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I’m a Survivor

April 14, 2010

Note: I edited this even less than usual- not that I’m a great self-editor. But it was too traumatic to write it, and I’m too worn out to read it again. Sorry for mistakes or bad writing. I’ll edit it later.

I took swim lessons a little over a year ago. The main purpose of these lessons was to get over a fear of having my face and specifically the nose, in the water. Secondary to that was learning how to swim properly. I consider these lessons widely successful, because I hit both targets. Although, I’m not a picture perfect swimmer, I now look like I know what I’m doing, and I can dive in the water without complete terror of drowning. I genuinely believe these lessons both endangered and saved my life in Cancun.

After arriving in Cancun, I met up with my family- mom, dad, stepmom, sister etc. and we had a little something to eat. Then we all went to our rooms to change into swim wear. The blue water beckoned and we wanted to get in as soon as possible. After coming back down and finding those in our party already gathered on the beach, my mom and I made a beeline for the ocean. It was cooler than I thought it would be, but still warm. We got in to about mid-calf and already noticed that the tow was strong. I will say however, that I had never really experienced a strong tow, and my inexperience in such a circumstance could have been, nearly was, fatal.

Shortly, my father and step-mom, C, joined us. Being the natural daredevils we were, the three of us started playing in the surf. We made it a little further and a little further, noticing both the tow, and the ferocity of the waves. But this only made it more fun, really. We were laughing and having a good time, and I was really enjoying playing in the water, without a real fear of a wave hitting my face. Even a few people on the beach were laughing with us, at how silly we were being. All of a sudden, I noticed we were much further away from my mom, on the shore, than we were even just 1 minute ago. She was beckoning with her arms to come in closer, and I remember thinking, ‘Yes, we should get just a bit closer to the shoreline.’

I picked up my feet and started swimming with a wave. C and dad did the same thing. It was at this moment, with seconds of each other that we realized we could not get back. I planted my feet firm into the sand and it was immediately ripped from the bottom and I was forced to swim again. Each time my feet left the sand, even in fact if it did not, we get swept out further and further.

I remember C, turning to us, and saying in a scared voice that she couldn’t get back. And I remember thinking with growing fear that none of us could. We struggled for what seemed like another minute, maybe even less, each time my mother getting farther and farther away. Finally, I stood up as best as I could, waved my arms around and screamed “HELP!!!!” at the top of lungs. I screamed and screamed and screamed. I had no idea if anyone could hear me, but I knew if I didn’t scream as loud as I could, they wouldn’t understand that none of us were laughing anymore.

It was about this time that I lost dad and C. A wave hit me, and knocked me under.

I was chanting to myself in my head, “Don’t panic, don’t panic, don’t panic.”

“Panic will kill you.”

“This is what you took those lessons for.”

“The water will not get in your nose unless you breathe in. Don’t breathe in, don’t panic, don’t breathe in, don’t panic.”

As each wave hit, I mentally calmed myself, I grasped for sand underneath me, and I launched myself into the air, taking a quick breath. Another wave would immediately hit me. Pretty soon, the waves were rolling me around. My shoulders would hit sand, and I’d do a complete 360- hoping I was doing a 360- praying I was doing a 360. I would plant my feet in what I hoped was below me, and pray to feel sand. I was lucky- I found sand each and every time. I would launch once more- open my eyes, just wide enough to see if there was air around me, take the shortest, quickest breath I could and then be pushed once again into the ocean.

The sound of the waves crashing into my body and the water around me was my only companion. The sound was deafening-extremely loud to my adrenaline filled ears. I remember distinctly thinking that this would be last sound I’d ever hear. I thought ‘If I stop hearing this sound, I’ll live.’ And also – ‘If I don’t hear this sound, it means I’m dead.”

Things were happening so fast, but I forced my brain to slow down and THINK. I remember thinking that I was about to ruin my sister’s wedding. That I hoped my dad and C did not die, even if I did. I was momentarily angry that my sister’s wedding would be ruined by me. I thought people drown every day, and I was not above such a death. I thought that I was so glad that I had LASIK – I do believe this also saved my life. If my contacts had washed away, I wouldn’t have been able to see clearly enough, to know if a wave was coming, or if I was surrounded by air or not. There was too much water. I couldn’t discern through feel or intuition if I had air to breathe. Things were much too confusing. Also pain in my eyes might have distracted me from my singular goal of finding pockets of air. My bottom was getting pulled off of me, and I remember thinking that if a lifeguard did save me, I didn’t care if the whole world saw my bare bottom.

I also remember thinking, I may die, but by God, I’d do it with a clear head and go down fighting. I was determined to hold out for a lifeguard.

I would search for the ground, try to think of the rhythm of the waves* and open my eyes long enough to see if I could get a quick breath in. (*Although in hindsight, there really isn’t a true rhythm, but I was grasping for something to hold on to hope)

It was about this time that the lifeguard came. I saw him, holding a rope and a floating device- those red things you’d recognize from any beach movie.

‘Thank God!’ and then another wave hit me. He grabbed me, asked me to hold on to the red floaty and I obliged. Then I realized I didn’t have the strength to hold on to it. I could get it, but I couldn’t hold on to it. The muscles in my arms and hands were not reacting the way I wanted them to. Fatigue from fighting the waves had worn them down. The lifeguard grabbed me around the middle and started swimming towards the shore. I was humiliated that he was doing it and I couldn’t. I kept apologizing. I only found out later, that he was actually being pulled in via a rope from those on the shore.

He dragged me to the sand, dropped me and went running. Leann, Sister’s MIL, came over to me and helped me up onto a beach chair. My head hurt excruciatingly. I was sure I was going to throw up. But I was so happy to have survived. I started crying, bawling. But then it hurt my head more, so I willed myself to stop. I looked over slightly to my right and saw that C was on a beach chair, laying down, and appeared to be conscious. I didn’t have the energy to look for my dad, but assumed the same went for him.

My mom was rushing over to me, and telling me everyone was out of the ocean. I nodded, but with my head in between my legs at this point – to keep from fainting- I’m not sure she saw that. I looked up at her and she turned to Leann.

“Dad’s blue, and they can’t get the oxygen bottle to work.” I managed to look further to the right, and realized my father was laying on the sand and there were four or five people around him trying to get him oxygen. I started bawling again. My mom felt awful. She kept saying it’s OK. He’s OK. But I was sure he was going to die and it was all my fault. I saw his mouth move and felt a little better that he was talking. I tried to stand up to walk over to C, but fell down almost immediately and then went back to my head between my legs. Someone came over to me, and told Leann she thought I was hyperventilating. I’m not sure if that was true, but I was sure I was about to faint again.

After some back and forth, the paramedics decided that my dad did need to go to the hospital. My mother practically carried me up to our room, and she went back to rest of the family. I was sort of standing in the room, with the water pooling around me, and suddenly I had to get all of the sand off. I couldn’t stand the feel of it. The reminder of why sand was in every crevice of my body. It needed to go now. I also needed to take my mind off the fact that my father might be dying – might be dead. I got in the shower and started scrubbing. I couldn’t stop thinking about how I had been the one to encourage C and dad out in the water. It was my fault. If he died I would literally never forgive myself. I collapsed again, but this time out of anguish. I sat there with the water cascading down my face, shoulders and back – not caring – just sobbing. Gut wrenching sobs. I kept wondering if maybe all the time that I spent worrying about him dying had actually caused this to happen. Ridiculous, of course, but in my guilt and fatigue, in my fear and panic – that was all I could think. 

Later, once I recovered a little bit, I would find out that he was the last person pulled from the sea, which is why he was the worst off. I can’t emphasize this enough – 30-60 seconds and I would have been as bad off as he was. The ocean had obliterated our strength.

Sister says that when she walked up to him, she recognized his widow’s peak, but not his stomach. It was so distended from all the sea water that he had swallowed that he looked pregnant. He threw up twice on the beach, and twice more in the ambulance on the way to hospital. The first time he threw up only through his nose. Sister saw water gushing through his nose- almost nothing else. There was an American ER doctor on the beach vacationing at the same time, and he literally saved my dad’s life, because the life guards had no idea what to do with him after he got on the beach. He says he could feel himself breathing through the water, and wanting desperately to get it out, but the lifeguards were holding him down. The doctor rolled him over so he could throw up and cough up the water.

The doctor took the ride in the ambulance with my sister, and the two of them did more to help my dad than either of the EMT’s. Once he made it to the hospital, things got better. They managed to “pump” the water from his lungs, although some still remained. There was some water in both C and my lungs, as well, though we only knew that because it hurt to breath for a few days. It’s better now. The first day, though, a deep breath would send me into a coughing fit.

The hospital held my dad for a few hours, pumped him full of drugs to help and let him go. One of the hospital doctors told my sister that my dad had in fact “drowned” and as a result he would be recovering from things for a few days because the body had quit for a while, and would need a slow reboot. Basically, he’d died and been revived- though he was reluctant to put it like that.

All of us were exhausted. I could barely walk for the next few days. And of course this incident dominated the conversation for most of the vacation, much to my irritation.

But I’m alive to be irritated. My dad and C are alive. I’ve been through some shit in my life. I’ve had a malfunction on my parachute, I’ve been in a major car accident- but this was the first time I really thought about dying, and really thought I would die.

It was terrifying.Your life doesn’t flash before your eyes. You’re too busy trying to hold on to that life.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. April 14, 2010 9:11 pm

    I was reading this out loud to Aaron and just broke down in the middle of it. I am so unspeakably grateful, relieved, overwhelmed that you are okay. Oh, dear friend. I'm so glad you're okay.

  2. April 15, 2010 10:20 am

    Thanks, me too.

  3. Jeni Johnson permalink
    July 26, 2012 9:01 am

    Goose Bumps. I too had a near death experience not to long ago On may 20th 2012. I posted a blog about it on May 25th titled “I’ll see your c-7 broken neck.” I too thought I was going to die, sometimes now I reflect and the tears stroll down in contemplation of the “what ifs?” It was nearly 3 weeks after the accident that I realized, Wow I’m truly alive, I wasn’t paralyzed by my broken neck and so lucky that I mourned my old life and felt as though I’d been given a second chance. to this day, I am still mentally traumatized with a slow recovery. I still experience pain on a daily basis but in the end i wouldn’t have wanted what happened any other way. With these points made, “your too busy trying to hold on to life,” is how I’m living today. Thank you for sharing, Im real fortunate to have found your blog too.

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