Unexpectedly, I- the long-time water bug and ocean lover–was afraid to join my kids in the Atlantic Ocean riding the waves on an extremely windy day with huge, rough waves. I grew up at the Jersey shore, don’t remember a time when I didn’t know how to swim. Several days ago, it took me over an hour to move past waist deep.
This was so unexpected, how standing in the churning waters took me immediately back to a similarly rough ocean, on the Pacific coast by Del Mar CA, when my friend Joni* almost drowned while we were swimming. The flashback was so absolute, so real, I was stunned.
I could so vividly remember that afternoon in Del Mar, on a business trip, Joni* and I swimming out , playing and laughing, the sand almost too deep to touch. After some great long rides atop the careening waves, we realized the current was pulling us further and further from the shore. We tried to freestyle in, making a little progress before the current pulled us away from the shore, waves continually crashing above us. And what exactly was the useless lifeguard doing? Nothing.
Starting to tire, Joni began a slow rise to panic mode. Her eyes wide, she exclaimed, “I can’t do this anymore.”
“Yes you can,” her fear keeping my own fears at bay. “Swim over here. I will help you.”
She grasped desperately at my neck, pulling me under, feet flailing.
“Stop!” I screamed. “That will kill both of us. Put your arms around my neck. When I tell you, as the wave is breaking, hold your breath. We are going to dive under the wave and work our way in.”
So we began the excruciatingly slow journey of movement towards the beach. Entangled with each other, I would watch the waves breaking above us, yell “NOW!”, we would duck under the water, and I would try to push off the churning bottom directing us to the shore. It was exhausting, overwhelming, trying to remain strong with a very fearful (thankfully, very thin) friend. I wondered if we would finish the journey, but I was definitely not going to let Joni drown.
As we got closer to shore, our friend and co-worker started swimming out from the short, a smile on his face. I urgently waved him over, trying to hide my wave from Joni, just continuing our movements towards the shore. We were now out of the break zone, but I was holding her while swimming in. Mark’s smile vanished as he realized I was holding Joni up, and he swam more urgently in our direction as we continued our trek towards the shore.
“Mark! Help us!” she yelled when she saw him, throwing her arm around him and pulling him briefly under the waves as she grabbed for him.
Lightened of my load while Mark helped her in, and in now a calmer section of water, I was able to easily now swim the rest of the way in to where I could stand. Mark got Joni to the beach, and shakily we both sat on the sand, caught our breath. My muscles ached, my brain exhausted as I realized one or both of us could have truly drowned that gorgeous day. I truly think Joni’s panicking helped me not to freak out.
So this nearly-forgotten day of maybe 18 years passed was bouncing in my brain as I stood in the waves, bile held back. I could feel the loss of breath, kicking in the sand, visualize the relentless waves.
Today is a respite. Large but not overwhelming waves with a friendlier current, we rode waves for over than hour this morning. No breaks. As the day should be, kids laughing, salt mustaches, freestyling to the crest of the wave, then flipper kicks to keep the momentum to shore. Still got it, after a day of remembrances, and a story to tell my kids about how important it is to respect the ocean while playing in it. C