The Things That Keep Me Up at Night: The Swimmers by Julie Otsuka

I am, by nature, a very anxious person.

There are myriad reasons for this, most perfectly valid, others not so much. I wouldn’t say I am a fatalist, but I worry. A lot.

One of those things? Alzheimer’s.

It’s not omnipresent. But the older one gets, the more it comes up in conversation with friends and family — how am I going to punch my ticket outta here? I am generally terrified by the notion of death, no matter how much my rational mind tried to …. rationalize it. And I witnessed, from a distance, a loved one struggle with that loss of memory, that loss of self.

It just seems like such a shitty way to go.

Julie Otsaka’s “The Swimmers” is a poignant window into the world of a mother and daughter tackling a slow, inevitable decline into dementia. It’s beautiful and infuriating all at once, because as much as you want to say to yourself, “This isn’t right” or “I would never let this happen to my parent” you also recognize that nope, unless you are independently wealthy and can afford full-time in-home care or a luxe facility, chances are yes — your loved one is going to be a name tag in a residence with very few opportunities for engagement and enrichment on the daily. It’s going to be applesauce and ankle bracelets that are really just GPS trackers. And chances are there’ll be some level of relief because you’ll finally be able to sleep at night because your loved one is being watched by someone else now.

For Alice, the first third of “The Swimmers” is the beginning of the end — an underground pool that is a haven because of the ritualistic purpose it serves. Her daily swim, following the same black line in a counter-clockwise fashion. In some ways, it feels like an homage to those of us that crave that routine — our same dog walk, our same breakfast, the comfort of a computer and desk and notebook. The pandemic played on our neuroses and that routine is now like a weighted blanket that keeps us calm. This was the pool for Alice.

The second and third parts of the novel are a more in-depth exploration of the choices we make and relationships we build then neglect as time marches on. Oof. If my daughter thought I was too in her face before, she better get ready, because I am committed to making our relationship a Ride or Die. The boys tired of my life lessons? Too bad! I’m coming at you like a spider monkey!

How do I know Otsuka wrote something so brilliant? Because I am sitting here sad for Alice. And Alice’s daughter. And Alice’s husband. Read this book, then hug your spouse. Talk with your kids. See your friends. Make memories. Make the effort. And then do what I do — words games on the daily. And try not to worry about what you can’t control.

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