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.
Liam Hemsworth faced his near-death experience in the sea. "When I was a kid, one time I got my leg rope wrapped around my whole body like a ball, under water," <a href="http://www.menshealth.com/celebrity-fitness/liam-hemsworth" target="_hplink">he told Men's Health</a>. "Couldn't get up. I was in waist-deep water, but I almost drowned. You know, I've had a few times."
Gerard Butler had a <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/10/22/gerard-butler-surfing-accident_n_2002150.html?utm_hp_ref=entertainment">brush with death and was seriously injured while filming the new surfing drama "Chasing Mavericks" in 2011. </a> "It was a pretty close call. It look like a tsunami coming in. I was down. I just didn't come back up, really. I just started to think, 'Wow, I'm going to die making a movie.'" the actor told UK talk show host Graham Norton.
Eminem <a href="http://www.aceshowbiz.com/news/view/w0003987.html">revealed that he came close to death when he overdosed in 2007: </a> "I had overdosed in 2007... I pretty much almost died. I pulled through and went home and relapsed less than a month later and I literally shot back up to the amount of pills I was taking, shot right back up to where I overdosed... I scared myself, like, 'Yo... I need help. Like, I can't beat this on my own'." Read more: http://www.aceshowbiz.com/news/view/w0003987.html#ixzz2CJvCuJRp
Rocker Ozzy Osbourne has <a href="http://www.bloomberg.com/apps/news?pid=newsarchive&sid=aCQp0XIwQTRo">admitted</a> that he "should’ve been dead a thousand times," but he also claims he <a href="http://www.blabbermouth.net/news.aspx?mode=Article&newsitemID=17781">"died" twice after an accident on a quad bike</a> that left him in a coma for eight days in 2003. "It's all patchy. I would drift in and out of consciousness. One minute I would be walking down Beaconsfield High Street and the next I would be in Auckland, New Zealand. Other times I could step from Monmouthshire to fucking California. I went everywhere: Switzerland, Amsterdam... At one point I was convinced I was with a group of Asian fisherman off the coast of Wales. How mad is that?" he revealed, adding: "Other times there would be a white light shining through the darkness, but no f**king angels, no one blowing trumpets and no man with a white beard."
Elizabeth Taylor once spoke about her experience of having died on the operating table while undergoing surgery. The legendary actress <a href="http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=9P8Y5K62U8w#!">revealed that she died for seven minutes on the operating table</a>, and claimed that while she was clinically dead she had encounter with one of her former husbands. Taylor said Michael Todd told her that she had work and life ahead of her, and he “pushed me back to my life.”
In 1988 Gary Busey was in a serious motorcycle accident that cracked his skull and left him in a coma for a month. "I saw angels," Busey told Larry King back in 2005 of the operation that literally left him unconscious for several minutes. "I was surrounded by angels. And they don't look like what they look like on Christmas cards. They're big balls of light that float and carry nothing but love and warmth."
in 2010, Leonardo DiCaprio was on a Moscow-bound flight that had to make an emergency landing in New York after one of the plane's engines shut down.
Johnny Depp thought his days were numbered when he was on a plane and all of the sudden "the sound of the engines stopped. There was silence." "Oh s--t! This is death; I guess this is how it goes down," <a href="http://www.nydailynews.com/entertainment/gossip/johnny-depp-i-died-a-plane-crash-rum-diary-director-bruce-robinson-article-1.971422" target="_hplink">Depp told <em>Live</em> magazine of the experience</a>.
A wet Chevy Chase was almost electrocuted on the set of "Modern Problems" when prop lights that were attached to his arm were turned on.
When Jane Seymour was 36, she learned the hard way that she was allergic to penicillin. "I literally left my body," <a href="http://www.near-death.com/famous.html" target="_hplink">she said of her near-death experience</a>. "I had this feeling that I could see myself on the bed, with people grouped around me. I remember them all trying to resuscitate me. I was above them, in the corner of the room looking down. I saw people putting needles in me, trying to hold me down, doing things. I remember my whole life flashing before my eyes."
In 2010, Cheryl Cole was near death after contracting malaria while vacationing in Tanzania. "It opened my eyes to health and things I hadn't focused on before," <a href="http://www.dailymail.co.uk/tvshowbiz/article-2058792/Cheryl-Cole-Malaria-opened-eyes-doctors-ordered-gain-weight-save-life.html" target="_hplink">she said of the health scare</a>.
Sharon Stone had a near death experience when she suffered from internal bleeding after an artery at the base of her skull was torn. "When it hit me I felt like I'd been shot in the head," <a href="http://www.near-death.com/famous.html" target="_hplink">she told Katie Couric in an interview</a>. "That's the only way I can really describe it. It hit me so hard it knocked me over on the sofa ... This kind of giant vortex of white light was upon me and I kind of - poof! Sort of took off into this glorious, bright, bright, bright white light and I started to see and be met by some of my friends. But it was very fast - whoosh! Suddenly, I was back. I was in my body and I was in the room."