“You Have No Idea What Your Life Will Be Like Tomorrow…”

…You are a puff of smoke that appears briefly and then disappears.

–(Letter of Saint James 4:13-17)



I had another near-death water experience in California. I’m trying to be circumspect about it, because this time, I was the one who needed help–and it was very difficult for me to assess exactly how much danger I was really in.

One minute I was zooming into shore on the boogie board, the next I was in a current I couldn’t get out of. A man on the beach whistled at me and motioned to get away from the jetty, which was annoying, because I wanted nothing so much as exactly that. The waves swirl around the rocks there and crash in threatening ways.

I kicked and paddled, but it was just like the dreams I’ve had all my life where my apparent super powers fail me in the moment of imminent danger. I kept thinking, “I know how to swim, right? Why isn’t this working?”

I swam towards the shore first. Then I swam parallel to shore. If I thought I could have turned around and made a safe landing on one of those rocks, I might have tried to swim towards them. A safe landing did not appear possible however.

My brother in law recognized I was in trouble and got close enough to yell, “Kick out of it! Get up on your board and paddle this way.” I thought that’s what I had been doing. He told me to let go of my board and side stroke away from the jetty. But no. I would not let go of my board. No way in hell.

He swam over to me just as I was starting to panic. He tried to pull me out of it, but I needed to rest. I couldn’t follow directions. When we stopped kicking, we drew closer to the jetty. We had to move.

My nephew who is seventeen and an excellent swimmer came over to us, and the two of them attempted to tow me out of the current, but all I could see at this point was that more of us were now in danger. My sister had taken my baby for a walk in the stroller so I could go have fun in the ocean and here I was bringing her husband and oldest child down with me. Nice work, Betty.

Fortunately, my nephew could see that there were surfers on the other side of the jetty, so he knew the currents were good there. All we had to do was go with the rip current out around the jetty, and then come in on the other side. There was no time to think, but as soon as we changed direction, we made headway.

The end of the jetty was a challenge. That’s where the waves were the biggest. That’s where we were closest to the rocks. And it took too much time to make the loop so that we couldn’t avoid some really big waves, the kind that lift you up and slam you down into an underwater spin.

I could feel bodies swirling around me–my nephew and brother-in-law– and I don’t know what happened to the board. I surfaced and caught some air only to get pummeled again. I could see this next wave coming and tried to duck under it, but it lifted my whole body, feet over head. This time, the surface was harder to find. I reached air for a minute only to get pulled back under, not long enough to breath, and if I had tried, I would have inhaled water.

Of course all of these waves were a good sign that we had escaped the rip current. Now we just had to avoid the rocks, but we were in a position that lacked strategy. We had to play it out and see who was still here at the end of it. Later, over a glass of wine, my brother-in-law would say “That wasn’t a near-death experience, it was just a difficult one.” And by that time I could laugh and say, “Yes, difficult like being a rag doll in a tornado is difficult.”

When my feet touched bottom, I jumped as hard as I could and reached the surface. My nephew was there, and somehow he had caught my board. “Don’t look behind you, but when this wave comes, just ride it in to shore, OK?” And the wave did just like he said–it peaked at the right moment, and I was there, and the ride was high and fast. My feet skidded over the top of the water as if I’d tipped them over the edge of a speedboat.

“I don’t want to say it was worth it, but that last ride kicked ass,” said…somebody. I didn’t know who was talking. My brother-in-law was right behind me, my nephew behind him. More family was on the jetty running towards shore where I didn’t know what to do with myself. Keep walking? Lay down? Barf?

I was blown away by how level headed my nephew and brother-in-law were in the midst of crisis. I didn’t have to worry about saving anyone else’s life when we were out there, but for them, getting me to shore was the sole reason to endure the waves. I’m humbled.

Every night since this happened, I have turned out the lights and thought about being under the water and out of control. It feels like my life should have changed somehow from being there. Not to belabor the point, but this is the second time I’ve almost drowned. The aftermath is the worst part for me–the anti-climax.

I read another article by a man who escaped a riptide, who said his life now “seems more intoxicating, and so much more fun.” Since I’ve come home from California, I’ve been to the dentist, done laundry, driven back and forth to school, had some decent talks with my husband and kids, and changed the sheets on the bed. I have lingering back pain, that’s probably just from lifting bags off the baggage claim, but I sort of enjoy imagining it was from being jerked around in the waves.

There are so very few times in life when you experience the privilege of feeling that what you’re doing is entirely necessary and important. There’s no question of whether or not your time is well spent, or whether life has meaning. The animal struggle for life kicks in during times of stress, and the existential doubt disappears. I could easily become a junky for that kind of certainty, which is perhaps what troubles me most.

Only a wicked generation seeks a sign. The true test of faith is choosing life in the midst of the ordinary, the every day, the uncertain, the boring. Heroes and Saints choose life even when the stakes are low.

I’m just thankful to my nephew and brother-in-law–and God of course–that I have the chance to do that.



Further reading:

Not everyone gets out of a rip current: “A 10-year veteran of the Ventura Harbor Patrol died Sunday after saving a woman and her two young children from a deadly riptide near the harbor’s south jetty.”

What I Learned From Getting Caught in a Riptide 

Anne Hathaway gets caught in a Riptide

The last time I almost drowned.

My sister’s blog

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About Elizabeth Duffy