By Mary Lou Sanelli

When my mother was dying, writing saved me.

After I mentioned it in a column, Kristen wrote to tell me that writing is the only thing saving her, too, hiding nothing about her despair in a funny email that took some of the fear out of her situation both for herself and for me.

Kristen, thank you! Because in times like this, when we wonder if we can get through it, we need to laugh. It lifts the misery right out. I know because I’m the same way. But, to be honest, writing wasn’t the only thing that saved me.

Now, I would have sworn when I first visited the island of Oahu where my mother lived, I would never have wound up swimming to save myself. I hugged the shoreline, afraid to venture out. Spent from sadness, I’d ride my bike from my mother’s hospice home to Kaimana Beach. It was there I first watched Brian swim to the flag. Studying him felt like the beginning of my swimming education.

For instance, I learned to call the fluttering cone mounted on a mast at the end of the channel a “windsock” not a “flag,” and not to get in a swimmer’s way once they hit the water or I’d have to endure a look that is weary of tourists and totally indistinguishable from a scold. I never knew how nuanced a smile could be until I started swimming.

The first time I struck up a conversation with Brian, he told me that if I stopped swimming “so chicken,” I’d eventually “be lucky enough” to see a reef shark.

I didn’t feel it was my place to say, “Please don’t tell me that.”

And then one day a woman named Deb swam up beside me and said she’d swim to the windsock if I did. That worked. From then on, I knew that swimming toward the horizon offered something so unlike “chicken” swimming, so much more. “So that’s how we’re gonna roll from here on in,” Deb said.

Brian mentioned other creatures I’d see, too, and he was right. I even bumped into a turtle once. The sea was so churned up, we just didn’t see each other. I was surprised by a monk seal, startled by a Moray eel.

But no shark.

Until my return to the island a month later to face that awful week of cleaning-out-your-mom’s-stuff, when more than once I went a little ballistic. “I can’t do this!” I screamed.

And when it was over, I gathered my courage and swam the brag-able swim of Waikiki, from the windsock to the pink landmark of The Royal Hawaiian Hotel. Except I swam from the hotel to the windsock, against the current. I remember thinking it was a good metaphor for the rest of my life.

The shark came into view just beyond the reef, sort of lodged between two shelves of coral, as if resting. I swam away, boy, did I! And in the process, I felt like I got a handle on what it really means to call oneself an ocean swimmer.

“Hey, Brian! I saw a shark!” His take? “How big?” “Too big!” I cried. “Probably just the little guy, four feet, yeah?”

Little did I understand that that was Brian’s way of telling me that there would always be bigger challenges ahead.

Another metaphor? Absolutely.

And the older I get, the more I want to be up to them.

Mary Lou Sanelli is an author whose latest book is A Woman Writing. When not working as a literary speaker on the Mainland, she lives in Honolulu. For more of her work, visit

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