Adaptation: Swimming through fire and pandemic

Words by Nicole Holyer. A journalist and writer by trade, Nicole posts very irregularly on her blog.

Other articles in the series: Salt water therapy: Swimming my way through heartbreak and frustration

Driving down the curved road to Bondi, the bay sparkles blue, white sand open, empty and inviting. I get out of the car and the wind whips and stings my face.

Bondi has re-opened for swimming and surfing following a COVID-19 necessitated closure, and my swim group and I – the Bondi Swimblers – make the most of our newly regained ocean swimming rights. We pair off and amble to the beach, which is divided in two: north end for the swimmers, south end for the surfers – a moot point today as the water is flat and scrappy, useless for the board riders who wisely stay away.

Down the ramp we go, dropping our things. I throw my hands in the air and am photographed, my big bulging belly proudly displayed and captured for posterity on my phone. I pull a spring wetsuit up over my swollen belly and step into the cold and jumpy sea.

We slip into the water and swim toward Mermaid Rock. Even as we ride the rip it is clear that we are in for a challenging swim. What looks flat from the road is a mess of small bumpy waves, inconsistent and spitting spray. I swim breathing every second stroke, something I do when I’m tired and need to drag more oxygen into my body. The wind, the chop, the baby riding high against my ribs – it all makes things difficult.

Massive seas are pounding the coast near our home. Swimming is out of the question. I watch the news for footage and share stills of the mammoth swell through my social media. Word is that Kelly Slater broke two boards out there. It makes sense that my baby is due amid such drama. For this has been a pregnancy defined by drama. For nine months, I have carried this baby through smoke and fire, through pandemic and economic collapse, through isolation, adaptation, and other threats and stressors I choose not to name here.

I have cried a great deal throughout all of this. Nothing – nothing – is as I thought it would be. Which is probably fantastic training for becoming a mother in my own right.

I am loved and supported by my baby’s dad and two big brothers. There is an army of aunts and uncles – along with blood family – walking with me these final days of pregnancy. This army has been the most incredible support throughout this pandemic, in all manner of ways possible.

My place in the chaos has necessitated release, and trust forced me to lean on the people around me when I’d really prefer to try to manage on my own. I have been made vulnerable and that has allowed new and better-quality connections into my life. With all that support, I know now, at last, that I am strong.

And who knows – maybe the seas will be quiet when he is born.

I had no set expectations for my pregnancy, and I have none for the coming birth. It will be what it is. Back in October 2019, when we found out we were expecting, my concern was keeping the baby. Losing my first pregnancy in 2018 at eleven weeks was tough, so I distanced myself from this new baby, maintaining a hopeful ‘It will be great if it happens’ attitude, distracting myself with work and exercise.

The baby grew. We saw a heartbeat at six weeks, and again at ten. At every check-up I asked to hear that sweet swooshing sound, to know that the baby was there, living. We watched him in awe as he bounced off the walls of his little world at 20 weeks, arms, legs, spine, skull, all small and growing.

As the baby grew, the world outside our little family became more than a little crazy.

 

 

It started with smoke. The city woke up coughing, opening curtains to grey days which stretched into evenings tinged red by an angry sun. As those gritty days stretched into weeks and months, we locked ourselves inside, towels pushed under doors, making do with board games and movies to keep the kids occupied. Fires ravaged our country. It wasn’t safe to go outside. I bought an air purifier, which helped with the coughing and the congestion overnight. Burnt ash clogged the beaches. We swam through thick black drifts of charcoal and charred leaves, passed dead birds on the shoreline. Our cars were permanently filthy. We were hooked to the news, which tracked the fires’ deadly path minute by minute.

Debates about global warming, and its opposite, denialism, raged everywhere. We gathered around tables drinking post-swim coffees, brainstorming ways to help, action to take.

And we fled it, on New Years’ Eve – fled the choking smoke and awful light over the Bega Valley, to get me and the baby out – to get home to Sydney, to be able to breathe clear air again.

Late in February, when the fire threat had eased, when rain had mercifully fallen across New South Wales and when I was in my fifth month of pregnancy, I was lucky enough to get to Eden to visit the colleagues caught up in the emergency on the wharf. Aunty Pam, who lives nearby in Bega, met me at Merimbula Airport. We wound our way to Eden through bright green forest, reinvigorated by rain and the nutrients in the ash that cloaked everything during the fires.

There is an obvious metaphor here, life after death, new growth, etc etc. But that’s cheap and dismissive. The town was in active recovery when I visited.

Huddled against the chill at the back of a tug boat drinking pre-dawn coffee before an early morning job, my colleagues and I talked about the fires. The detail about what happened when and who did what was scrambled, unimportant really. It was important to talk – not to piece a timeline together but to understand how it felt. I tried to imagine what it would feel like to stand on that wharf, watch the sky go dark, feel the embers fall, cough into a hot and sweaty face mask, watch the raging flames approach across the bay, not knowing who was safe or which information source to trust. Not knowing what the dawn would bring.

They had many stories – a birthday party for one of the kids trapped on the boats in the middle of the inferno, singing and playing games to keep spirits up, chasing media away from vulnerable residents. Feasts and tears. Sleepovers and acts of bravery. So many stories of loss and hope.

Chatting on the back of the boat that cold morning I was able to sort my own narrative from the chaos. Even from where I stood during the emergency, barefoot and safe in Sydney, fielding calls from journalists and colleagues overseas – even from there I felt the panic. And I’m not ashamed to say it has taken me a long time to relax. Stories about the fires still make me cry and the smell of smoke raises my anxieties like nothing else can. I can only imagine how the fires haunt true survivors.

As we sped around Twofold Bay sharing stories, the scorched earth around us stood in silent testimony to all that had happened. My colleagues spoke to me about the eerie quiet in the black forests. The birds were gone, the kangaroos and ants and snakes too. The bay was recovering from the flood of thick ash that flowed downhill into the water with the rain that came too late. They told me that local psychologists were booked out, stretched too thin between Eden and Mallacoota, over the border to the south. And then they took me squid jigging and laughed when I was covered in black ink by an angry captured squid.

As my plane left the ground at Merimbula, a new panic was already setting in.

We battled across the bay, pushing through patches alternately cold and warm, the sea lumpy, pushing us back the way we had come. A group of us stopped at the halfway point – out from Bondi Pavilion – laughing at the effort as we watched the rest of our group swim on without us. We turned around and swam back north.

It was an easier swim with the sea working with us. We took advantage, pushing forward in easier strokes. Somewhere along the way we stopped and dived, Liz, photographing us on her new GoPro. We flipped and spun, blew bubbles through our lips, hamming it up for the camera. Underneath the surface mess, all was calm and quiet, the water crystal clear. Sunlight pierced the surface speckling us all in its reflected glow.

I called my hospital in March to confirm a visit with a midwife. That’s when I found out via a pre-recorded message that all antenatal classes had been cancelled and I should look for an alternative method of education online. (I haven’t managed to get anyone on the phone from that hospital since even to tell them I won’t be delivering there).

COVID-19 has thrown all plans out the window. For me, that has meant cancelling a ‘babymoon’ in New Zealand and my baby shower. It means no visits from family, and until recently, no cuddles (my god, I’ve missed cuddles). This baby will be a first grandchild on my side, and I still don’t know when he’ll get to make his grandparents’ acquaintance. My last in-person prenatal yoga class with other pregnant people was a very long time ago – real-life interaction with other pregnant people is non-existent.

 

 

The worst part has been the worry, imagining all that could happen and all that could go wrong. Back in March, I didn’t know if there would be a hospital bed for me to deliver in. Like other pregnant friends, I was looking at home birthing alternatives, just in case.

We have since found a fantastic obstetrician, secured some weeks into my third trimester, and are booked into a private hospital with a wonderful midwifery program and a social worker who checks in on me at regular intervals. All appointments are held over the phone – but I know I have a bed.

While I navigated an overwhelmed health care system, I thought I’d be okay if I could just keep on swimming. But then, they shut the pools. Beaches followed.

Schools closed. Toilet paper and baby formula disappeared from supermarket shelves. We hoarded hand sanitiser, stopped going to work, held birthday parties over Zoom. I attended my first online funeral – a touching tribute to a dear and powerful mentor – and wept for her, and the unfairness and inadequacy of it. People in supermarkets told me I should be at home. My doctor wore a mask and gloves when palpating my stomach, checking on the baby’s growth, assuring me that everything would be fine. On the advice of an internet expert, we washed two weeks’ worth of grocery shopping in soap – including the strawberries.

We made lists of essentials for the baby and stocked up in bulk runs, or over the internet. A steady stream of gifts from wonderful friends and family flowed through our front door. I bought a ukulele, and then another one, and practised on the couch with the boys. A trip to Officeworks looking for a computer monitor was the highlight of my week.

Throughout the lockdown, my phone pinged regularly. My swim group chased loopholes and open beaches, trading tips about where might be open and what the conditions might be like. I drove all over Sydney in search of open water, swimming with the group until that was banned, then swimming in pairs, or by myself.

I’ve swum solo well into twilight protected by nets, ducked under police tape and ignored government rules about group sizing, just to be able to get into the water. Just to stay sane.

One night, we gathered under lights at Clovelly, strapping glow sticks to our wrists and necks and swum out to greet the biggest moon I have ever seen, rising from the water like the sun. We laughed and splashed and were loud, disturbing a group of drunken teenagers on the shore who threatened to come into the water to assault us. We responded by yelling back, shining torches in their faces. We saw nothing but a few startled toadfish, blinded by our lights, and crawled up the beach to warmth, nibbles and Cointreau (and – tea for me). It was the closest thing to a party I have been to in months.

The lockdown has forced us all to adapt, to live in different ways. To confront fear, decide what is important and live on anyway. We have learned to live in the cracks.

It is late May now, and the restrictions in Australia are easing. The baby will come soon, and my world will be forever altered, again. A new type of learning and living will soon begin.

On we swim, fast and easy, until we hit a school of salmon, the school metres thick, tunnelling below – bait for bigger fish with sharp white teeth. The fish are stacked tight, making a wall, which demands a decision from us. We take a hard left and swim toward the beach, keen to avoid encounters with sea life bigger than us. The ocean surges us in, pushing us out of harms’ way.

We make it back to the shallows and I haul my heavy body from the water. Some days, after swimming, I forget that I am pregnant and, on this day I fall over, laughing as I clamp my fins under my arm. We head up to our piles of things on the sand, talking the swim over, trading stories about the marine life we each saw as we strip off soggy wetsuits, alive with cold.

I wrap up in my robe and trudge up the beach as we talk about our next swim – for there is always a next swim.

I flop into my car, salty and warm, alive, happy and grateful before I drive off in search of coffee.

 

P.S. Since writing this article, Nicole has welcomed her beautiful son to the world!

Photos by Weizhen Zhou

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