During my last months with my mother, I watched her world rapidly cave inward as terminal cancer greedily pulled space and the end of time closer and closer to her jaundiced body. She no longer spent hours talking on the telephone with friends in soft Mandarin. She refused to meet neighbors who called at our door, closing herself off to the world until she could only hear hushed murmurs through locked doors. She rarely opened WeChat, her only portal to her side of the family in China, and when travel restrictions came with pandemic lockdowns, it was as if she had already resigned herself to dying half a world away from them. In those last few months, I would stand at her door quietly as she turned away from me, staring at the wall as if no one else existed in this reality except for her and her fading body.
There are many such narrowings in Julie Otsuka’s latest book, The Swimmers, which follows Alice, a Japanese American woman with dementia: There is a tightening of life, of time, of memory, and even of voice. As the book and Alice’s illness progress, Otsuka shifts our attention away from a shared collective and into a narrowed, individualized loneliness that too many of the sick experience. Alice’s own world narrows as she declines.
If you were to skip the blurb on the inside cover and jump straight into this book, you would not know for quite a while that this is a book about a woman with dementia. The novel unassumingly begins with a collective, a group of swimmers who share an underground pool, an enthusiasm for chlorinated blue, and the way swimming gives them a sense of self. Like any collective, there are the assholes—the try-hards, the tops-of-the-hierarchy, the slow-lane people, the drifters, and even the former three-time Olympians—but no matter their differences, there is a mutual understanding that in the water, their “real lives” up above are put on hold:
[F]or a brief interlude we are at home in the world. Bad moods lift, tics disappear, memories reawaken, migraines dissolve, and slowly, slowly, the chatter in our minds begins to subside as stroke after stroke, length after length, we swim.
Alice flits in and out of this collective, a forgetful individual who is quickly drawn back into her identity as one of these swimmers. Here, as time suspends, she floats—she is able to pause the illness’ decline, to exercise control over her mind and body as she swims. But nothing can ever be put off indefinitely. The swimmers soon discover an unexplained crack at the bottom of the pool, and in a rapidly escalating series of events, the pool is permanently closed. The cracks widens, the collective narrows into the individual, and we are utterly and wholly drowned in Alice’s ruptures of memory.
The Swimmers is written in Otsuka’s distinctive; detailed; and, at times, list-like prose. No line is wasted, each brims with imagery built on empathetic specificity. Lyrical repetition builds itself up into paragraphs that itch to be read aloud. There is no firm timeline; like memory itself, the chapters loosely connect. Time zigzags and distorts. Years squeeze into a few sentences and days balloon into paragraphs. The past emerges and re-emerges into the present like a swimmer’s body breaking the water’s surface. Each chapter can stand on its own, but together, they amplify each other and string into a compelling, rich, and emotional narrative that enhances the narrowed form (in fact, the first two chapters beg to be reread as an extended metaphor after finishing the book). Most effective is Otsuka’s play with point of view. We start in the beginning embodied in the collective, in first person plural, only to then be ejected to a distance to observe Alice’s forgetting in the third person in a chapter heartbreakingly titled “Diem Perdidi” (or, “I have lost a day”). In another chapter, we are uncomfortably situated into a satirical second person, put directly into the same care home Alice is in. In yet another, we spend our final days in the mind of Alice’s estranged daughter who has come home, too late, to watch Alice’s world narrow into nothingness.
We bear witness to her daughter’s grief and filial guilt in her mother’s last bit of life. Even as Alice’s memories vanish and grind to a halt, her daughter’s mind churns as memories roil to the surface: “A memory from before,” one paragraph begins, slipping into the past, before resurfacing again in the grief-ridden present. The family’s legacy of Japanese American internment appears in one memory. Her daughter’s father loses his hearing in the emptiness of the house in the present. Her daughter’s failed marriage and Alice’s commentary on it appears in another memory. “Don’t give up on me,” a present-day Alice pleads. Implicit in this whirlwind of thoughts is the irrational and remorseful belief that if only her daughter had come earlier, if only she had noticed the symptoms earlier, perhaps she could have done something for her mother. Just as the swimmers are unable to rationalize the crack at the bottom of the pool, Alice’s daughter grasps at answers:
What was it, you wonder, that first made her begin to forget? Was it the chemical in the hair dye that once turned her scalp bright red for two weeks? Was it something toxic in the hair spray (Aqua Net) that she used two and sometimes three times a day for more than thirty years? . . . Was it the Raid that she sprayed all over the kitchen counter the minute she saw an ant? Was it sporadic? Genetic? A series of mini strokes?
The events in The Swimmers are based on Otsuka’s own mother’s dementia. In an interview with NPR’s Terry Gross, Otsuka reflects back on the first symptoms her mother had and how it took years for them to take her to a neurologist and get the diagnosis. “[W]e were baking these crescent cookies,” she recalls, “and they just didn’t look right on the baking sheet. You know, they were not neat, little crescent rolls, which is what she would’ve made before.”
“What would have been different had you gotten an earlier diagnosis?” Gross asks.
“Compassion,” she responds.
Days and even months after my mother’s death, my father would pace around the kitchen, telling me about how the hollowness in my mother’s cheeks and her refusal to eat rice in the years up to her diagnosis were obvious signs of the cancer. These signs we see now looking back—the diminishing appetite and the crescent cookies—were our own cracks at the bottom of our pool. We, the swimmers, felt uneasy but couldn’t tell if “the crack [was] just a crack . . . [o]r maybe [it was] a rupture.” Only after the pool closed and we were shut out of its waters forever did we wish for one more lap—one more time please, with meaning.
But even here, Otsuka is gentle with us. Sometimes there is no rationalization for illness or death, she reminds us. Sometimes it’s simply the hand we are dealt.
Books on Asian American women’s grief find me like tides drawn to the moon, and Otsuka’s The Swimmers came to me with uncanny timing. It’s been two years since my mother passed away, and I’m only now slowly going through the voicemails she left me, our Chinglish chat conversations, and our old photos, preserving them on three separate hard drives. A person disappearing leaves behind memories like gold dust, and I’m collecting this dust carefully.
In its own way, The Swimmers is Otsuka’s own form of preservation. Alice’s daughter clutches onto her memories, capturing new ones even as her mother’s fade. One scene in particular, toward the end when Alice barely recognizes her daughter anymore, renders one of these capturings:
Always, as you are walking away—you can’t help yourself—you turn around and look back. Sometimes she is watching you, but she doesn’t seem to recognize your face. Sometimes she is gazing off into space. Sometimes she is leaning over in her wheelchair and staring down, intently, with fierce concentration, at the top of her feet. She has already forgotten you. Today, however, when you turn around and look back, her hand is half raised in midair and slowly waving goodbye.
A brief moment of recognition becomes a priceless artifact, stored carefully in the pages of this book.
A forgetting is a forgetting. A death is a death. After the memorials, the funerals, the endless influx of flowers and casserole dishes and well-meaning texts, the collective retreats back into their lives and all that is left is the individual, grieving for months and years and perhaps even the rest of their own life.
Ultimately, a death is a leaving. It is a departure. The world feels a little smaller, a little narrower when someone is gone. But in this narrowing is also all that is left behind: memories, precision, detail, The Swimmers. These things all say: Here once lived a mother, a descendent of Japanese immigrants, a daughter of Japanese Americans interned in the camps, a swimmer who loved an underground pool that once was the site of a glorious community, a girl who had her own lost loves and regrets who then grew into a woman who reapplied her lipstick each time she left the house.
Here once lived a mother who loved her daughter very much.