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The ladies who lunch and me

July 31, 2014

Over the last few years, I’ve been an on-and-off-again member of a local gym. When I first joined, I honestly was looking for reprieve from life as a stay-at-home mother. I had two small kids, very little energy that was left when they were done with me each day, and no babysitter. The gym has a childcare center (SUPER important priority) and a couple of pools. Behind the child care, the pool was the big sell for me.

As a person living with Rheumatoid Arthritis, you get a lot of lectures about the importance of exercise. You hear a lot from your body, however, that exercise is for fools and that there heating pad is your BFF. You can’t betray HER!


She’s so pretty and blue and she keeps all your secrets. And if you fall asleep without turning her off, she has a safety shut-off that prevents you from burning your house down. She just saved your LIFE.

Exercise is hard for anyone other than the people who are frighteningly disciplined about it. But it’s particularly difficult to be motivated when you’re already hurting before you even get to the gym. And I don’t care how many professional golfers shill for drug companies, RA isn’t the kind of disease most of us can battle while playing all manner of sport.


Just sit down, Phil Mickelson! You’re making us all look like lumps. I love that this is the “waiting room copy.” Because I need that in my face right before I get another round of lab work.

By far, the best form of exercise for an arthritic is swimming. The water offers resistance, but also has the added benefit of making you lighter than you are on land. I love swimming. It’s like flying, but wet.


That’s one wicked turtle.


It seemed like a natural decision, therefore, to join a water aerobics class. I had tried arthritis-based exercise once before in high school when I joined a class held at the local office of the Arthritis Foundation. It was called “arhtrobics,” and it was awful. I felt like a big jerk standing there in my limited, but still outwardly 16-ish, body with seriously-old people who could hardly move doing modified jumping jacks (lifting your arms while sticking your legs out one-at-a-time. Imagine a sideways version of the hokey pokey with absolutely NO turning all about). I did not return to arthrobics.

I was a little concerned that water aerobics might be similar, but there’s a nice window you can watch the class through and everyone seemed to be able to lift their arms, etc. It looked like the right amount of challenging for me, even though the only woman remotely close to my age was a pregnant lady.

The first few times I went, it was just like any other first-day-of-school experience. Everyone seemed to know what equipment they needed for class, so I walked over to a giant white bin and grabbed a noodle and two noodle-wrapped barbells and set them down on the edge of the pool. The water was obscenely cold. So I started to bob like the other attendees and soon enough, class was underway.

A svelte middle-aged woman started to play club versions of 90’s songs (Waterfalls, anyone? Pool puns!) and then she told us there would be no “cheet-chat.” I couldn’t discern her accent then, and I’m still not quite sure if it’s German, but when she’s gesticulating and yelling at an old woman to “give me more POWER! POWER!” it sure feels like German.

And it was hard. Water aerobics is that kind of sneaky exercise that just feels like you’re playing around but then, a few hours later, say, when you’re at the grocery store, there’s an overwhelming warming in your arms that makes you think they’re going to fall off, and you start to panic because you bought three gallons of milk that are definitely not going to be lifted out of your cart by you. I was shocked at the pain, but glad that at least that hour of splashing had done something (even if it made me want to end Germany or wherever, once and for all).

But what surprised me most about the class was the camaraderie. While we were all grunting and nearly drowning ourselves with exertion, our instructor got pretty chatty about her newfound love of spaghetti squash. She called many of the women by name, even threatening the class with more reps if one particularly social woman named Millie, starting “cheet-chatting.” We were all supposed to say, “Thank you, MILLIE,” when we got the extra reps. Yep, gotta be German.


And smile when you say it, ladies! This is basically what our class does, but it looks different as we have several women of color and only white noodles.

As we were cooling down, the instructor mentioned that the class would be having lunch together in a week. She held up a sign-up sheet and encouraged us all to come. I thought about it, but didn’t sign up that first day. I’ve been going for a while now, and I’ve talked to a couple of the women, but it’s always, “Man, the pool’s cold today” level, pre-class chit chat.

Today, when we were done, there was another invitation. My kids are currently home for the summer, so I told myself I’ll just catch up with the Aqua ladies in the fall, when the kids are all back in school. As I was walking into the locker room, I noticed the woman in front of me had a hip scar like mine. I heard several women telling the instructor how much they needed this class: its blend of rigor and the grace to do what they could do. Another couple of them were inside-joking about their book club. I thought to myself, “this is a group of women I get.” It’s always been like this for me with my own grandparents, other people’s grandparents. I know all their medicines, their therapies. And now, thanks to my hip replacement, I’ve had a taste of their surgeries.

One of the women spoke to me while I was getting dressed (still not used to having conversations with strangers in my bra, but that’s gym life). She introduced herself and asked me if I had come to class before. I have. She told me about their lunch group and asked if I wanted to put my name on the e-list for updates about their social gatherings. I told her to sign me up and gave her my address.

Just yesterday, my rheumatologist ordered a relatively new lab test that can help determine how active my disease is so we can assess the rate of damage being done to my body. When I think about it too much, it’s a strange thing to be physically withering at my age, but I am. I’ve been living with RA since I was little, growing and withering simultaneously. Most of the women in my class have only known the physical pains of aging for a decade or two. I’ve known them for three. It shocks them, but it’s my normal. Like my grandparents, and now my parents, the women lament how “they just can’t do anymore.” I’ve been able to do my fair share, but in some of the more typical ways of doing, there are things I’ve never been able to do.

This would seem to be a sad state, and it’s not fun. It’s not profound nor heroic. But it does give me opportunities to see and be with people that the rest of the world tends to miss (or dismiss). The slow-moving people. And that makes it a little easier to endure. I get to be part of the Aqua ladies who lunch. And that’s not a bad gig, even if a soft-hearted German fusses at you from time to time.

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