Arthritis Aquafit!! Tuesday, 11:30 a.m.! ! !
The words are on my fridge, part of a carefully handwritten, much dreaded schedule of aquafit courses in my neighbourhood. Despite all the exclamation marks, I have been avoiding this class, so chillingly specific, for about a year. The excuses I've come up with are not laudable: I am too young. It is uncool. I am scared of old peoples' bodies.
But my arthritic body has a way of leading me to unexpected places these days. And, so, one bleak February afternoon with a sky as translucent as bone china, I head to the squat, brick-walled Matty Eckler Community Centre. I limp along Toronto's Gerrard Street East, a prehipster time-warp of boarded up dry cleaners, old-school banh-mi shops, and far too many Pizza Pizza outlets. Thankfully, there are no tempting French bakeries or regional Spanish tapas cafés to slink into. I arrive a few minutes late, negotiate the angry-looking lady at reception, the grimy labyrinthine hallways and the dim locker room. I slip into my jaunty striped bathing suit, have the obligatory lukewarm shower, pad barefoot to the pool.
It feels like I've come on the wrong day.
Women of a certain age with white or grey hair bob like corks in the deep end of the turquoise pool. In the shallow end, one or two gals walk sideways. Other senior women ride foam noodles like they're seahorses, chatting all the while.
It looks like a scene from Grey Gardens, if Grey Gardens had a pool.
The pool, a thrilling mid-century throwback of aqua tile and orange plastic, has a sign, spelled out in mosaic tiles: DO NOT SWIM ALONE.
I climb into the undulating water: shivering, unaccountably annoyed, exclamation marks dancing in my head. I walked five blocks to get to this joint! I paid 12 dollars!
I want something official, accredited, a regimen that will fix the pain, the limp, and the blues.
Perhaps sensing trouble, Roberta, one of the instructors, approaches carefully. She wears pink lipstick, a trim floral-patterned bathing suit and a tight, professional smile. Within minutes, she's determined that I am about to have a hip replacement, and that I have no idea how to prepare for it.
Walk like Charlie Chaplin. Walk like Jerry Lewis. Roberta shows me seemingly demented exercises meant to strengthen ankles, glutes and quads. We chat as we walk in the water, or rather, as she walks and I lurch. She's a retired schoolteacher. She helped invent the field of media studies at the Toronto School Board. I'm a media studies prof, so I want to know more.
But Roberta is all business. She tells me that most of the other women have new hips. "This is your tribe!" she proclaims, rather grandly.
"Meet Marusya! Marusya is getting a new hip!" Everyone exclaims with pleasure, as though it's a personal achievement, like a doctorate or a literary award.
I was diagnosed with severe osteoarthritis several years ago. I've seen the X-ray of my right hip, ghostly white where the bone has eroded, a cracked line indicating the narrowed joint space, a grey cloud that means spurs – bone growing outward in uneven lumps, to make up for the loss of cartilage.
I used to cycle across Toronto, kayak in the Pacific ocean, hike the North Shore Mountains outside Vancouver. As though presenting my credentials, I tell Roberta: "I started a women's outdoors group! I climbed mountains! I grow my own kale!" Product of the 1970s self-help movement, I thought I could heal arthritis myself: yoga, gym, meditation, and mounds and mounds of kale. I thought I would outrun it, outsmart it, make cartilage grow again.
But now, hot purple bolts of lightning shoot from my knee to my ankle as I walk. Red arrows of searing heat tattoo my hips at night. Daytime, I walk with a cane. It is a folding cane. I pull it out only when no one I know is around.
"This is your mountain now," Roberta says, gently.
The hour at aquafit feels like four. There are a lot of repetitive and surprisingly painful things to do. Try to walk in waist-high water, opposite leg and arm extended as you go.
"You're going have to learn how to walk all over again!" says Roberta, like it's something to look forward to.
By the end of the hour, I've been fully initiated. I float with Betsy, Alice, and Esther on noodles in the deep end. We gossip about our hips. Betsy tells me she was in bed for three months before hip surgery, she had so much pain. Now she's pain-free, walking and driving again. She has a dreamy smile on her face as she tells me this.
"You're gonna love havin' a new hip!" says Alice, the tough, gravelly-voiced grandmother, who used to ride horses. "You're gonna feel so much better! And by the way, get yourself a carpenter's apron for after the surgery. For carryin' things while you're on a walker!"
Roberta tells me I close my eyes when I do the exercises.
"It's the shame and embarrassment," I say, trying to be funny. Roberta doesn't laugh.
Later, I tell my friend Penny about the class. She buys me a new cane: bright blue. I start using it all the time.
One day, I see Janice, an old acquaintance, at the streetcar stop. I try walking past her, hoping to be invisible. But we've known each other since the 1970s and I'm feeling nostalgic. On impulse, I turn back and say hi.
"Marusya!" She exclaims in response. "You're walking with a cane!"
"Say it louder, Jan".
"YOU'RE. WALKING. WITH. A. CANE!"
I go to Arthritis Aquafit every week, now. Retro, unironic: that's my style.
It's not safe to swim alone.
Marusya Bociurkiw is a Toronto-based writer and filmmaker.