Everything happens for a reason”: There is no “good” reason for my mother to have died. Death, like life, is sometimes reasonless and cruel.

“It is okay to cry”: I cry when I have to cry. If I were to start crying in front of those who say it is okay to cry, it would illicit their consoling – perhaps a patting on the back or hug to get me to, ironically, stop crying! Do not be fooled by permission to cry. No one ever wants you to really cry. The person grieving knows that if you start crying you may never stop. As a Black woman, I experience life obstacles daily. These include micro-aggressions and overt racism and sexism. Given this, I could, but do not, cry from the time I woke up to the time I went to bed as a reaction to life’s unfair practices and circumstances. This brings me to another piece of advice about death and grief:

“Do not cry”: This means do not show emotion because it makes someone else uncomfortable. We like happy people of color and smiling women in this society because it shows their complacency. Society is also uncomfortable with men who cry, too, since it breaks gender norms. Thus, one can generally only cry in private or in controlled environments. The problem with this is that most people cannot control their crying; it is a human, reactive, bodily function. Crying may happen at social functions, while driving or shopping, which often elicits concern and can appear as if you are out of control. Being seen as out of control carries unique consequences for minorities, who are customarily seen as innately weak and too emotional.

“Death is the cycle of life”: This was one of the most common, most hurtful, and least helpful words to hear. It provides a scientific rationale to make sense of death, but it is essentially saying that mourning the death of your loved one is irrational because dying is a part of the human and the animal experience. While this is factual, it does not allay the pain of loss.
Swimming helps me to place into context and learn to ignore such silencing platitudes. Instead of searching for a platitude in response to loss, asking how you may help and thereby placing the burden back on the griever, we must respond with our truest feelings and take the initiative to help in productive ways that are within our capacity.

Questions and answers – thoughtful and perfunctory – will not bring my mother back to life. Societal discomfort with grief is why I seek to process death primarily while under water. While under water, I sometimes weep, and beneath my goggles no can see, ask about, or judge my tears. It is empowering to move through water, to kick, and to push the water around me with my arms as I stream my limbs across the pool. I feel both present in my grief under water and like I am in my own world. Under water, I am moving through rather than past the pain of loss. I also replay like a film reel on repeat the circumstances of my mother’s death in my mind when I swim, which continues to haunt me and feel avoidable. It is under water that I ask myself why this all had to happen, did it all really happen as I think it did, and I push myself to believe she will never be back on earth with me. Some mornings I wake, after having dreamt of my mother being alive, and I mistakenly think she did not pass. When I become fully conscious and realize she is still gone, it feels like losing her all over again. I get very angry she is gone and while swimming I kick the water ferociously and I try to breathe into the unanswerable, the unresolvable, and the ambiguity of loss.

Swimming as Self-Abolition

Under water I will continue to cry and question. Under water I will explore, feel, and rest. Under water I will pray, forgive, and remember. I will emerge, under water, and inhale and exhale and my chest will pound as air moves forcefully through my lungs. I will breathe hard, so hard that my lungs expand and my chest vibrates. Under water, I will not worry about technique or whether I am swimming like the person next to me. I will move and spread my arms wide from front to back to push water out of the way like a swan or like a butterfly. Sometimes I will place my arms together, replicating the nose of a steamboat, and kick forcefully as I move straight ahead. I will move through water as if I am moving through all of the daily life stressors, including my grief. With each successive lap, I will continue to move at my own pace. We all swim differently, we choose the swim stroke that works for us; some of us do the same strokes that everyone else in the pool does, but like grief, I know I cannot feel pressure to mimic or to go at another’s pace. In the water, I will just be.

The water is always kind to me. The water is not silencing, it does not know my gender or race, and it allows me to speak to it with my body. The water does not compete with me or make assumptions about me. The water does not answer with platitudes or stare back at me in anxious ridden silence. I can move slowly or swiftly in the water, but as my mother warned, I must do it now because there may come a time when I am no longer able to move. I therefore yearn for the freedom of the water, swimming in it, living in it, moving through it, as one must do in life. Swimming allows me to remain present in remembering, in the pain and in the joy, and in all the various emotions that I must feel to remain alive and healthy.

There may come a time when I can swim and exist under water in a way that others are – for recreation – but I hope that that day does not come. I hope that I can continue to feel present in the water and that it will save me from a world that denies the fullness and complexity of my being. I seek refuge under water from those who wish to hurry the grief associated with losing the only person who loved me purely, unconditionally, and allowed me to breathe in the first place. When I am too tired to swim, when I can think of countless reasons to work instead in service to others or to lay in the shallowness and paralysis of my aborted breath, I will fight with every amount of my being to get up, to move, and to swim. Being Black and female under water is self-abolition, and despite the murky waters of death and of life, I will use it to swim through the pain of loss and into the uncertainty of grief.

Deborah Elizabeth Whaley is an artist, curator, writer, and the author of two books: Disciplining Women: Alpha Kappa Alpha, Black Counterpublics, and the Cultural Politics of Black Sororities and Black Women in Sequence: Reinking Comics, Graphic Novels, and Anime. For more information, visit You can follow her on Twitter @dewhaley.

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