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Articles and Stories by Sonia Pressman Fuentes

Sonia Pressman Fuentes

A Special Bond

by Sonia Pressman Fuentes

We talk about it every once in a while, but we cannot explain it.

It began for me in the winter of 2003-2004. I was planning to spend that winter, as I’d been doing for the last nine years, at my condo at The Meadows. I had been diagnosed with arthritis in my spine, hip, and right knee, and water exercises were recommended. I signed up for the water exercise class for people with arthritis at the Evalyn Sadlier Jones (ESJ) Branch of the YMCA on Potter Park Drive.

There are up to 25 men and women, with a predominance of women, in the class during the winter, who come from all over Sarasota as well as Venice.

When I sit in the hot tub before or after class in the gazebo-like structure right outside the pool, I’m in paradise. My body relaxes in the bubbling hot water while above me, a metal roof protects me from the sun, and to my right, I gaze upon an azure sky and gently-waving palm trees.

Melinda, who is about 30, is the head of the Aquatics Program and our principal instructor. In addition to teaching classes, she plans lunches at Sarasota restaurants for seniors on special occasions, such as Valentine’s Day, as well as reasonably priced trips, including cruises, to interesting sites and theaters.

Melinda has a great sense of humor, plays music for us while we exercise and keeps up a fairly steady patter of stories as we go through our paces. She is a big fan of singer Josh Groban, who sings both classical and pop, whom she refers to as “her husband,” and his baritone voice can often be heard in the pool area. We know all about Melinda’s minister father, her brother, her dog, her courses, her romances, and her classes in alternative medicine at the Sarasota branch of Everglades University.

We think that Sister Rochelle, our second teacher, may be the only nun who teaches water exercises to people with arthritis but have no way of knowing. She, too, has an excellent sense of humor, but, unlike Melinda, who stays at the pool’s edge, Sister Rochelle jumps right into the water with us. She is rarely without a pair of dangling earrings, which she herself has made. She is into crafts, often bringing her handiwork to our classes.

She enjoys a good joke, is a fount of knowledge about Sarasota restaurants and where to buy shoes for the pool, but is stern about our not talking amongst ourselves while doing our exercises. We disregard her constant injunctions and keep expecting a ruler across our knuckles, but so far that hasn’t happened.

Gerry was the first member of the class to reach out to me, and I reciprocated her friendship. Through sheer determination, she lost 75 pounds in the 1½ years beginning in December of 2004. She describes the diet that enabled her to lose this weight as follows: “You don't put anything past your lips that you remotely like.”

She is one of the few people I have met in Sarasota who was actually born here. Before her retirement, she was a district supervisor with the Sarasota School District for 23 years and a cellist with the West Coast Symphony for over 25 years. In 2005, she gave a free cello concert to the residents of the nursing and rehabilitation center where her mother resides. The concert was so popular, she now gives one monthly.

Judi is a perky 5’1” redhead who’s cute as a button and is partial to two-piece bathing suits. Her looks belie her 63 years. She has what has always seemed to me to be the ideal marriage: her husband does the cooking.

Micky can be recognized by the purple bathing cap that is always perched atop her dirty-blond hair. (She wears this cap on instructions from her beautician to protect her hair‘s highlights. The rest of us don‘t understand it because our exercises don‘t involve putting our heads under water, but it seems to make Micky happy.) She is unfailingly cheerful although her husband suffers from diabetes, two forms of cancer, and eye problems, and her 31-year-old son, who lives on his own, is confined to a wheelchair due to cerebral palsy.

Marge has a wry sense of humor, but one must listen carefully as her comments are always muttered under her breath.

New Nancy, a recent transplant from Atlanta, Georgia, joined us in the winter of 2005-2006. (I refer to her as New Nancy to distinguish her from Old Nancy, who was in our class when New Nancy joined it.) New Nancy knows more about Sarasota after one year here than I do after 11. New Nancy introduced me to the co-chairs of the Book & Author Luncheon of the Brandeis University Women’s Committee, Greater Sarasota chapter, as a result of which I will be one of two speakers at their February 9 luncheon.

Since most of us are seniors, much of our (forbidden) conversation in the pool involves our various medical problems. A number of us have osteoporosis. Sister Rochelle had hip replacement surgery and Gerry had knee replacement surgery. Two of us are breast-cancer survivors, two have scleroderma, and at least two have scoliosis. One had heart catheterization and angioplasty, and now has a stent in her heart; for nine months, she did her water exercises with huge black-and-blue marks all over her body, a side effect of taking Plavix following these heart procedures. Another one thought she’d need to bring her oxygen tank to class, but her doctor told her that wouldn’t be necessary. One of us has fibromyalgia, laryngitis, bronchitis, asthma, allergies, high cholesterol, osteoporosis, and within the past couple of years pneumonia and surgery for foot and sinus problems--and she’s the chirpiest one of us all. And, of course, we all have arthritis.

We also share complaints of other kinds. Mary, who, in her 90s, is the oldest among us, always complains that the water in the pool is too cold and often leaves for that reason before the end of class. We all complain about the shock of coming into the locker room, which is always too cold and about the fact that we sometimes have to wait for an available shower stall. We complain about our winter visitors, a sine qua non in Sarasota, because they interrupt our routines. We complain that Sister Rochelle doesn’t let us socialize when we should be exercising.

In 2006, we started having luncheons together at Sweet Tomatoes to celebrate special events. So far, we’ve celebrated Melinda’s and Sister Rochelle’s birthdays and the fact that I was leaving Sarasota for the summer (a celebration about which I had some questions.)

The class sprang into action when it appeared that I was facing a second bout of breast cancer in March of 2006. I’d had breast cancer in my right breast in 1990, which resulted in a mastectomy, followed by six months of chemotherapy. In February of 2006, a mammogram revealed a mass in my left breast that hadn‘t been there before, and a biopsy was called for. I was terrified. I didn’t know whether I could go through a second bout of breast cancer. Micky, who was familiar with the H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center & Research Institute at the University of South Florida in Tampa because she has frequently taken her husband there, suggested I call that Center immediately for an appointment with the doctor who specializes in breast cancer, in case a biopsy showed that I did indeed have cancer again. She further offered to drive me there, be with me during my examination, and drive me home. Gerry said she would accompany me to the Sarasota hospital for the biopsy, be there while I had it, and return with me the next day to get the results. The entire class wished me well on the day I left the pool for my biopsy. Fortunately, the mass turned out to be necrotic (dead) tissue resulting from surgery I’d had the preceding September and not cancer--but I was not alone in going through the experience.

I suppose that’s what it is--we share our lives and are there for each other. But what made us that way when other water exercise classes some of us belong to up north are not that way remains a mystery.

I've been a snowbird for 12 years. Over a year ago, Gerry began pressuring me to move to Sarasota, shortly thereafter, New Nancy did the same, and finally Melinda joined in. As a result, I left the Washington, D.C., area, where I lived on-and-off for 50 years, put my Potomac, MD, townhouse up for sale, and moved to Sarasota full-time on October 31, 2006.


© 2006 Sonia Pressman Fuentes.This article was published in the February 2007 issue of The Pepper Tree, A Literary Magazine, published monthly "to celebrate and give recognition to talented writers and illustrators of all ages" in Sarasota, Florida.