So: my family and I went to the beach. Golden Gardens beach, to be specific; it's a lovely sandy Seattle beach which opens up onto Puget Sound. The whole family went, except for my dad the fireman; he was working that day.
It was a lovely, warm day in 1969, just two days before my ninth birthday. A Sunday, specifically.
And once we had established our spot on the beach, I took my Gazoomer-board and went down to the waves.
...Okay: perhaps a Gazoomer-board needs a word of explanation. It was, in essence, a styrofoam body-board about two feet long. You rested your chest and stomach on it, and by so doing you could paddle about in the water to your heart's content even if (like me) you couldn't swim a stroke.
I don't recall the actual brand name. The name "Gazoomer" was something my brother Tim came up with. He said that, when you first entered the water, you should ideally run headlong into the surf, slam yourself down onto the board, and go zooming off into the waves. Go zooming; hence, "Gazoomer".
I didn't enter the water that way, but I still used the name.
I was, and still am, utterly helpless in large bodies of water... but, with the miracle of the Gazoomer-board, I could swim. It took me a minute to adapt to the water - even on a lovely warm summer's day, the water in Puget Sound is cool enough to make a person go in slowly - but after a few minutes I had adapted to it enough that I was ready to do some serious gazooming.
I would go gazooming for a few minutes, stop and stand up for a moment to get my bearings, then lean onto the board and go gazooming again. And things went along as great good fun until I stood up and then discovered that there was no ground underneath me to stand on.
I'd stepped into a hole.
...I suspect that, at the previous low tide, somebody had gone digging for clams at that spot. They had left a large, wide, terribly deep hole, and here at high tide I had accidentally found it.
And I went under with all the buoyancy and grace of a rock.
...Well: survival instinct being what it is, I somehow managed to get out of that hole and back onto a more normal patch of ground. And as I stood there waist-deep in water gasping for breath, I noticed something: I was on the shore side of The Mighty Hole. My Gazoomer-board was floating just across from me, on the sea side.
Sure, survival instinct was strong. But the possessiveness instinct was also very strong, and I refused to let myself lose such a valued possession as a two-foot-long piece of styrofoam. Not without a fight, anyway.
So I walked around the hole, that I might wade out to recover my all-important Gazoomer-board.
But, as it turned out, the hole was much wider than I had counted on.
This second time out, the story of my life almost came to a very abrupt end. I bobbed up and down in the surf, trying desperately to breathe, and trying without success to call for help, until I lost consciousness.
I remember that I had somehow ended up facing the shore. (How I managed to get myself turned around is one of the Eternal Mysteries, but somehow I had managed it.) I tried to yell the word "Help!" to people on the shore, but with somewhat limited success; I'd pop out of the water just long enough to gasp a mouthful of air, and then be going back down by the time I tried to yell, so that it was always coming out as, "Helbllbbblblblbl..." - which is not only inarticulate, but comical.
Indeed, two people walked down that particular stretch of beach, looked at me, and smiled. No doubt they were saying to themselves, "Oh, how cute. That kid wants us to think he's drowning. But yelling 'helbllbbblblblbl' like that is just too unbelieveable. And he's obviously only a few feet from shore. Oh, well, it's good for a laugh."
I even realized they were thinking all this at the time. And I remember wanting to shout at them, to explain my situation. You goddamned idiots! Would I be breathing salt water like this if I were just trying to be cute? And it's a lot more then three feet deep; there's a pit out here like I'd stepped off the Continental Shelf! Don't walk away; for Christ's sake, I'm drowning out here! If you don't believe it, will you at least point me out to somebody else who might? Don't walk away. For God's sake, don't walk away!
Unfortunately, when I tried to yell all of this to them, it came out as, "Helbllblblbblll".
...I had another few moments to bob up and down before my exciting lesson in death was complete, and since I no longer had any more oxygen to breathe I was spared the tiresome chore of trying to yell at people on the beach. Indeed, after the easily-amused couple, nobody else walked by.
It didn't really occur to me to make peace with my god. Frankly, it didn't even occur to me that I was dying. For the record: my life did not flash before my eyes. Indeed, the only thing that went through my mind was astonishment... and also a degree of curiosity.
Well, heck, I thought. I seem to have run out of options. What do I do now?
As it turned out, darkness solved that problem for me. It closed in and I was gone.
That's "darkness". There was no going down a long tunnel to a blinding light; there was no hovering over the doctors in the emergency room, watching as they tried to save my life; there wasn't even a Saint Peter at the Pearly Gates with a book written in indelible ink by the Hand Of God. Just darkness: that same sort of absolute, timeless Nothing that was there before I was born.
Whatever afterlife may be awaiting us, I didn't get to see it on this trip.
...The next thing I did see, however, was the face of a fireman. Evidently I was not destined to remain dead just yet.
That fireman may have even been my dad; I never was quite clear about it. All I know is that, whoever he was, he looked damn satisfied that I had opened my eyes and begun breathing again.
With mouth-to-mouth resuscitation finished, I got to ride in an ambulance for the very first time. Not that I was in any position to enjoy it; I was flat on my back, feeling very very bad, and noticing the unpleasant side effects of drinking several gallons of sea water. Nonetheless I remembered the trip. What struck me at the time more than anything was how incredibly noisy it was. The sirens were on; I couldn't even hear myself think in there, much less hear my agonized gasps for breath. I always thought they soundproofed those accursed machines. After all, don't they want the patient to relax? Isn't that why they keep hospitals quiet?
...But the ordeal was a short one. In no time, they had me at the hospital. They checked me over, declared that I was, in fact, alive, and wheeled me into a room.
There was a nurse there - about sixty years old, and with a faint European accent. I told her what was on my mind a few minutes after I arrived.
"I'm going to throw up," I said weakly.
She looked at me, frowning. "Do you mean, 'vomit'?" she asked.
I had never heard the word before in my life.
"I'm gonna throw up," I repeated, somewhat more desperately. I don't believe this, I was thinking, I'm about to throw up, and this woman's trying to teach me German.
"Throw up? You mean, like vomit?"
Well: as it turned out, she got an answer to her question almost immediately. It was a point I never had to clarify again. I was helped over to another bed while the room was cleaned up. "To 'vomit' means to 'throw up'," the old crone explained, simply and with many understanding nods of the head.
"Oh," I replied. Inside, I was thinking that it was a hell of a way to build my vocabulary.
...By the end of the day, I'd gotten rid of the remaining half of the Pacific Ocean; recovery was then swift, and I was released the next afternoon.
A day later, at school, insult was added to injury. I was standing in a corner of the playfield after school, telling this story to a handful of friends and acquaintances who had heard of my near-death over the news media. Evidently, it was a slow news day that Sunday; reporters had been out looking for "first-weekend-of-summer" stories, and thus my near-fatality got covered not only by the newspapers but by television as well. All this I heard from my friends after the fact; in my hospital bed, I had been blissfully and completely unaware of it.
As I told my story for the umpteenth time, my best friend Chris was getting jealous of all the attention I was getting. And so he gave me the following gaffe:
"I bet you did it just for the publicity," he said.
...I couldn't hold it back. "Oh, right," I replied. "I went out to the beach, jumped into the deepest spot in the water, filled my lungs up with saltwater, drowned and died, got pulled out, got brought back to life, spent the rest of the day puking my guts out and stayed in the hospital for two days, just so I could get a nice headline and stand here all fucking day talking to you guys about it. Right, Chris. Right."
Death had not weakened my sarcasm.
Of course, all this did affect me.
For one thing, I still don't know how to swim. It's a shame, because I know I'd enjoy it - the feeling of floating, the sheer joy of movement, and all - but I never have learned it. I've often joked that, if a single woman were to teach me how to swim, I'd marry her without a moment's hesitation just from sheer gratitude for opening up that new world to me.
Swimming is like love to me: I yearn for it, but it's also terrified me at times too.
For another thing, I have tasted death. Though it hasn't affected my survival instinct - if I get into a life-threatening situation, I will fight for the right to survive - nonetheless I do not fear my death. On the contrary: even now, with all the things I want to do with my life, I'm very much looking forward to the peace of death at life's end.
J.R.R. Tolkien wrote eloquently about death being a gift to man - a gift so we would not have to face days of unending sorrow, as the things we loved and cared about faded to sad and wistful memories. I agree with him. Equally to the point, however, is a line Michael Crichton wrote in the book Congo; he described it as being an African saying, from the Kikuyu. It goes:
"No one escapes from life alive."
...The last thing, and perhaps the most noteworthy, is this: in spite of all that happened on that warm Sunday afternoon, I'm still alive. For some reason, in spite of an easy opportunity, Death decided not to claim me that day. Instead, he allowed me to be pulled back into the land of the living. Why, I don't know. But I assume there was a reason.
In other words, I believe there's something in this world which I still have to accomplish before Death finally gives me a holiday. If he left me alive then, and against the odds at that, then I figure there must be something I have to discover, some wisdom I have to learn and pass on, some life I have to touch, before I move on.
In still other words yet: I believe I have a purpose in life.
...I just don't know what the hell it is.