Thursday, April 4, 2013

The Power of The Ocean

I almost died on April 25th, 2004.

I'm not being dramatic. Nate and I had been married for less than a year. We went to the beach. Just another day in paradise.

We walk down the steps to the beach. It's busy, and Nate says, "Let's walk around this jetty, there's another beach on the other side. There'll probably be less people."

We walk around the jetty, stepping into the surf to get to the other side. It's totally deserted, and we set up our beach chairs and watch the surf. It's huge. So big that we joke that we're in Hawaii.

After a while, the waves calm down and Nate suggests that we go into the water. Because of the size of the waves earlier, I'm uneasy and don't go in any deeper than my knees. Nate swims out further and calls for me to join him. 

I tell him no, and he teases me. "Don't be such a wuss! Come on!"

I laugh and wade out to him, letting the water get up to my shoulders. 

We're standing in the ocean, and each wave coming in slightly lifts me off my feet and gently sets me back down. Suddenly, a wave sets me down but there's nothing under my feet. I kick my feet so I don't go completely under, and feel a jolt of panic. I look at the shore. Our beach chairs are a crazy distance away; we are really far out. Shit. I yell to Nate, "I can't touch bottom anymore! Look how far out we are!" 

He puts his feet down and says that he can still touch.

I start swimming towards him, but each stroke does nothing to bring me closer to him. The current is going against me, pulling me away! I try to swim harder. I used to be on the swim team, I'm an Advanced Certified Scuba Diver, I'm a strong swimmer, but none of that is mattering against the strong current.

"I can't swim back! I'm caught in a current!" Panic blossoms in my chest. I'm being carried out to sea; one of my worst fears is coming true.

Nate laughs and says, "Oh come on, it can't be that bad, just swim back!" Then he sees the panic on my face and realizes that I truly can't swim back.  

At this point, he's safe and I'm not. He can touch bottom, the current hasn't caught him. Then he does the best and worst thing: he lifts his feet and begins swimming towards me. Half of me is devastated at this because now, he's in jeopardy, too, and the other half is relieved that I'm not alone.

But now, we're both in trouble. The current is dragging us parallel to the shore, not out to sea, fortunately, but it's not taking us toward the populated beach to our right, it's taking us to the isolated part to the left. The waves are crashing over the back of our heads, and as soon as the water clears our faces and we catch our breath, another set of waves crashes into us from the side. 

I'm terrified that we're going to get carried out into the ocean and drown. My panic grows to exponential proportions, and it's getting hard to breathe in between the waves crashing over my face, which only compounds the situation. Nate sees my panic and tells me that it's okay, we're going to be fine, but we both know that he has no way of knowing if we're actually going to be fine. 

The ocean is cold, so cold. The cold is starting to creep into my muscles, starting to affect my ability to keep myself above water. I can feel my movements slowing down and know that this is the beginning of hypothermia. I keep scanning the shoreline, hoping to see someone on the deserted beach who we could somehow signal to get help. There is no one.

All of a sudden, in one fell swoop, the current carries us back to land, but relief is short-lived. "Land" is a cliff-like outcropping of rock that's covered in barnacles. It has a flat surface about two feet above our heads that if we could just pull ourselves up onto, we'll be out of the water. We still can't touch bottom; the water is deep.

But not only are the sharp barnacles affecting our ability to get purchase on the rocks, the rocks themselves are razor sharp, and the waves are crashing into us and slamming us into the rocks, then pulling us back out a bit when they recede. We can't stay in one place long enough to even try to grab onto something to pull ourselves up.

Nate says, "When a wave comes in, I'll use that to help me boost you up to the top of the cliff." We try it a couple of times but the top is just too high. Each time I'm lifted out of the waves, I scan the shoreline for people. It's still completely deserted.

Our bodies are becoming severely affected by the cold. Hypothermia is starting to set in, and I'm exhausted. The waves are slamming into us from the side and the back. I can barely catch my breath in between. I'm struggling. The attempts to boost me onto the top of the cliff have failed, and I'm totally defeated. We are out of options. Desolately, I look up the sharp cliff face and I know

We aren't going to get out. I'm going to die. I'm actually going to die, within minutes. This is the end of the line for me. I'm not going to go home tonight and eat dinner. Nate and I aren't going to celebrate even a year of being married. I'm never going to see my mom or dad again, I'm never going to laugh again, my life is over. Actually OVER. This is IT. There is no tomorrow. Grief blooms in me. I don't want to die. I'm only 25 years old! 

I've never before felt something so final. 

As I was relentlessly being slammed into the rocks, I suddenly thought of a guy I knew, Leif, who had drowned in the ocean two years and two months previously. We had briefly dated many years before, and after that ended, he developed a father-son type relationship with my dad, and eventually married a beautiful, amazing woman and had a daughter. He died when his daughter was still a baby, and my devastated dad has never been the same.

This is what Leif felt just before he died. He knew. He panicked like I'm panicking, he was cold like I am, his body failed him like mine is failing me now. He struggled like I am. I feel his hopelessness, I feel his fear. Oh my GOD, this fucking fear. I'm so scared! I can't believe I'm going to drown like he did. 

I'm so sorry you went this way, Leif... this is horrible. Don't let the ocean take me like it took you; it will be the end of my dad. He will not survive losing both of us, don't let me drown out here! PLEASE!

Nate breaks my reverie. "I can try to boost you up again, look, the top is only about a foot above us now and slopes back!" The current has carried us to a lower part of the rock outcropping.

One big push by Nate, helped by the force of a wave coming in boosts me up enough that I'm out of the water and on the slope, but as I try to climb all the way out on my hands and knees, near hypothermia causes my body to fail me and I can barely move my muscles. Then a wave slams into me from the side and yanks me back into the ocean.

I feel the force of the wave flip me onto my back and pull me at 30 miles an hour or however fast waves travel, headfirst and underwater along the front of the rocky cliff. The rocks are ripping into my back as I'm being dragged along them, but I can't really feel any pain because my body is so numb. I realize that if there is a large rock jutting out from the side or if the cliff curves toward the ocean at any point, my head is going to slam into it and I'll be instantly killed. I try to pull my arms up to protect my head, but the force of the water is pinning them to my sides.

All I can do is ride out the wave and wait for the slam to my head that will end me. Suddenly, it releases me and I'm not dead. 

As my body bobs upright in the water, I once again scan the shore, still hoping that someone has appeared who could help us. It's still deserted. Nate says, "Come on, let's try again."

I mumble, "My muscles aren't working." 

He boosts me again, and I feel my entire body come up out of the water and land on the slope, but now I know that if I don't climb up quickly enough, another wave is going to knock me back into the water.

I try to crawl forward but it's almost impossible. My body is so weak that I can hardly move. I know that if I don't force myself to move and I get knocked back into the water, it's going to be for the last time. My body is quitting, this is my last chance, yet I cannot will my muscles to move. Move! Move! I tell myself. Hurry! Yet my arms barely budge; it's like they're frozen.

Suddenly, I hear Nate screaming, "CLIMB UP!" The sheer terror in his voice tells me that another wave is coming and I have seconds to move, seconds to live. For the first one of those seconds, I resign myself to what I knew was coming anyway, death. I simply cannot do it. Not because I don't want to, but because my body is not allowing me to. I actually cannot make myself move. I don't have the strength.

But then his voice triggers something primal in my brain, some deep-rooted survival instinct, and suddenly I feel one last spurt of adrenaline and I'm able to pull myself out of danger's way, just as the wave crashes over my legs and feet. Somehow, I stand up, vaguely registering that the top of my bikini has shifted and my boobs are hanging out of it. 

I turn around and make eye contact with Nate. He's still in the water. As we look at each other, we both understand that he is not going to be able to get himself out of the water and I'm not capable of helping pull him out of the water. I do not have the strength and am going into shock. The look on his face is one of regret, one where he has realized how fucked he really is, and it reaches something deep inside of me. Suddenly I hear, "Hey, do you need some help?" 

Standing right in front of me are three guys.

Where did they come from?! I had scanned the shore not even a minute ago! Nobody was on the beach! I point to Nate and dully say, "Help him." They form a chain-gang and pull him out. 

We thank them, and they saunter off as if it's perfectly normal to encounter a woman in relative shock standing on a rocky platform on a beach, her boobs hanging out of her disheveled bikini top, her back torn up and bleeding as if she has been attacked by a tiger, and then form a chain-gang to pull a guy out of the water. What the hell?

Nate and I are standing there, saying, "Oh my God, on my God" over and over. He tells me that my back is bleeding badly.

We somehow gather up our things, the sun warming my body enough to let me move again. Even though I'm in the mental fog of minor shock, I drive us home. Nate has basically broken his toe when bracing himself against the rocks to push me out, so he can't drive.

At home, he calls his mom, who's a nurse, and she comes over, cleans us up, and fixes our injuries. I can't sleep on my back for a week while my scrapes and gouges heal. Nate lost his wedding ring in the ocean, and we're both so grateful that that was the only thing that was lost in the ocean that day.


It took a lot longer for the emotional injuries to heal. For years, I couldn't watch the ocean rushing into shore or over rocks without feeling some post-traumatic stress. I knew the power of those waves, had felt it, and watching them took me back to the ocean, fighting for my life. I'd feel that fear, and a buzzing sound would start in my head and I'd hear Nate screaming at me to climb up

At some point, without me even realizing it, that trauma faded, but the memories haven't. They never will. I'll never forget that Nate saved my life. I'll never forget the soul-searing understanding of what Leif went through before he died. Except, when he knew he was going to die, I can only imagine that it must have been a million times worse, knowing he was leaving his baby girl behind. There was no love lost between us, and I actually couldn't really stand him for years after we stopped seeing each other, but in those moments in the ocean I felt for him the deepest level of empathy that I've ever felt for another human being.

What happened that day hasn't taken me hostage; I won't let it. I still feel the petty annoyances of life, and occasionally I'll think, Dude, you could be dead. This isn't a big deal. Sometimes, that will flip the perspective switch in me and settle me down but most times, it doesn't. I want to live, I want to feel everything, good and bad. I don't want that day hanging over my head, ruling every moment I have.

I will teach my boys to respect the power of the ocean.


Leif, your baby girl is beautiful. She's a ball player, like you. I've seen pictures of her in your old Red Sox jacket and it's bittersweet. "Skipper" misses you, painfully. A few years after your death, he was visiting me and told me that the sound of the ocean now haunts him, when it used to soothe him. I suggested that instead of letting it haunt him, maybe he should try to think of it as the sound of you now, and let it comfort him.

He shook his head. The ocean was never going to sound the same to him.

The next day, he was walking on the wharf by my house and came across a memorial bench (that I'd never seen) overlooking the sea and inscribed with, "Let the ocean speak to you of me."

It took a few more years, but I think he's finally letting the ocean speak to him of you.

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  1. omg...nearly brought me to

  2. Powerful. Made me cry.

  3. Thank you for sharing Elizabeth, I'm so glad you and Nate did not have to share Leif's fate. I know Leif was watching over you both. And you are so right, losing you would have most certainly killed your dad. Your words about Lexie and I are are such a kind soul!! I went from crying to laughing hysterically when reading this. The part about your indifference toward Leif for those years cracked me up! Oh how he hated being ignored by women...esp by you. I think he used to lose sleep over it, lol. Love you!
    Tracie and Lexie

    1. Thank you, Tracie! You are such a strong woman, and I admire you greatly. I meant every word I said about you and Lexie. Give my dad a hug the next time you see him! :-)

  4. You know how I know you're an awesome writer? Obviously I know you survived, but I was TERRIFIED as I read this! I also got teary twice, because I'm a big sap.

  5. This is truly inspiring. I was scared and moved by what happened. I am no swimmer and this frightened me a bit :) Thank God you both made it alive. :)

  6. Tearing up in public, your story is so powerful! I'm so glad your writing has humor at times and this type of depth and sorrow at times as well. You truly are a wonderful writer!

  7. Tearing up as well! Beautifully written. Thank God those boys were in the right place at the right time!

    1. Thank you, and yes! I'm not sure they realized how much good they did on the beach that day...

  8. That brought back some memories. When I was about 15 I used to love swimming in the ocean. There were no reefs or anything to stop you if you got caught by the current. I was swimming along and then happened to look back at the beach and realized that I was way away from my parents. I turned around to head back but the current had caught me. I was being pulled further and further out and, like you, the waves would crash on me. I kept going under the water. I would come up and be so disoriented that I didn't know which way I was facing. I too felt the panic that I would never come out of the ocean alive. It was horrible. I truly believe God was with me that day. The current finally let go and I was able to get the strength to get back to where I could stand. I jetted out of that water like I was on fire. I fell into the sand exhausted. Since that day I have never swam in the ocean. I had respect for its power before but now I had the respect to fear it. I will only put my feet up to my ankles in the ocean now. I will go no further. My child is 4 and she has a natural fear of the ocean. Hopefully she will never lose it! Don't misunderstand me. I LOVE going to the ocean. There is something so comforting about the ocean. I love to sit on the beach and just look out at it. It's mystical in a way. I do cringe when I see little children running and diving into the ocean with their body boards and I'll see them way out. I used to think that once you got beyond the point where the waves weren't crashing and the water was still that you were safe...I found out the hard way that it wasn't.

    Thanks for sharing your story and I am glad that you and your husband got out alive.

    1. Holy crap! Thank you for sharing your story, too! You make such a good point about having the respect to fear the ocean, too.


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