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Waters of Grief : SWIMMING THE CHANNEL. By Sally Friedman (Farrar, Straus & Giroux: $22, 248 pp.)

November 03, 1996|Thomas Curwen | Thomas Curwen recently profiled author and memoirist Donald Waldie for The Times

When my brother-in-law died in 1988 of a heart attack at age 52, leaving behind my sister and their 3-year-old son, our family went into a tailspin of grief as we tried to reconcile the demands of daily life with our feelings of loss. Traumatized by memory and regret--all the what-ifs and if-onlys--we went through the paces of our lives as best we could, strangely distracted and hugely unfocused.

While the lack of focus may be true to life, it compromises "Swimming the Channel," Sally Friedman's wrenching memoir about the sudden death of her husband at 33. Sometimes raw and sometimes strangely ordinary, her story jumps between past and present, capturing the trauma and chaos of such a loss but also keeping the experience at arm's length.

Paul Carter didn't stand a chance when a truck ran a red light in Manhattan on Aug. 8, 1990. By the time the doctors told Friedman to say goodbye, the death certificate had already been signed and the dream of their life together had disappeared. With it died Friedman's personal goal of swimming the English Channel, an idea "born out of happiness, out of intoxication" with the life she and Carter shared.

A freelance theatrical scene designer and long-distance swimmer, Friedman was 30 when she met Carter. He was a theatrical consultant. Soon married, they settled into a companionable life stretched between their jobs, her training schedule in the city and their home on a lake in the Adirondacks. He was her strength and encouragement as she spent months training for her marathon swim. Friedman paints a loving portrait of their training sessions together: "His calmness soothed me, his quiet reassured me. We were beyond words, as if in preparation for the swim when I knew I would not be able to speak to him for long stretches. The communication was in having him at my side."

While Friedman writes well about the challenges of long-distance swimming, her descriptions of these training sessions seem out of place in light of Carter's death, and, curiously, she tells us little about his life apart from her. He lives instead in the shadow of her ambition, content to canoe beside her, towel in hand, through rain or sunshine. Without conveying any signs of ambivalence or doubt that he might have had--or any of her own guilt to have put him through her regimen--Friedman paints a picture of a relationship that seems slightly unreal. Such idealism may be a symptom of grief, but it makes her story less accessible to the reader.

From the moment, however, that Friedman is told about Carter's accident--just hours before her flight to England (Carter was to join her in a few days), "Swimming the Channel" suddenly acquires a poignant urgency, and her grief is palpable. Death suddenly forces her to face a more difficult and treacherous channel than any she had trained for. Alone in these waters, she keeps a shirt of his in a plastic bag, "careful not to wash away his essence" with her tears.

Although she tries to go through with the swim, she can't, and in a moment of silent communication with Carter, she wonders if those "hours spent face down in lakes and pools and seas were not preparing me for the English Channel but for this long stretch of quiet in a different sort of saltwater." By now the pace of "Swimming the Channel" has slowed, and the experience of Carter's death begins to resonate. Friedman's recovery and reconciliation with his death becomes a compelling and touching story.

Grief is a maze. Outsiders may think they understand its complications, but for the bereaved there is no simple way out. For Friedman, only with time do the memories of Carter grow more bearable.

A year after his death, she is able to lie down in the grass beside his grave, day-dreaming, resting, watching the breeze sweep across the field. "As I have reentered the land of the living," she writes, "I [have been] aware that I was creating a new person from the ashes, someone very similar to the old me, but forged from steel."

Five years later, his shirts still hang in her closet and his hiking boots are under her desk. "This is part of whoever I am, and will always be. Paul will never leave my life, although his place in it changes."

"Swimming the Channel" might have benefited from stronger editing and a different ordering of events, but as a memoir about mourning, it is a welcome reminder that there is a way out of grief, no matter how soul-wrenching and endless it sometimes seems.

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