The Nearness of Death

I wish I could have seen what almost dying would have looked like. I wish I could have enjoyed the view. I’m sure the waves that composed the Salsa Brava would have looked absolutely breathtaking from an insider’s perspective. It would have been beautifully ironic to see the ocean’s raw power make a rag doll out of an American student who grew up on a boat and fancied herself a solid swimmer.

But I couldn’t see anything. I couldn’t even think anything. My eyes were screwed up in frustration and habit. I didn’t want the sting of salt water in my eyes; as if that really matters when you’re battling some of the world’s heaviest waves for the nearest oxygen.

I’m still not sure how it happened. I remember playing ultimate Frisbee on the beach and becoming quickly winded with the hot sand and the humid air. I remember diving underneath each wave as it threatened to swallow me whole. I remember seeing my new friend Francois twenty feet behind me, watching me with an unusually blank expression. I remember wondering why he was retreating back to shore when there was so much fun to be had in succumbing to the wave’s momentum. I remember laughing. And then I remember not laughing when I realized my feet could no longer feel the sand beneath them.

Next, I became the property of the wave. It was no longer fun to be dominated by nature like I had previously believed. These waves were large, merciless, and broke in rapid succession right on top of me. It was a trial to breathe. If I could have formed coherent thoughts, I would have berated myself for being so reckless. Instead, I let my conscience surrender to the wave and to my own survival instinct. Surprisingly, I didn’t see a light at the end of the tunnel or any other tacky equivalent of a death cliché; I just remember begrudgingly accepting how much hard work it was going to take to get back to shore. When that thought expired, it was replaced by a complacent sense of acceptance. I didn’t see a light, but I felt light. In the moment I was sure would contain my death, I felt not a single regret. There were no epiphanies about things I should start doing or should stop doing; just sadness (my family and friends would miss me) and dread (the way one always dreads hurling themselves into the unknown) and peace.

The boy with the surfboard that saved me was very nice about it. He put me on the board and I body-surfed in to shore. As I lay exhausted on the beach, I could do nothing but laugh. I think it was mostly to distract myself from the gravity of what had just happened. And also probably to cushion the fall of my ego.

Later that day, I felt exceedingly embarrassed. I grew up swimming in Lake Michigan. I was on a swim team for twelve years. I should have known better. Why did I think my 130-lb. body could take on the Atlantic Ocean? My friends and rescuers consoled me with logic: the riptide pulled me out so quickly I couldn’t even tell it was happening. They told me there was a definitive moment they noticed that I was in danger. At that specific point in time, they said I was still laughing. It is a strange sensation knowing that others could tell you were in trouble before you could.

Sometimes when I close my eyes, I feel it again. I am back in the wave. I am at its mercy. I feel the sheer terror of not being able to see shore. Even though I know air is abundant, my body twitches as I struggle and squirm for the air the surface will lend me. Not that opportunities have been abundant, but I haven’t been in the ocean since the incident. A friend that was present asked if it’s because I’m not ready to make amends with the ocean. I responded that amends don’t need to be made, but in my mind I know that amends simply cannot be made. The ocean would have won and its power will continue infinitely. My relationship with the ocean is not of the give-and-take variety. I can’t bargain with nature.

While it is unsettling to imagine being beaten by the water, what unsettles me even more is the jeopardization of my characteristic willingness to just go for it. The ‘pura vida,’ do-it-anyway lifestyle by which I have lived for so many years has been rattled. I am a daring person by nature and by choice, but now I feel that caution should be introduced into my repertoire. In its own extremely humbling way, the ocean taught me that I am not invincible. I don’t want to make a habit of questioning my own ability and replacing my boldness with caution, but rather infusing my pura vida mentality with just the right amount of ‘what-if?’

-from 7/12/14

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