First there was the graze with death. And then, a few years later, there was the full brush with it. This, aside from a small matter in 2005 involving a lion in Namibia, comprised the scariest moments of my life. As time distances me from the experience, it dulls, as Time always does, the feelings and emotions tied to it that were so overwhelming at the time…
…that strangely calm feeling of fear…
…that helpless feeling of certain death for us both…
…that feeling of complete disbelief that not only had I survived, but Dochechka as well…
…that feeling of utter gratitude to just be alive…
I find myself wanting to reach back…to always remember that fear, so that I can never forget my gratitude. I think it’s important to remember to be grateful for life, the fragile gift that it is…it’s what keeps me from sweating the small stuff…and by that I mean, it’s what keeps me from getting out of my car in rush-hour traffic and strangling the driver who decides to cut me, and everyone behind me, off by merging into my lane at the very last minute. (Seriously, though, would you QUIT doing that?)
In the Spring of 2003, right before we were to graduate from medical school, Dochechka and I headed down to Costa Rica to do a one month Community Medicine rotation. This basically meant that we worked in area hospitals and clinics with all the diligence of the rest of the Latin American world…which entailed rewarding each work session (however brief) with fried foods, taking plenty of siestas (usually after the fried food), and lots of four-day weekends (every weekend). It was rough. Real rough. And if the Costa Ricans weren’t so great at frying up cheese, I doubt I would have survived the entire month.
Our last four-day weekend in Costa Rica was spent on the southeast coast, near the border of Panama. We were staying in a beachfront hotel we’d specifically selected to accommodate my boyfriend at the time, Swims Like Fish, who’d decided to come down for a visit. Early one morning, we opted to do something completely uncharacteristic of us: forego our usual breakfast of fried cheese and gayo pinto and go to the beach instead. It was a beautiful morning and the call of the ocean, which was just footsteps away from our accommodation’s balcony, overwhelmed even our deepest gastronomic urges. (And if you only knew the depths of these, you'd be as amazed as I am to this day that we turned away from them temporarily.) Funny but, had we gone with our usual instincts, we would have been spared the ordeal that ensued. (This just underlines what I’ve been trying to tell people all along regarding the little-known, potentially life-saving properties of fried cheese.)
We walked through a grove of palm trees along the short path that led to the beach. I set both my bright orange, floral sarong and my camera down on a massive piece of driftwood and walked 20 feet down to the water’s edge with Dochechka. It was a truly majestic morning. We watched the sunrise with the ocean lapping at our feet and ankles…a sunrise whose shades of tangerine and pink made a seamless union between ocean and sky. Where there was once Horizon, there was only Sun…for just a few delicious, suspended moments in time. And the three of us were the only ones on the beach to witness them.
Those small, tangerine moments seemed like gifts, and I wanted to remember them by taking back with me a few shells from the beach. There were sea urchin shells everywhere, small and large, all bleached white by the salt and sun. So Dochechka and I busied ourselves with collecting them while Swims Like Fish went for a swim. In knee-deep water, she and I chased urchin shells being pushed back and forth by the tide, collecting handfuls at a time and bringing them back up to where we’d stowed our belongings. I’d never seen so many shells and I suppose I was too preoccupied to notice that with one wave, the water level rose from our knees to our hips. It didn’t seem to be a problem until the very next wave came in and swept us up, off of the sandy ocean floor…and when the wave receded back out to sea, instead of placing us gently back down, it took Dochechka and me with it. For a few, blissfully unaware moments, the fact that we were quite suddenly unable to touch down anymore seemed interesting, rather than dangerous, to me. I turned toward the shore to look back at the piece of driftwood where we’d set our things…my bright orange sarong was now merely a blurry speck of color roughly 4o feet away. Hmm, would you look at that? I thought. Treading water, I turned to check on Dochechka just in time to see a wave smack her in the face…she came back up from under the water, but she was gasping frantically. She’d swallowed a lot of water. And it was then, when I saw the look of sheer panic in Dochechka’s eyes, that I realized we were in trouble.
At this point, I thought we should remain calm…that this was a totally manageable and entirely temporary problem that we could swim our way out of. I mean, the floor couldn’t be that far down, could it? It was just there a second ago. So I swam over to her as she flailed and struggled to regain composure and I said to her, “It’s ok. We just need to swim out of this. We can totally do this. Let’s just swim back to shore.” She nodded in understanding.
So we both tried. We gave it a really, really good try. But considering that collectively, our swimming capabilities amount to those of an 8 year old who learned how to swim the summer prior, we didn’t get very far. I could feel the strong tug of the rip tide….and when I looked back up at the shore…60 feet away. There was a small speck of orange there somewhere. But where? This is not good.
I looked back at Dochechka who’d failed as miserably as I had to get any closer to shore. She grabbed for me, wanting me to help her. All the while, more waves were coming…they were getting bigger, more frequent, and they seemed to be coming from every angle now. There was little time for much of anything other than dodging waves.
I looked for Swims Like Fish and saw him back near the water’s edge, standing where we’d started, using his right hand to shield his eyes from the glare of the rising sun; he was scanning the waves looking for us. We made eye contact. I waved my hand for him to come over. And with that, he dove in, disappearing under the water. And for a few moments…those infinite seconds that passed in which I couldn’t see him through the waves…I screamed at Dochechka to swim with me. But, having swallowed wave after wave of water to the face, all she could do was look at me and nod that “No” she simply couldn’t do that. I didn’t know what to do. SLF was nowhere to be seen. Had he drowned trying to get over to us? And there was no way I could leave Dochechka behind to attempt swimming it alone. Wave after wave after wave came in all around us…
Then, suddenly, SLF popped out from behind a massive wall of water. At this point I wasn’t as breathless as Dochechka, so I pretended to be calm and told him to go help her first…so he swam past me and disappeared underneath another swell, leaving me alone to be my own swimming coach.
You can do this, you can do this. Just swim. Remain calm. Just swim. SWIM!! I willed my arms and legs to kick and paddle. I kicked. And kicked. I tried free-style stroke. Breast stroke. Doggy paddling. Alone in the water, I kicked until I was grunting with effort. A wave came in from my left side and half of it went into my mouth. Remain calm. Catch your breath. Turn over onto your back and just float for a second, someone said that was a good way to rest. Who told me that once? Turn over on your side…just catch your breath. Catch your breath. That plan was foiled by another wave which managed to make it’s way into my mouth….forcing me to turn back over and try to swim again. Tired now. I looked up at the beach to check my progress. But there was none. It was as if I was swimming backwards while facing forwards…the shore proceeded to distance itself from me. The beach was still empty. There was no one there to flag down for help. And I couldn’t even see any orange now. But I knew it was there, somewhere. I know my orange sarong is waiting there for me…and my camera full of great pictures from our trip…and a pile of beautiful, white, delicate sea urchin shells to take back with me. I know they’re there. Somewhere. I imagined someone finding them in a few hours. It would be the only evidence that the three of us had been on the beach earlier. Someone would find the evidence…we’d fail to turn up for check out at the hotel…people would put two and two together…eventually they’d report us missing. This is fucking fantastic, my mother is going to be SO PISSED.
Motivated by the prospect of my mother’s mental breakdown following my impending death, I tried once more to make an earnest swim for the shore. But failed. And I think I called out, I know I at least thought of calling out, SLF's name. Seconds later, he appeared. He heard me? “You got Dochechka out?”
“No,” he said calmly. “She’s fighting me too much right now...I’m going to have to knock her out if she keeps it up.”
Knock her out? Wait. You left her BEHIND???? He must have read my mind. Or did I actually say that? I can’t remember.
But he said, “That’s what you’re supposed to do when someone fights you…let me just get you to where you can touch down.” I looked back and saw nothing but rising and shifting walls of water. No Dochechka in sight. I felt SLF's arm around my waste. He was swimming. We were moving. But where is she? Where IS she? WHERE IS SHE? I couldn’t see her anymore and I started crying. She was alone. We weren’t helping her. She is all alone!
Then, there was sand. Under my feet…there was sand. “Ok…you can walk now,” I heard him say. He let go of me and I tried to stand, but I fell to my hands and knees. “Can you walk now? Go. Go back to the hotel. Get help. I’m just going to rest here for a second then go get Dochechka.”
Rest??? You’re going to REST? But when I looked back at him to scream at him to go get her, please go get her, he was already gone. He disappeared again. Ok. I’ll go to the hotel. I’ll run to the hotel. I’ll get help. I tried to run, but I hadn’t yet caught my breath and my peripheral vision was dimming…blackening with my panicked hyperventilation…my legs were like jello, and the sand like quicksand, swallowing each of my weak attempts at a step. I looked back. Still no sign of either one of them in the water…just water and more water. Oh no!
I turned back and, like a Godsend, there were two women strolling onto the beach. I made my way toward them, waving my jello arms around, screaming, weakly, in breathless, ill-assembled Spanish for them go get help.
“No…todo esta bien…todo bien. No te preocupas,” one of them said.
What do you mean everything’s okay??? I thought this in English, and while nodding that No, everything is NOT okay, I searched for the words in Spanish.
But before I could find them, the woman said, “No, mira. Todo esta bien…mira.” She pointed towards the ocean. I turned around, just in time to see SLF pulling Dochechka up onto the sand.
In a second I was there. She was blue. He’d laid her flat on her back and her lips were blue, her chest was still. I dropped to my knees and looked at her for a second, about to check for a pulse and start CPR…when she turned her head slowly to the left and coughed up a mouthful of water. And then took in a big gulp of air. Pink again. Breathing.
I stood up and walked back to edge of the water…and cried the hardest cry in my life up til that point. I thought they’d both died. My boyfriend and the closest thing I have to a sister. And before that, I’d thought that she and I were going to die. Suddenly the relief drowned out the fear. There remained only gratitude. And a slightly less mysterious ocean.
I didn’t dare tell my Mamacusa about the ordeal until I was safely back in the States. Mostly because no Google or Yahoo map could have convinced her that Costa Rica’s San Jose was inland enough to eradicate the chances of a massive killer tsunami coming in and yanking me back out to sea. So I spared her the state of panic. When I came back, though, of course I told her all about it. And, in addition to the incredulous look which made its way to me as effectively through the phone lines as it would had she been standing before me, I got the following response…
“If you would have drowned, I would have KILLED you!!”
Which, of course, defies all logic and reason. But then again, so does love. And thank goodness for that…because where would we be in this broken and beautiful world if it weren’t for the senseless lunacy of love? (And fried cheese?)
* Though it didn’t end up working out for Swims Like Fish and me, I am eternally grateful to him for what he did that day.
* I still have those sea urchin shells…in a bowl with sand from that beach and a candle the color of that ocean.