A Game of Chess

When I was a little girl I used to watch ants for hours on end. I believed that they held the key to our own lives, the way they marched around with such purpose. Each one had a job and they never rested. I would pretend that I was their God and that I controlled their movements and that they worked for me. I would put sticks and leaves in the ants’ way and watch how they circumnavigated the obstacles with barely a pause. I made that happen. I changed the course of their march toward the anthill.

 

 

 I was probably eight or nine and I remember thinking as I watched them that maybe there was another universe of people that watched us the same way. I imagined giants looking down on us, observing our busy lives and thinking how purposeful all we humans were. How maybe the giants moved us around like pieces on an oversized chessboard.

 

This feeling returned today when I took Maeve and Aidan with me to Walden Pond to attempt swimming for the first time since my diagnosis. Carrying our towels, we bypassed the family beach and continued on the path through the woods toward the unguarded beach. We usually chose that beach because it was quieter there and less hectic and most of the diaper set stayed by the lifeguard area.. Today there was hardly anyone on the side beach and we picked a spot just before the path began again to drop our towels and take a swim. As I donned my bathing cap a petite tanned woman appeared by my side.

 “The bathing cap is kind of a mute point,” I said, attempting to disguise my embarrassment with a ridiculous bald joke. The best defense is always a good offense.

 

She smiled.

 

 “How are you doing?” she asked.

 

 The question came as casually as if she already knew my history; knew what I had already been through. Like she had known me all my life.

 

 “Well, it’s my fiirst time swimming this season. I used to do triathlons,” I said. “Not sure how it will go today, I am having a little trouble catching my breath.”

 

 “The air quality is bad today,” she reassured me, “I am having a hard time breathing too.”

 

 “Good to know,” I said, watching Maeve and Aidan dive and flip in the water. “I was worried it was the chemo.”

 

 “You know,” she said, ” I am not supposed to be here. I have cancer too. They told me that I would die.”

 

 “My God. What kind?” I asked.

 

 “Breast cancer. It moved to my bones. I had all kinds of chemo and then they couldn’t do anymore. They just said ‘sorry’ and told me that was it, that I was terminal.”

 

 I turned to face her on the beach. She looked to be in her late fifties, trim and healthy, “And look at you, you are fine.”

 

 “That was 1994, and I am still here 14 years later. The doctors told me that there must be healing properties in the water at this pond. It has done me wonders.”

 

 I realized at that moment that I had met this woman before. The thought entered my brain as casually as when she had asked me how I was. I spoke the words before I understood them.

 

 “I met you here, in this exact spot 12 years ago, “I said, “When my 14 year old son was a baby. You were with a man who worked at Poloroid.”

 

 “Bob,” she said. ” He comes here often also. He worked at Poloroid for years. My name is Linda by the way.”

 

 “Fran,” I said shaking her hand, “Nice to meet you. Again”

 

When I emerged from the water after my swim –which felt wonderful and clean and made me truly believe in the healing powers of Walden — Linda was waiting for me. She introduced me to her friend Frank, also tan and petite, who also was supposed to die 3 years ago after 2 bouts with colon cancer and many unsuccessful chemo attempts. The three of us chatted like old friends about cancer and exercise and maintaining a level of activity that others find ridiculous but is actually far less then we are used to(before cancer Frank swam 3 miles a day and ran 12). We talked about how family tries to understand what we are going through but in reality can’t fathom how we feel and how we have made some new friends and lost some that just couldn’t handle being around us. We traded chemo stories like old war buddies, survivors of the same battle; stationed at different posts.

 Again, out of nowhere, I turned to Linda.

 

“You took our picture. My son, Calvin and me. Twelve years ago on this beach, this exact week — July 4th week, you and Bob took our picture with a Poloroid camera. I have never forgotten that.”

 

 She looked at me again, tilting her head and said, “yes, I remember.”

 

 It turns out that Linda is a photographer and her work was being displayed in the gallery at the Walden shop up the hill. When we left the pond after a hike around and some more swimming I went into the gallery to see Linda’s work. Her pieces were some of the most spectacular photographs I have ever seen of Walden. I took a printout of her biography with me as I left and was amazed to find that she only began taking these photos 14 years ago after the doctors told her that she was terminal. I was also surprised to find out that she was 70 years old. Aidan was convinced she was in her mid-fifties and I would have said no older than sixty.

 

 It is at moments like this that I am so overwhelmed by a sense that the giants are back. That the universe wanted me to meet Linda and they set it up 12 years ago when Calvin was just a baby and my only worries were getting him to sleep at night. I was supposed to meet her and see that there are people that not only beat the odds but use it to express themselves to the world via their photography or writing or whatever dream that was sitting on their shelves waiting for a reason to come down. The giants are patient; twelve years to them, to the universe, is merely a blip. They knew the connection would be more powerful if they planted the seed of recognition. Then they waited for the right time. When I needed a true boost — they brought her back.

 

 These coincidences happen all the time. Sometimes we shrug it off, sometimes we say “oh what a coincidence!” but other times, like today, there is a real sense that our lives are not our own; That we are just pieces on that chessboard. Our moves are set by something larger than we are –predetermined. There is comfort in that; because if that is truly the case, then we can’t screw up too bad in our lives, because if we do, the giants will fix it.

 

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