No one wants to hear about your hot holiday, unless you do something exciting, like almost die. Tropical vacation stories are generally the same—ate food, drank watered-down booze, took sketchy drugs, got sunburned, and maybe something about jet lag and nearly shitting yourself as the kicker. I’m not saying these types of vacations aren’t fun, they just suck as conversation pieces. That is unless you have an honest to goodness near-death experience. That tends to make for substantive office banter. I found this out after I nearly drowned in front of my wife and best friends in Cancun, Mexico a few weeks ago.
Some background on my relationship with water: I’m not a good swimmer. I took lessons for years as a kid. My mom couldn’t swim, and she wanted her children to learn. So I went to the Northwest Leisure Centre pool in my hometown of Regina, Saskatchewan every week to shiver and look pale and bleached out from chlorine under fluorescent lights. I took to swimming like a fish in bowl of toothpaste; which is to say, I didn’t so much as swim as thrash myself two shades whiter. I sucked but graduated up the ranks. I was likely mercy passed, becoming the burden of the next instructor. Not failing was all the rage in the late 90s.
Years later, I can swim if the water is both calm and warm, which is only useful if I need to cross a mug of camomile tea. This was not the case on our last day on the beach near Cancun’s Grand Oasis Sens resort (I’m from western Canada, and this our quintessential vacation). That morning, my wife Jill and I wanted to spend our final day in the sea. The wind was too high; scary ass waves slammed into the shore, so I went for a 30-minute jog down the beach instead.
Getting in that workout made me feel accomplished. It also serves as the perfect foreshadowing here as to how exhausted I would be later on. Nothing like a post-workout dip in the vast Caribbean Sea to relieve your booze-atrophied muscles and avocado-cramped guts! Our friends Mary and Ben arrived, and right on cue the wind calmed and the waves retreated. Time for a swim.
Enough exposition; let’s get to the drowning. Here’s what you think about while dying in paradise: Lil bitch
I made several jokes to my crew about dying in the sea, including, “I think the lifeguard wants us to go further” and “Nature is being a lil bitch today.” We laughed and floated along. My group of friends trash talk almost everything, including forces of the universe. If we stood, the water was only at knee-level at this point; this was the calmest water we’d seen thus far. We respected the on-duty lifeguard’s gestures to stay within his sight line marked out by red flags on the shore, but why not go a little further?
The waves we’d experienced before were the angry foaming kind that blast you in the face and keep you weary. That day, they gently cradled me along. At every crest, I got a full view of the beach and then put back down with sand underfoot. “I am going to do this forever,” I thought. This must be what Baby Boomers felt like buying real estate in the 80s.
Back to the open bar
It occured to me I was now the furthest person out from shore. Not by much—my friends were still close enough to hear me mocking fate. We were about 20 feet from land. I stood, and the water was at chest level. The tide was getting stronger; I couldn’t stand in place without getting battered around. I could still see topless ladies on the beach taking selfies so I was probably good? Just in case, I started directing my effort in the direction of the open bar.
I alternated between swimming on the surface and pushing off the sand toward the beach. I wasn’t fully focused on getting to where I needed to be, just relaxing with the occasional nudge in what felt like the right direction, much like how I spent most of my 20s. After 30 minutes of wearing myself down, I checked my progress. I was further out, about one school bus away. I could no longer touch the bottom. “You’re fine.” The topless ladies on shore were gone.
Hit in the mouth
A whitecap wave hit me directly in my idiotic mouth mid-inhale and I was suddenly, well, not fine. Mike Tyson apparently once said, “Everybody has a plan until they get hit in the mouth.” The sea just put a fist down my trachea. Instinctively, as the wave passed and the followup trough formed, I tried to plant my feet on the sand below, but my toe merely grazed the taunting sea floor. I dunked my head down further trying to get a foothold. Then it all repeated: wave; inhale water; try to find bottom; inhale more water with raspy gasps of air here and there. That cycle repeated at least four or five more times. Shivering child me from the swimming lesson years convinced adult me I was still OK. Best not bother anyone, I rationalized.
I also realized I was caught in the riptide thing I’d taunted before. Struggling against the riptide felt like trying to win a debate in a Facebook comment section on a local news page, but in physical form. I was right fucked, and I was about to bring my loved ones into it.
You’re dying, bro.
They say choking and heart attack victims often die when they get embarrassed and go to the bathroom alone. I had closed the door to my own mind bathroom, with my wife and friends now out of reaching distance. I wanted to call for help, but I’d should have done that when there wasn’t so much water in my throat. In movies, there’s a soundtrack to punctuate the horrifying moments. All I had was my own inner monologue saying, “You’re dying, bro.” Physical exhaustion had turned me into Pauly D.
My wife saw me. She came over, and I managed a feeble, “help” between gasps. I took in a half breath of air as she grabbed my hands and pulled me up. Seeing Jill, a former lifeguard, was a brief shot of hope. She wasn’t used to dealing with riptides, but she’s a strong swimmer. Her intervention gave me a chance to get out another “help” to Ben and Mary, who swam over and grabbed on.
The crummy thing is my panicked, crumpled body made it impossible for them to pull me in out of the tide. This is about when the other categories of mental trauma started popping up in my mind like Netflix suggestions: “Because you’re stuck in your own personal doom … Check out the guilt of seeing your loved ones’ faces as they watched you die.” The three held me in place, but I was still sucking in water as waves pounded us. Now I thought everyone was going to drown because of me.
My life didn’t flash before my eyes nor did I see God. I had one clear thought: I wished I was in an office doing Excel spreadsheets. Instead of having any meaningful insight, I craved the most boring thing I could imagine, because boredom is safety, and that’s depressing as hell. In the poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” TS Eliot writes, “I have measured out my life with coffee spoons,” referring to the futility of human experience. I get Eliot now, after confronting my mortality and having visions of administrative tedium.
You can stand now
Enter Osayner Hernandez, aka Austin, the Best Lifeguard Ever, who rescued me from Microsoft death visions. In between waves, I saw this guy running toward the water holding bright yellow flippers in each hand. Moments later, he grabbed on to my arm and said, “Just relax, everything is going to be OK.” Jill, Mary and Ben got to safety, while Osayner instructed me to float on my back and kick while he scuttled me parallel to the shore. Swimming sideways rather than against the current is how to escape a riptide, incidentally. “You can stand now,” my saviour prompted. Renewed, I stood up coughing in ankle-deep water; a crowd cheered for Osayner for saving my dumb ass. Whatever euphoria for life I experienced then was squished by total embarrassment.
My wife, friends and I sat on the beach saying almost nothing for a solid thirty minutes. I’d always imagined having a near-death experience would fill you with gratefulness and meaning, but that has not been the case. If it wasn’t for my squad holding me in place, I would have died. We all knew it. The wind had picked up and the waves were raging. Very few people were in the water, so I took the chance to personally thank Osayner. He seems like a professional and chill dude. Between hugging him, shaking his hand and hugging him again, I asked how often he has to rescue people like me. Osayner said, “All the time. It happens all the time.”
Our group walked by the resort party pool just in time to see an emcee doing the splits over a lounge chair to grind his junk on the face of a tourist to some generic sex techno. I guess life humps on, doesn’t it? I spent the final hours of vacation trying to feel, well, exhilarated or awakened or good about escaping death. Really, I felt numb. As I ate a burger and laughed with my friends and wife over our last supper—joking the service made me want to stroll back into the sea—some feeling started coming back.
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