What I Learned From Getting Caught In A Riptide

Last week, while chasing waves with my 10-year old granddaughter in the Atlantic Ocean in Martha's Vineyard, 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.

We got caught in a riptide. 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 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 my granddaughter 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 my granddaughter, 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 grandchild. 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.

I feel alive now, in a way I hadn't before, and so full of gratitude that is at times intoxicating.

The memory of all this no longer haunts me. Instead, it is what I noticed in the days afterward which I find myself thinking about.

1. Returning home, I glance a wet glass on a wooden table. It had left a ring. I started to wipe it off, then decided not to.

2. Minutes after the event, I heard the most unexpected of sounds from across the street: the plaintive wail of a bagpipe, and off in the distance, a chorus of crickets and the roar of the sea.

3. Hours after having survived, on a ferry to Woods Hole, I glimpsed a map of Nantucket Sound, a tide chart. I turned away, physically sick, afraid I might vomit.

4. For a week, I could not look at meat and lost six pounds.

5. Strangers do not look as strange. I have to keep myself from turning to them, especially if they have children, telling them my story, and warning them of riptides: that if they are caught in one, not to fight. You can't win. Swim parallel to the shore. Stay calm. Tread water.

6. Life seems more intoxicating, and so much more fun, like I've had a martini. Or two.

7. Suddenly, capturing a moth in our kitchen and releasing it outside seems terribly important.

8. Waiting at the post office for a clerk, I noticed a row of rubber stamps: SURFACE, FRAGILE, and PERISHABLE. I picked up PERISHABLE and stamped my hand. The word was printed in purple and I was proud of stamping myself, as if I was committing a transgression, but hadn't been caught.

9. Two days later, I went to our local deli, figuring a bagel and eggs might be just the thing. I jumped when I heard a chair being dragged across the floor. While reading the newspaper, which I had not done in four days, I spilled coffee over myself and worried I scalded myself. I was just a little wet. Then I heard this guy behind me. He was sitting with half a dozen guys, all in their 70's and 80's. This is what he said: "Then there was Mel Berger. A bookmaker and gambler. Arrested five, six times. Once, the judge said, 'Thirty days or thirty thousand dollars fine,' and Mel told him, 'February's a slow month. I'll take jail.' Mel Berger, a great guy. Had this BMW and when it was 13 years old, he gave it a Bar Mitzvah." I ask Shelly, my waitress, for a pen and transcribe the dialogue on my napkin.

10. Driving's tricky. Listening to the radio helps, but I can't stand anyone talking. Then again, you never know what song you'll get. Sometimes it's as if some greater power is the DJ.

11. I return the swatches of gray velvet fabric and tell them we'll wait till September to have the couches reupholstered. Who can decide what shade is best? Graphite, charcoal or mist?

12. I give in more easily when my wife or grandchildren ask me to do something I might not want to, especially if it makes them happy.

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.


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