POLAR BEARS by Colleen Davis

by Colleen Davis

I hadn’t spent a winter with my mom since high school. What I recalled from childhood winters was sweet: snow forts and sleigh rides that ended with hot cocoa. It never occurred to me that my parents’ work doubled in winter: shoveling sidewalks and driving scared on icy roads to keep our cupboards full. Now that Mom was with me again, my learning curve sat there like an Alp. Even a first-rate athlete would dread this uphill climb.

Mom has always been sensitive to cold. During my coal country childhood, she wrapped us up like grannies in long wool blankets she crocheted. Now when she’s at my house, she sets her bedroom thermostat at 75 degrees. It makes me feel like a burning cookie. But if I turn it down, she’ll crank it up after I leave the room. By the time I wake her in the morning, the heater might be up to 90 degrees because she can’t read the numbers on the dial. Once it’s that warm she won’t leave her room because the rest of the house feels like an icebox.

Aside from her body, her mind is not improving. Despite months of treatments and care, her skills decline. Mom is no longer sure how to put on a sweater. She examines her clothes for a long time to see if they are friendly. If she can’t make peace with the zippers and buttons, she calls me to her room to tame them.

As January waxes on, Mom’s daily needs seem to increase. The idea that holistic healing might “fix” her now seems futile. My winter birthday makes me feel like a leaky lifeboat hitched to a sinking freighter. I spend a lot of time counting my losses. These include my boyfriend (who’s tired of playing second fiddle to Mom’s health) and a few employers. Other family members are sympathetic to Mom’s situation, but no one is eager to get involved.

My fate seems clear. I will end up becoming my mother’s caretaker—not just for a while, but every day. This thousand-pound conclusion is made heavier by the following facts:

  • I passed a significant birthday with no husband, no children, and few professional achievements to balance out those debits. I’m prime spinster caregiver material.
  • The country house that once seemed like a paradise now makes me feel isolated. I may have boxed myself in.
  • Studying the rooms, closets, books, journals, and mirrors of this house hasn’t revealed any silver linings.

Near the snowy end of January, notes from friends remind me of two anniversaries that give me a needed shove. Before my Mom got sick, one of my cousins died. Lynn was a lively member of our family. Around her 45th birthday she was diagnosed with cervical cancer. By the time the doctors found her tumor, it was the size of a key lime. Surgery and treatment didn’t help. Her husband and parents were devastated by her death.

They asked me to read a Bible passage at Lynn’s funeral. I agreed, feeling calm until I caught a glimpse of family members in the front rows of St. Augustine’s, a gorgeous old church. As I began to speak, the spirit forces in the place seized me. Tears poured out and I could barely say those verses intended to comfort us all. Nothing really consoles people when someone good dies young.

Around that time, a close friend and co-worker learned she had breast cancer. Her disease came to light after she gave birth to a beautiful son, Juanito. Yvonne fought her disease with every tool she had: chemotherapy, surgery, nutrition, reiki and spirituality. I think she would have endured any privation or trial that could buy her one more day with Juanito. Unfortunately, Yvonne passed away before her son turned five.

These lives—both marked by passionate deeds and early deaths—began to take on more significance for me. Despite my current disappointed state, I knew I still had one great gift: I was alive while other wonderful people had already been taken. I felt the need to do something big to commemorate those inspiring women and mark some weird transition of my own. I decided to become a Polar Bear.

The idea had been on my mind for a year. The local chapter of Polar Bears holds an annual winter plunge at the fishing pond near our Pocono house. I encountered the event one February weekend when Sunday’s usual silence was fractured by the drone of buzz saws. This noise went on for hours before I finally put on my mittens to go investigate. It was freezing outside, so the mittens got support from boots, socks, long johns, scarf—about ten extra pounds of clothes. I followed the noise down our lane and found its source at the normally tranquil pond. The snowy shore was crammed with people in bikinis, hula skirts, swim trunks, and Speedos. Some were lining up along the edge of just-cut ice, getting ready to jump into the water while a hundred spectators looked on. The buzz saws had been used to slice out giant ice slabs, which were fashioned into a cold, hard throne for the king and queen of the event. The number of grey beards roughly equaled the twenty-somethings. And hula skirts were evenly divided between both groups.

Watching from the sidelines intrigued me. Somewhere in my Celtic marrow lives a deep craving for ritual. Capitalism has recast most of our soul ceremonies as occasions to spend and get drunk. But ancient humans knew the deeper power of rites. They used them to wring meaning from important matters. I began to think that a winter jump in the pond was just the right kind of action to show that I had become a tough, resilient person—still alive alive alive!

Seasoned Pocono Polar Bears take the plunge regardless of the weather. But since I was a novice, I worked out an agreement with myself to provide some exit clauses:

1) If the doctor says there’s a medical reason to avoid it, do not jump.

2) If Plunge Day temperature isn’t at least 20 degrees, you don’t have to do it.

3) If a bad dream or sense of doom seizes you that morning, stay out of the water.

4) If winter eating makes you look like sausage stuffed into a bathing suit, you get a full reprieve.

You would think that this list might have produced one solid excuse for not jumping. But when I told my doctor about my plans, he said, “You’re healthy. If you want to jump in the water, it’s your choice.”

Then, on the morning of the Plunge, the thermometer announced a temperature of exactly twenty degrees. The sky was grey and wind walloped the pines. But, technically, the required weather conditions had been met. No bad dreams haunted my sleep and, though my bathing suit wasn’t too sexy, it corralled my flesh just fine.

I felt I had to take the leap. My plans had been sidetracked to accommodate my mother, but my path was beginning to feel truly new. This wasn’t just some life I bought secondhand at a yard sale. Taking care of Mom was like leaping backwards to a time when care was actually important to my life. Travels across the country and around the world had pushed me away from self-care and toward expedience. My quality of life was often poor. Mom’s arrival forced me to trade the speeding bullet for a slow ride on a steam locomotive.

Mom was struggling with a Parkinson’s tremor and her coordination was getting worse. Her vocabulary was contracting and all of her movements had slowed. Family meetings and doctor visits commemorated these changes in her life. But the shifts in my life remained hidden and I was partly to blame. It didn’t seem right to vent my sadness when she was suffering such huge losses. I believed that somewhere on my face there must be a linear map showing keen observers what was happening to me. Those lines, I feared, might turn into ruts if I didn’t pay them some attention.

And then there were the Polar Bears. They had qualities I admired. Middle-aged jumpers and college students alike were able to rejoice in the shock of discomfort. That first unpleasant moment in the water freed them to celebrate life seconds later. I wanted to rejoice like that, too.

So on February 13th, I cooked a huge pot of chicken soup for neighbors and friends and went upstairs to finish my Polar Bear costume. I tied a pink sarong over my black one-piece and threw a pink, plastic lei around my neck. I put on jeans under the sarong and carried blue flip-flops to wear on my walk across the ice. I bundled Mom up and marched her off with neighbors who’d find a good view of the jumpers.

On my way to the ice, I threw a bag of clean clothes and a towel beneath a picnic table so I could change quickly after my jump. When I took off my jeans and sneakers, the hair on my limbs saluted the wind. My friends were invisible in the huge crowd.

Flip-flops raised my feet off the ice, but didn’t keep my toes from scrunching into angry pretzels as water from the edge lapped over them. Determined to get it over with, I slopped through the frigid slush to the jumping station. My improvised hula dance won me some applause and I jumped beneath the surface of the frozen pond.

Under water, a strange overwhelming relief surged through my freezing body. Yes, the water was unbelievably cold. But it was much warmer than the wind chill temperature while standing on the ice. The trip down went fast. I quickly glided back up, then swam over toward the thick frozen slab. I felt exhilarated as I raced back to my hidden clothes and soothed my feet with dry socks.

Although my hair was wet, I took the wind better than Mom who was huddling with the neighbors watching others take their jumps. I hustled Mom home so I could make sure the soup was hot and beers were cold before our friends arrived.

Mom was shuddering but she seemed happy. She couldn’t retain the fact that I had been one of the Polar Bears. She saw the other jumpers, enjoyed their goofy costumes, but did not seem aware of my plunge. I didn’t care. I felt I’d accomplished what I’d set out to do, marking off this strange new episode of my life.

Back inside the house I asked her to help me get things ready for the party that would soon begin. I jumped in a hot shower before changing into a wool sweater and skirt. When I returned to the kitchen, Mom was gone. I found her in her bedroom. She had taken off her clothes, put on her nightgown, and climbed back into bed.

“Mom,” I said as a sick feeling chilled my gut, “We’re having friends over. That’s why I made all the food. They’re coming to eat with us after they leave the pond.”

She looked at me and asked, “Should I take a shower and get dressed?”

“No, Mom,” I said slowly, “You took a shower this morning.”

She had no idea what was happening.

“Mom,” I said, fighting to keep calm, “Just put your clothes back on and help us celebrate the day.”

She got out of bed and I threw my arms around her. Strange things were happening to my mother. I knew I wouldn’t like most of them. But the embrace did something to help us both. We were two people in great need of warmth.


Colleen Davis is a Pennsylvania writer and author of the website Between the Pond and the Woods, which provides information and a Facebook forum for dementia caregivers. Her writing has been featured in Making Sense of Alzheimer’sElephant Journal, and on episodes of the television documentary  Philadelphia: The Great Experiment


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