Indian Sandals, My Breaststroke, and the Gift of Thanks

By Sean Oliver

     Personally, I’m not sure how people develop a passion for swimming. I enjoy it because it’s a good workout, but I feel like a fish out of water when I’m in the water. Come to think of it, struggling to get my face out of the water to breathe properly is probably what makes my lengths good exercise. I’m not too bad at my breaststroke, but it’s my front crawl that needs improving. Somersaulting at the wall and kicking off the other way without getting a water-filled sinus eight out of ten times is also a persistent obstacle. Swimming does allow for some good time to think; what I like best is how my thoughts form around the regularity of my stroke.
     Stroke, stroke, stroke, stroke, breathe. Man, the pool’s already getting crowded. I might have to start coming earlier.
     Stroke, stroke, stroke, stroke, breathe. How does the lifeguard keep track of all these people? She actually looks kinda bored.
     Stroke, stroke, stroke, stroke, breathe. Do we even really need a lifeguard? I mean, I’m no Michael Phelps, but the water is just to my chest. I could just stand up if I got tired—it’s not like there’s a big threat of drowning here.
     Stroke, stroke, stroke, breathe. Then again, I guess a freak thing could happen. James Jaffrey’s eighteen-year-old brother had an aneurism two months ago. Nobody expects things like that to happen. What if he had been swimming? Being able to stand up in water doesn’t make a difference then. You’d need saving.
     Stop. Pant, pant. Urgh, this side cramp is killing me. I’ll just take a minute to get my breath back.
     Pant, pant, pant. Maybe two minutes.
     Stroke, stroke, stroke, stroke, breathe. That girl is literally guarding our lives right now. Lifeguards literally guard our lives. Huh.
     Stroke, stroke, stroke, stroke, breathe. I wonder if anyone’s ever said thank you? People probably thank firefighters and cops all the time when they do their jobs. But why not lifeguards?
     Stroke, stroke, stroke, stroke, breathe. Have I ever said thank you to a lifeguard?


Q: So what qualities do you look for in someone who’s going to save lives?
A: To be honest, it’s a lot less about saving somebody as it is intervening before a situation develops where someone needs saving. It’s all about prevention.
Q: Right, that makes sense. After all, you are called lifeguards, not lifesavers.
A: (laughs) Yeah that’s about right.
Q: But that’s pretty serious business, guarding people’s lives. Is it stressful?
A: A little. You do a lot of training, so that helps confidence-wise. You get your level nine or ten in the Red Cross program, then your bronze medallion (begins ticking off her fingers), bronze cross, NLS, CPR C and AED. But it’s exhausting, being on deck. You have to constantly be searching, vigilant, always on the lookout for something that could potentially develop into a problem. It takes a lot out of you; we had a rule at our pool that you could only be on deck an hour at a time before taking a break.
Q: Well, that explains why lifeguards were always grumpy when I went swimming as a kid. I probably didn’t make it easy for them though.
A: (shaking her head) No, probably not. Little kids are the worst.


     Eventually, I crawl out of the water back to the pool locker room, shower then change, all the while walking with a distinguished flip-flop-flip from my goat leather sandals. My first time at the pool I walked around barefoot; the second time, I brought my sandals. The deep green flooring didn’t look dirty, but I was still suspicious. If it were possible to see the breeding ground of foot fungi, I’m almost positive it’d have that shade of green. Besides, I liked wearing my sandals. They were a dusty orange, handcrafted by a leather worker I met at a market while volunteering in India. Cows are sacred to Hindus, so the only leather available for purchase was goat or camel. I chose the goat because the texture was more comfortable.
     I wore the sandals for three weeks while working for an NGO called Rising Star Outreach, which had built a school in southern India outside a small village named Chengalpet. The majority of the volunteer work involved tutoring the kids at the school. Their enthusiasm was infectious, even though they spent most of the year at school, away from home—from the youngest pre-kindergartner to the oldest tenth grader. Sometimes their parents would get access to a phone and call from the colonies, normally on Friday nights. It made me happy seeing the children’s excitement at having the chance to talk to their moms and dads, but you could see the somber homesickness it created in the younger ones. I mean, there really isn’t much in a leprosy colony, but home is home and family togetherness outweighs any disease.


Q: Even though the job’s all about prevention, have you ever had to rescue somebody?
A: Yeah, but only little things. Like a kid going a little too deep and getting tired or falling in the deep end. I wasn’t there that day, but the worst I’ve heard is a gentleman had a heart attack while swimming and died on the deck. That was pretty rough.
Q: Jeez. And with something like that, there’s nothing you can really do.
A: No. (shading eyes with her hand) How much can you keep the unexpected from happening? All you can do is try to keep circumstances stacked in your favour.
Q: Is the sun bothering you? We could move to that bench over there in the shade—
A: No, it’s fine. The weather is so nice right now; I just want to enjoy the warmth while it lasts. Pretty soon it won’t be bearable to be outside on campus. I’m fine just sitting here.
Q: Yeah, good point. We’ve had a ridiculously warm autumn. But back to the lifeguarding thing—it’s just interesting that something as ordinary and common as water has such devastating potential. Like if one thing goes wrong—
A: You’re in trouble. The trouble is, water is so ordinary people don’t consider it a threat. If anything out of the ordinary happens, the problem can escalate so quickly.
Q: That’s a lot of responsibility.
A: (shrugging her shoulders) Yeah, you could say that.
Q: Have people ever thanked you? For guarding their lives?
A: No, that’s pretty uncommon. I mean, a few have. Some parents when they pick up their kids. But for the most part, no.


     Leprosy is a neurodegenerative disease, one of the oldest recognized in the world, and is completely curable. All the people we helped had already taken the barrage of medication to eradicate the bacteria; our volunteer medical trips off of the school campus were mostly to help deal with the side effects. The social caste, abolished politically by Gandhi but still socially upheld, deems leprosy patients as untouchable. As a result, individuals with leprosy and their entire families are forced to leave their towns and villages. The Indian government has established a few colonies designated for leprosy patients, but others are built by the families themselves. Calvary Nagar was a government colony, its town hall a concrete shell. Murky windowpanes obscured the view of anyone looking in, and a small woman wearing a faded red sari pressed her hands together in front and greeted those entering the dark entryway.
     “Vanakaam,” she says.
     “Vanakaam!”
     Armed with bandages, disinfectant, stools, and buckets, most of the volunteer group is from the United States. People smile broadly when I tell them I’m from Canada. Regardless of North American specificities, all of us are white and sweating profusely. Instead of going into the hall, we elect to set up outside, where, depending on how good our imagination is, the airflow offers a way to cool down. Humidity from the Bay of Bengal, a mere hour and a half tuk-tuk drive away, makes the heat have a sticky, overbearing hug. Only rooms blessed with AC offer any sort of reprieve from the sweltering climatic embrace—even at night the lowest temperature is 30˚C before picking back up to 45˚C the next day, or an unearthly 113˚F, as my American colleagues say. The best thing to do is to drink lots of water and get used to sweating.
     We sit and chat with a few patients on the porch while we wait for the nurses to set up their medicine-laden tables. Although there’s a clear barrier between Tamil and English, we’re all content to just enjoy each other’s company. It’s a special language, human companionship. I meet the colony leader, Raj, a small man in a black collared shirt and a wooden cross necklace. In broken English, he introduces me to other members, whose names I can scarcely pronounce, let alone remember. I’m able to make out that the short, dusty woman in the doorway is his wife.
     “Oh, she’s very pretty!” I say.
     Raj laughs and claps his hands together. Well, what’s left of his hands—he’s really just clapping his palms. Leprosy has gnawed his fingers down to little stumps over the first knuckles of his hands, and, judging by the muddied bandages under his broken sandals, most of his feet have been lost too.
     “Pain’s a gift,” David, our medical coordinator, tells me as we fill water buckets for the cleaning station. “If you can feel something hurting you, you’ll stop and take care of it before it gets too damaged. But since people with leprosy can’t feel anything, they’ll keep walking on cut feet or working with burned hands until they’re super infected. And then the ulcers form, and that just makes matters worse.”
     “How so?” I ask.
     “They can feel the ulcers.”
     This is our primary job—cleaning and re-bandaging ulcers. Most of them are pale white splotches the texture of decaying skin, ranging in size from the width of one or two fingers to patches rivalling my palm. The wounds are gently soaked in water and an antiseptic, carefully daubed clean with a cloth, and then re-bandaged. All the patients I had visited at the colonies winced and flinched as we redressed their wounds, except for a barber with a stark white moustache contradicting his earthy skin. He only stared intently at me as I wiped down the ulcers on his stumps, where his ankles had been replaced by great blotches of white, puddles of pasty-pearl discoloration that made their way up the back of his calves. The eloquent silence he carried was regal as he simply nodded towards me, replaced the sandals back over his freshly bandaged appendages, and walked back to his shop to finish his work standing all day cutting hair.
     That day in India was the first day I saw royalty.
     Raj carries an air about him too, except his is an attitude of the court jester. He laughs, he pokes fun, he dances, and he has us clap along as he belts out songs in Tamil. His wide eyes are electric as he bounces up and down, a dirty navy-blue bandanna flopping on top of his head. Just before the other villagers line up for their treatment, he goes into a lengthy ballad with beautiful high and low fluctuations. I only understand one word in the entire song, and it comes at the end. “Nandri, nandri, nandri.” Thank you, thank you, thank you. I look at his fingerless hands, at the fleshy pink gashes three-quarters of an inch deep into the pads of what used to be his feet—and I wonder what this man has to be grateful for. I wonder as he winces in pain as I flush out those cuts, his eyes heavenward as he crosses himself before hobbling away so the next person in line can have their turn. I wonder as I replace my surgical gloves before going to work on the lady with hands so shrivelled and contorted that I only know they are her hands because they’re at the end of her arms. I wonder as I look down again at my gloved hands. Funny, how a person isn’t grateful for something until it’s gone.


Q: Why don’t more people say thanks?
A: They probably just don’t think of it. It’s a lack of understanding. People usually only thank people when they actually see a service provided. So it’s when a lifeguard actually leaps into the pool and saves someone, that’s when people think we’ve done our job. But then, when we just watch over them, they feel we are getting paid to do nothing, so why would they thank us?
Q: (takes a sip from BoosterJuice cup) What about generally? Outside of lifeguarding, that is. Why aren’t people grateful?
A: A big part of it is a person’s sense of entitlement. If people are just supposed to put your interests before their own, are they really going out of their way? What room is there for gratitude when someone naturally feels they deserve the best from everyone they interact with? That kind of mentality doesn’t leave a whole lot of room for recognizing the good others do.
Q: It’s a mindset.
A: Yeah, it is. It’s a mindset. It’s hard to see the world when you can’t look past your own nose.


     I brought only a few books for my United Emirates flight to India—Last of the Mohicans, which was a surprising hit with the fourteen-year-old boys I read to every night, and my scriptures, which I read every day. Bible stories involving people afflicted with leprosy always caught my attention growing up. Even though ninety-five percent of humans are naturally immune to Mycobacterium leprae, people two thousand years ago assumed it was contagious and transferable by touch, when in reality it’s passed through contact with bodily fluids.
     One time, in the New Testament, Jesus came across a group of ten men with leprosy outside a village. They saw the Lord and from a distance implored him to heal them. Christ responded that they go to the priests, perhaps because priests under the Law of Moses could perform rituals for cleansing leprosy. Regardless of the Lord’s reasoning, the ten men were all miraculously healed as they were making their way into the village. I’m sure all of them were pretty excited; I’m sure they were all grateful to be spared from rotting, isolated from family and friends. But only one turned back to the Son of God and actually said thank you. The other nine, though healed, missed out on being part of something bigger than the actual miracle, part of a scriptural story that has touched billions of people. Expressing gratitude is itself a gift when the giver has nothing else to offer in exchange for the help received. Gratitude is currency for the soul, deposited directly into the heart of the benefactor. It makes them feel, more than knowing, that they made a difference.
     Since settlements are often started by the people themselves, a lot of the leprosy colonies don’t have proper housing, much less proper means to sanitation. Waste and garbage were just thrown in the ditch alongside the road twenty feet away from the small huddle of thatched-roof huts. These people had nothing, and even though I was there volunteering, I knew I wasn’t going to make a difference. I’d be gone in a couple of weeks, back home to a sanitized first-world nation where I’d worry about school, girls, and grocery bills, while these people would still be living on dirt floors. Their freshly white bandages would just get dirty again and stay dirty until the Rising Star staff would rotate through the other twelve colonies before coming back to change and redo the whole process again. It just didn’t feel like anything I did mattered in the long run.
     This depressing realization came to me while squatting on a stool, the suds in my foot-washing bucket dissipating into the oven-hot air. We were just about to pack up and head home for the day when I noticed a frail skeleton of a lady sitting alone in the dirt. Her faint, green dress covered her legs, but for whatever reason, she could only use one of them and made her way crawling ape-like instead of walking. She couldn’t have weighed more than sixty pounds. I stood up from my stool, walked over, and sat next to her, cross-legged in the dirt. I’m not sure how long we sat, talking without really using words. She looped her arm through my elbow, putting her other clawed hand on my knee, and smiled a toothless smile as we sat quietly in the dust. Eventually, it was time to go; as I unfolded my legs to stand she tugged on my arm. I turned to her, seeing her dark eyes embalmed in her wrinkled face, and felt more than heard the clearest message of our entire visit. Thank you, she said. Thank you.


Q: I’ve got to take off to class, but thanks for sitting down and chatting. Did you have a nice break visiting your family over Thanksgiving?
A: (nods) Yeah, it was good. I didn’t study at all though, so now I’ve got to catch up on assignments and such. You?
Q: Pretty much the same for me (tosses smoothie cup into the garbage). This lifeguarding paper is due next week, so could we meet up again to finish it off?
A: Sure, but it’s pretty crazy for me this week. I have three midterms to deal with, so I’m not sure when we could meet up.
Q: Could I just Facebook you?







     The next time I’m in the pool, I’ve grabbed a flutter board and am on my back, trying to focus on keeping my hips up. I have a tendency of sinking. Above the murmuring water eddying from my feet, I see the lifeguard sitting high on her stand, her bright pink Asics bobbing along to Katy Perry on the radio. I can’t help wondering if the lifeguard would kick off those pink shoes if she needed to jump in. Probably not. By this time I’ve rolled over onto my side, slowly making my way back and forth in my lane. I cut my swim a little short in order to finish an interview assignment for my creative nonfiction class. I pull myself up the ladder and shuffle over to my towel and sandals. I pause for a moment when I see the Indian orange flip-flops; after slipping them on, I make my way back over to the lifeguard.
     “Hey, thanks for supervising us today. I appreciate it.”
     She turns down “California Girls” and smiles. “No problem! Have a nice day.”
     Gee, that was easy. Simple. I shake my head as I head to the showers, my feet echoing words incommunicable but felt nonetheless.

Comments