Last Sunday, while chasing waves in the Atlantic Ocean at Philbin Beach with my 11-year old granddaughter, I noticed the surf, which had been crashing in, had suddenly disappeared. The ocean I was standing in up to my waist seemed eerily calm. The sandy shore behind me lay perfectly flat, like a sheet of paper. How peculiar.
I’ll never know how it happened, but it did, and the knowing really doesn’t matter any more. All that does is that we were at the mercy of the sea. Even writing about it now makes me sick to my stomach — but it is like an aching tooth, this desire to rub up against it, write it down, tell it as best I can.
We were pulled out to sea and flung under powerful waves. My granddaughter Nell was 70, 80 feet away, screaming, “Grandpa, we’re going to drown.”
The nightmare of all time, but you can’t give in for you must survive. You must. Trying to keep my voice calm, I yelled, “We’re going to make it. Swim.” Other phrases, too, like “I promise you we’ll make it.” She never panicked, even as we became more separated, drifting out to sea. Another wave came, one that pulled me under, deeper than I had ever gone, one that never seemed to end and I thought, “So this is it, this is how it ends. We are going to die.” But then I surfaced. We can’t die, I told myself, even as Nell drifted further away from me. “Swim, swim, swim,” I yelled, frantic that she might give up. “Swim along the shore!”
Then I think it’s happening, or rather just about to happen — death. I imagine my wife on the beach, our children and our grandchildren back home, whether it will all come to this. But only for an instant. You have to fight. You have to think. You can’t give up.
Never have I fought harder. As I spotted my granddaughter closer to the beach, I thought, “Oh God, make her get to shore.” Then I could die. I knew that this was the time to yell — it wouldn’t scare her as much. “Help,” I cried, hearing my voice and how helpless I sounded, wondering if this would be the last word I would ever utter. Everyone on shore was oblivious to us. “Help, help!” I cried, then stretched my toes, desperately hoping they’d touch bottom. “Sand, sand, I can touch the bottom,” I yelled to her. “We’re going to make it.”
Minutes later, two young men helped me stagger back to the beach. They had helped Nell, too, pushing her over a wave toward shore. Then they disappeared. If by chance they are reading this piece, I ask them to find me once more — this time it will be easier — for I have a bottle of champagne I’d like to offer them.
And suddenly there was my wife, who thought she had lost us, clutching our sobbing Nell. An hour later, at home, I caught an image of myself reflected in a window. It was as if I could see through myself, how I would look if I were a ghost. I found a private grassy patch where no one could see me and threw myself to the ground, overcome by weeping, a weeping that still comes upon me.
Then from the distance I heard the most unexpected of sounds: a bagpipe. The sound was coming from down the road. I heard its plaintive wail, then the ancient sound of crickets and the eternal roar of the sea. And so it was and so it is. I feel alive now, in a way I hadn’t before, and full of gratitude that is at times intoxicating.
It’s not all rosy. I also return repeatedly to the moment we were struck. Thanks to Google, I learned more about traumatic stress syndrome that I ever wanted to know. Happily, I also learned about a new therapy involving what are called reconsolidation windows. It encourages me, instead of dredging up the old memory and replaying it in my mind, to return to it intentionally and reframe it, concentrating not on the details but focusing on the other things it brought me: gratitude, resilience, enthusiasm, life. Two days after almost drowning, I found myself at the post office. Alone at the counter, waiting for the postmaster, I spotted several rubber stamps. One said FRAGILE. I picked up another and stamped it on the back of my hand: PERISHABLE.
In Crossing the Unknown Sea, David Whyte writes of his own near-death experience in the Atlantic: “In the old Greek stories depicting fleeting encounters with divinity, the touch of a god was always experienced as both violation and blessing.” We had gone too far out; we had not been vigilant or respectful enough; we had been too brash. The blessing? For Whyte and for me: life. We had survived. We had come back.
And now, after standing firmly on the shore, I take a first step back into the Atlantic. I look out at the world full of optimism and resolve, eager to take life on.
Yet, I still feel compelled to tell everyone in my path that riptides can come out of the blue; while the sea is flat and you are standing up to your waist, when the world seems beautiful and at peace. Never let children swim in the ocean when there are no adults in front of them. And if you are caught in a riptide, never fight it. You can’t win. Swim parallel to the shore. Stay calm. Tread water. If you are lucky, as we were, you will survive.
Ted Sutton is an educational psychologist and writer who lives in Newton and Aquinnah.