The Day Death Was Near

Wave

This is a story about allowing your mind to write checks your body can’t cash.

I don’t think I’ve even shared this with K, primarily because I know what she would say, and I’ve done enough self-flagellation. The long and short of it is that when you have any kind of disability, there are things you know you probably can’t do anymore, and it’s never smart to test that theory. I wasn’t smart one summer afternoon almost four years ago, and my consequence could easily have been tragic.

We were vacationing at Martha’s Vineyard, and Shodan and I were at Lucy Vincent beach while K and her girlfriend were out and about. The surf was rough, as it had been during our entire stay. There is a color coded display as you walk on the beach that describes the water conditions and what they represent in terms of surf, undertow and things of that nature. If the color of the day is red, the beach is closed. If it happens to turn red during the day, lifeguards do their best to get everyone out of the water.

On this particular day, about half-way into our trip, the color on display was one or two levels below the “do not go in” threshold. In fact, it had been that color for our entire stay. I don’t remember the exact color, but you get the point. Any fool could see that the waves were impressive, and the sound they made crashing into the beach was loud. The conditions were perfect for anyone who was into body surfing or had a boogie board. If I remember correctly, there had been a handful of people on surfboards during the previous days.

Shodan had been living in the water and was having a blast. He’d periodically call out to me to join him, but Smart Steve had resisted the call. He had ventured into ankle-deep water on a handful of occasions, and needed the cane to stay upright because the undertow was strong and the waves would occasionally crash on his legs. Smart Steve knew that if he was having a hard time in ankle deep water, going out any further would be a fools errand, particularly when he considered the fact that the tide was high and a handful of very large rocks scattered about the ocean floor, easily visible during low tide, were currently underwater.

But Foolish Steve wanted in. He hadn’t frolicked with his son all week, and knew that once he got out to about chest level, and beyond the crashing waves, the buoyancy of the water would mitigate his symptoms. Once in, he could maneuver around easily in the zero-gravity like environment, bob like a cork on the water, and enjoy the experience. The more he thought about it, the more sense it made, so Foolish Steve plotted his strategy.

Limping back to his blanket, and almost stumbling as his foot caught in the fine sand, he ditched his cane, trudged out to the surf, and waded in. Spying a large oncoming wave, he half-dove half-fell directly into it, and swam out to sea. Feeling his body rise and fall with the incoming surf, he stopped shortly thereafter, when it became obvious he had cleared the worst of the waves. Standing up in neck deep water, he surveyed the scene, saw he was well beyond the danger zone, moved closer to the shore until the water was chest deep, and stood upright.

So there I was, basking in the bright sunlight, enjoying the feel of the cool water on a warm summer day, watching the gulls fly overhead, and the mist of the surf that had crashed upon the beach drift into the cliffs. I could move freely and not feel clumsy, which allowed me to rough-house with Shodan for an extended period of time.

When it became time to return to my blanket, I had to plot an exit strategy. The smartest thing to do would have simply been to have Shodan guide me to the shore, and once it was shallow enough, walk toward the sandy beach with him leading the way, my hands on his shoulders. But, I was feeling my oats, let my bravado overtake common sense, and decided to body surf my way into shore.

This strategy worked temporarily. The first wave didn’t get me very far, so I emerged and tried to stand upright to prepare myself for the next one. I only managed to get one foot planted, and hadn’t yet taken a full breath, when the next wave slammed me from behind, and plunged me into the cauldron.

Since I was off balance to begin with when the wave hit, my feet were nowhere near the ocean floor as I was being rolled around like I was in a washer’s spin cycle. I thrashed around, trying to get my body upright, but not having the use of two good legs was a detriment. I became disoriented, but the bottom of my foot luckily scraped against the ocean floor, and I was able to dig one heel into the sand. To say my adrenaline was pumping is an understatement. That temporarily brought the spin cycle to a stop.

I tried to get both feet planted and lift my torso out of the water so I could take a breath, but another wave crashed and spun me around some more. Somehow, I remain calmed and held my breath. I think subconsciously knew I was close to shore, and that if I could hang in there, something would touch the ocean floor again. I’d be even closer to shore, which might allow me to get on my hands and knees, and at get my head out of the water.

If I had I panicked, I would have inhaled water and, with the boiling ocean tossing me around like a rag doll, drowned less than twenty feet from shore. The problem was that this particular spin cycle lasted longer than the previous one. My lungs were burning, and I realized that if I did not get air soon I’d be in serious trouble.

Fortunately, my back and butt scraped the ocean floor. I instinctively managed to get on my hands and knees, knelt upright, and poked my head out of the water. My eyes, which had been closed tight throughout the ordeal, popped open as I gratefully took a deep breath. I was still a little disoriented, but once things came into focus I could see I was facing out torwards the open sea and was immediately greeted by another wave, which hit me in the face and threw me backwards a few feet. Fortunately, my mouth was closed, and it was shallow enough by that point where I could extend my arms and push myself back onto my knees.

Shodan was in deeper water looking around to see where I was. I wasn’t sure if he had noticed what happened or recognized the trouble I was in, but his eyes locked onto mine and he smiled. I called to him and he free-styled over. When he arrived I placed him in front of me, stood up, placed my hands on his shoulders and had him lead me towards the safety of the beach. As we approached the shore, my legs, which were trembling slightly, could feel the strength of the incoming waves and the force of the undertow. I also noticed that the large rocks I had mentioned earlier were a short distance from where I finally emerged from the angry sea. If I had crashed upon those as I was being tossed around, it would have been game, set, match.

Arriving at our blanket, I sunk into the beach chair and grabbed a towel while Shodan ran back into the water. The gravity of what had just occurred hadn’t fully registered, but I knew that I was very fortunate to be breathing.

Looking back at this, I don’t remember how long I was submerged and helpless. I think it was somewhere between half a minute and a minute, but it felt much longer. The experience was harrowing, to say the least. Had I been able to fill my lungs with air before the first wave hit, the situation might not as felt as desperate, but I didn’t have that luxury. I couldn’t see anything, felt like a tumbleweed in a tornado, and was trying to stay focused so I wouldn’t do something to compound my stupidity, like inhale. Fortunately, I didn’t run out of time.

It’s funny what you think about when confronted with something like that. I remember being embarrassed that I might die on vacation in less than six feet of water, and the scene that would cause. I worried terribly about K, Shodan, my parents, and what this would do to them. I also remember thinking K would want to strangle me if she knew what was going on.

The surf did not subside during the remainder of our stay. Needless to say, other than walking along the beach, I did not step foot in the Atlantic again.

That day taught me are there are certain lines you don’t cross. I already knew that, but did not think of myself as a disabled person. I thought my symptoms might have progressed, because walking was a little harder, my limp was more pronounced, and my balance seemed more tenuous. But my progression was so incrementally slow, I wasn’t sure if this was real or my imagination. But walking in the fluffy sand was much more difficult compared to our visit the previous year. That should have been all the confirmation I needed to understand the progression was real, yet I still ventured out into that tempest. Maybe I though I was bullet-proof. Whatever the reason, it was a foolish, arrogant and reckless act.

I was lucky to survive it.