True awareness and understanding come in many guises – and can happen at any time.
At the age of 55, I was happily settled into midlife. My two sons were grown and pursuing their own adventures, I was blessed with good health and great friends, my writing career was flourishing, and I was newly married to a wonderful man. Content and comfortable, I assumed that nothing would change significantly from this point on. My goals had been achieved – or so I thought – and I was living a rich, full life. Surely, there weren’t any major surprises in store. Surely, I had mastered the lessons meant for this lifetime. Ah, the blissful ignorance of the complacent.
My wake-up call was a week-long process, and it all began innocently enough. My husband Joseph and I were vacationing at The Sea Ranch, an oceanside community on California’s north coast. We had rented a house on the bluffs high above the Pacific, and spent the first 24 hours enduring fog and drizzle. By the second morning the marine layer had disappeared, leaving brilliant blue skies and radiant sunshine in its wake.
Eager to take advantage of the glorious weather, we left the house and started hiking north along the trails that would lead us to a broad beach. Our golden retriever, Portia – who loves the beach but is terrified of the water – bounded ahead of us. The colossal waves of the previous day, generated by recent storms, had tamed considerably. Where earlier there had been massive plumes of churned white surf soaring into the air as breaker met rock, there was now a peaceful calm. The sun was warm on our backs, and I felt that infusion of simple joy and well being that has drawn me to this area for nearly twenty years.
When we arrived at the beach, we made our way toward the shoreline. Joseph and I picked up small pieces of driftwood while Portia explored the briny smells. As I wandered slightly closer to the water’s edge – careful to keep a respectful distance – I was blissfully unaware of what was brewing beneath the surface.
Sleeper waves are quirks of nature. Secrets harbored by the Pacific Ocean, they rise up unexpectedly and reach far onto the shore, carrying frigid waters and powerful undertow. On this tranquil morning, one such wave made its ominous appearance, catching us by surprise.
My first thought was one of amusement as I imagined the absurdity of being drenched by a wave. I saw Joseph, higher up the beach, laughing and running to drier ground. The humor ended abruptly when I suddenly felt the crash of water against me, delivering a shocking blow to the back of my legs. The tumbling surf knocked me to my hands and knees, pushing from behind and splashing in my face.
As I gulped for air, I turned my head to the side and saw a log surging toward me. Propelled by the sea, it slammed into my back and drove me face down in about a foot of water. Like a cartoon character being flattened by a steamroller, I felt it travel over my legs, my back, my shoulders. Please, no farther, I prayed, as it continued over my neck and stopped on the back on my head. Pinned underwater, I was aware of only one calm thought: Joseph will save me, or I will die here.
Within seconds, I felt the log lifted from my head. Another wave had followed the sleeper, increasing the depth of the water enough to allow Joseph to push the log against the current without re-rolling it over my body. He tried to get me to stand so I wouldn’t be hit again, but I couldn’t get the “move” message from my brain to my legs.
I was vaguely aware of him trying to help me up, remotely cognizant of the sound of his voice. I felt myself hanging limply in his hands like a rag doll, and had only a distant sensation of my body. When I opened my eyes, I saw nothing but dark gray. I’m paralyzed and blind, I thought. A sudden, comforting conviction that it was all just a dream enveloped me, and I passed out.
When I regained consciousness, I realized that another man was beside us. “We have to get her to higher ground,” I heard him say to Joseph. And I knew then that my plight was real.
Together, they carried me up the beach and gently lay me in the sand. The man introduced himself as Dan, and said he was a retired fire captain. It was clear that he knew his way around trauma, and he began to assess my injuries while his wife Lil used her cell phone to call 911.
Dan spoke to me in a soothing voice, telling me to wiggle my fingers, my toes. Having feared the worst, I was relieved to feel my feet move against my hiking boots. Momentarily encouraged, I opened my eyes again. Still gray. Still terrifying.
“Where’s Portia?” I asked, as much out of a means of distraction as concern for her safety. “Is she okay?”
“She’s a big baby around water, remember?” Joseph said, a smile in his voice. “She’s high and dry.”
Gradually, my vision returned. I could make out the outline of Dan’s face, and it filled in within minutes. He explained that the vision center is at the back of the brain, and was likely traumatized temporarily by the weight of the log. Okay, I thought. One hurdle behind me.
Before long I heard the approach of the rescue helicopter. Joseph and Dan shielded me while the chopper landed, and I was soon surrounded by a buzz of men in jumpsuits and helmets. They checked my vital signs, ran their hands over my limbs looking for obvious breaks, positioned an oxygen mask over my face. They told me their names – I remembered only “Jeremy.”
Movement and conversation blurred around me as local rescue teams began to arrive. I heard someone marvel at the vastness of the log, now washed up on shore, estimating its weight at a thousand pounds. I tried to hold onto the words that spun in the air, but my focus drifted in and out.
The paramedics transferred me to a backboard and placed a tight cervical collar around my neck. Someone pulled off my boots and socks. Another cut off my shirt. Vanity had apparently returned with my vision, because distress at being exposed on the beach was tempered by the remembrance that I was wearing a perfectly respectable new bra.
Jeremy talked to me the entire time he worked, reassuring me with every step. There were no surprises to startle me, and every move he made was explained beforehand.
“You’re going to feel like you’re falling when we lift you into the helicopter, but we won’t let anything happen to you.”
“It’s going to be really noisy and maybe it will seem scary, but we’ll take good care of you.”
“Close your eyes, because we don’t want you to get sand in them.”
I nodded, acknowledging that I understood. I mentally braced myself for the move, squeezed my eyes shut, and turned myself over to the capable hands of the paramedics. I felt the backboard float through the air as voices choreographed the transition. The last clear sound I heard was Joseph, verbally restraining Portia as she tried to jump into the helicopter after me. Then a door slammed shut, a deafening noise settled in the small cabin, and we lifted off into the sky.