Things you do to stay alive
Sometimes the things you have to do to stay alive feel impossible.
Like not running if you meet a Grizzly bear in the woods. Or allowing the ocean’s current to carry you where it wants should you be swept away.
Don’t fight the current. It will take all your energy and more. People drown that way. Let it carry you out, tread water, and wait to be rescued.
It was my father who told me not to fight the current.
Dad – a man who saved his own life by blowing bubbles in the face of a 15-foot tiger shark. He was spear fishing off the Fiji Islands at the time. He hadn’t speared anything that morning but the others had, and I don’t have to tell you about sharks and the scent of blood.
Dad was swimming back to the boat when he felt a “presence” behind him. He turned around and came face to face with a creature that managed to outlive the dinosaurs. I lost all fear in that moment, he said. It was the strangest thing. And with his mind clear, he remembered about the bubbles. This is what Jacques Cousteau had done in similar circumstances, and my 22-year-old father had the presence of mind to realize that if it was good enough for the daring French explorer it was good enough for him.
And it was – my Dad lived. His friends on the boat who saw it all happen later joked they weren’t sure which end his bubbles came from.
Back to his advice about not fighting the current. It makes sense in a do-as-I-say sort of way. Who am I, a flawed and mortal woman, to challenge the forces of the Atlantic? She could beat me with her hands tied behind her back, after someone made her turn around five times with a blindfold on.
Let’s say I was twenty feet from the shore when the current got me. Ten hard strokes would do it, I’d tell myself. Would I take on the Atlantic then? With the shore so close at hand? Would you? If she had her blue hands wrapped around your ankles and was tugging you out to sea, would you really let her take you if the shoreline were in sight?
Would you really trust that someone would have the presence of mind to organize a rescue in time? How would they find you? The ocean is a big place.
And what if you let the current carry you miles out to sea only to get caught up in a fatal undertow, or meet a 15-foot tiger shark that eats smiles for breakfast. Would you wish you had thrashed like hell for land when you had the chance?
I’m not sure that in that moment I could conquer my fear enough to make the choice that might save my life. I’m not sure I could play dead, blow bubbles or let the cold water carry me out. I think I might thrash and fight. I know I would.
Dad died on April 13, 2011 of a swift and brutal cancer. I drowned for the next sixteen months, flailing in the sea of life as the shore I once stood on drifted further and further from sight.
It was a hot, September evening when he phoned to tell me the results of his biopsy. I cried. My tears were hot and harsh, like machine gun fire. As I cried and listened to him telling me not to, this is what went through my head: Why am I crying? Am I as sad as I should be? Are these tears even real?
A ten minute phone call was all it took to make me a stranger to myself. I no longer knew if I was crying real tears.
In the months that followed, every tidbit of news – all of it bad – would push me into deeper water. His skin turned papery, his beautiful mane of shiny brown hair turned to steel wool and fell out. The chemo failed, and while his mind stayed as sharp as flint, he grew thin and hollow-eyed. On his last day, when the beckoning darkness finally confused him, his imagination still burned bright. My sister and I were with him in the living room when one of his friends came to visit.
“How are you feeling, John?”
“Not bad,” Dad said cheerfully. “But I’m pretty tired from chasing a bobcat round all morning.”
My sister and I looked at each other and laughed. Later I went to the bathroom and cried.
I started working again two weeks after he died. I had a book to rewrite, projects to complete, a house to pay for, two boys to raise. In other words, I swam like heck.
I started playing basketball again and I took up volleyball. I huffed at lost games, sprained my fingers four times and threw out my back unloading the dishwasher. I struggled at work. Some projects came off without a hitch, others took twice as long as they should have. I helped my son with his homework and yelled at him for little things. I had coffee with friends and bailed on others. Some days I loved my clients and other days I struggled to feel grateful. I bantered with acquaintances and sounded cheerful on the phone. I pretended I was OK and some days I really was.
And then I woke up one morning and realized I wasn’t swimming any longer. That I hadn’t been for a while. I was treading water, in the middle of the ocean. Dad, my rescuer, was nowhere to be found.
What am I supposed to do again? Blow bubbles or let the current take me? Swim where?
Dad had been my certainty in life. Without him to suggest, approve and direct, I was lost and alone.
It got so the very act of keeping my head above water exhausted me. The beds that needed weeding, the abs that required tightening, the work to be done, the investments to be bought, the rewrite to complete – these were the things of solid ground. Reaching for them was like struggling against the current. Defy the ocean and she will take you down.
Why do we swim against the current when we know we can’t possibly win? Because the shore is the only thing we know. Because we are too broken and sad and shell shocked to put our faith in the home-bearing power of the tides. Because we forget that while we live on land now, it’s the ocean that we first came from.
About a year after Dad’s death I gave in to the current. I quit vigorous exercise and said no to work. I let my ambition fall from my shoulders like the lightest of robes. I read books that nourished me and woke up early to drink in the quiet. I took long walks in the evenings. My walks took me through farmland where the grasses were waist-high. They roiled in the breezes like a green ocean. I closed my eyes and stood in the fading sunlight, listening to the grass around me sigh like moving water. I let the current take me.
And here I am.
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