Dors Bien, Maman

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This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and this is The Score.

The angels came for my mom on Sunday night. My sister and I held her, and each other, as the time between breaths lengthened. Her last one, 9:36pm, was soft and elegant, like a tropical summer breeze. What a privilege it was, these two weeks of witnessing her prepare her body, and her spirit, for the final journey. The memories, the fleeting images, the end-of-life splintered exchanges. We covered so much ground. Eighty-two years' worth.

It occurred to me on one of those surreal nights that many athletes talk about their parents, after they're gone, as the ones who pulled the car up to the driving range so they could hit golf balls until midnight by the beams from the headlights, who drove them to practice at the skating rink at 4:30 in the morning.

My mother grew up in Paris. The people who raised her, her aunt and uncle, were art collectors, friends of the arts intelligentsia of the day. They lived next door to Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas on Rue Notre Dame de Champs. Gauguin, Hemmingway, Matisse would stop by the house for afternoon tea. Sports were not part of the culture of my mother's formative years and she wasn't thrilled when I chose a sport over the piano. Swimming in particular struck her as a uniquely unattractive enterprise. The bulging triceps, the eyes swollen with chlorine exposure, the green-tinted hair. Subtly and not-so-subtly, she would suggest that I switch to tennis, pointing out with her French fashion penchant that my legs would look fabulous in that short pleated skirt.

She did come 'round, though, but not because of the trophies or records broken. I would overhear her boasting to friends that I got up, without need of an alarm clock, at 4am every day, seven days a week, 365 days a year, to make sure I was the first one at the pool.

Years later, when my mom because a champion ballroom dancer, she told me she finally got an inkling of what I felt as an athlete. She practiced footwork, body position, rhythm, complicated choreographies in two three-hour sessions every day, for months at a time, bent on perfecting tangos and fox trots.

One night, not too long ago, on a visit, she was alone in the house when an earthquake hit. I rushed home to make sure she wasn't afraid. We lay in bed and talked until the sun came up, delving into life stories that come so easily in such pre-dawn moments, waiting for the aftershocks. We marveled at the paradox of this woman with such highly cultured, French sensibilities, encountering this little-girl tomboy, super-jock…her own daughter, living right down the hall all those years.

We laughed uproariously over the time she drove me to play tennis with a friend when I was eleven. My tennis partner didn't show up and, much to my surprise, this genteel lady of a mother bounced out of the car, informing me with a certain bravado that she had, at age eleven, taken lessons in Paris from the grande dame of tennis, Wimbledon champion Suzanne Lenglen. I was stupefied to see my mother, dashing around the court, both legs in full splits, a la Lenglen.

When people have asked me from whom I inherited my athletic abilities, I used to say my grandfather, captain of the Columbia track and swim teams, the first person to swim across the Long Island Sound. I never gave my mother credit for her athletic gifts because she was so adamantly not sports-identified.

But an elegant being she was, physical and otherwise, and a mother who gazed at me from the day I was born with fierce, beatific, unconditional love. And any athlete will tell you that a mother's adoration is all the parental support one needs to become a champion.

Merci, mamán. And as you said to me every night, I now say to you, "Dors bien. Dors bien, Cherie."

This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and that's The Score.



Diana Nyad