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.
Unlike many of my baby boomer sisters who see newness and possibility at every turn of the calendar page, I perceived the bulk of my personal growth to be behind me. 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 wave, 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 on 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 1,000 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. Mentally bracing myself for the move, I 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.
The flight to Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital would take fifteen minutes, I was told. Joseph, on land, would have to drive for two hours. I suddenly felt very alone, and my body began to shake uncontrollably. The lieutenant on board held my hand, and Jeremy started an IV. My mind was racing, ebbing and flowing with scenarios about the possible extent of my injuries. I realized I was on the verge of panic, and I forced myself to take deep breaths. I gazed at the span of blue sky outside the window, trying to empty my mind of all thought.
By the time we landed on the roof of the hospital, I was feeling a bit calmer. I was transported in a blur to the trauma center, where a team of medical professionals immediately surrounded me to evaluate the damage to my body. After a CT scan, it was determined that I had four broken ribs, a bruised lung, and a lacerated liver. I was bleeding internally, but it was not clear at the time if I would require surgery.
The trauma doctor who headed the team admitted me to the critical-care unit, where my blood was drawn every few hours to check my hematocrit level and determine the status of the internal bleeding. For two days the level continued to drop, keeping me at risk for possible surgery or a blood transfusion. I was given intravenous pain medication and nutrients, forbidden to take food or water by mouth in case an operation was necessary.
Joseph was by my side every day. Even though the drugs kept me knocked out most of the time, I would always awaken to his face. My friend Jill made the daily two-hour drive to the hospital for nearly a week, comforting me with her presence and healing touch. On nights when the pain made it impossible to sleep, a nurse named Keira sat with me, talking gently until morning light.
By day three, my hematocrits had stabilized. Since I was no longer at serious risk, I was moved to a regular room. I was still on morphine – and the color of my face looked as if someone had fused an eggplant to it – but I was alive.
The trauma doctors and nurses told me I was incredibly lucky. Given the nature of the accident, my injuries could have been much more serious. One doctor told me that if my head had been subjected to the extensive injury sustained by my liver, I probably would not have survived. Another said I might easily have drowned in the strong current. And all agreed that Joseph’s quick response made the difference between life and death.
As it was, the damage to my body would heal on its own over time. Six days after defying the odds on that fateful beach, I was released from the hospital.
I returned home to a comforting flood of phone calls, cards, and flowers. Friends stopped by bearing dinners, stacks of books, baskets of fruit, and body-soothing lotions. One friend arrived with tubes of body paint, while another sent me a hunk of petrified wood with a poem she’d written:
Though a piece of old wood once left you terrified,
It is now, as you see, the old wood that is petrified.
The outpouring of love and concern gave me a powerful sense of good fortune. But there was more heart-swelling information to come.
As my three-month recuperation continued, I began to learn details about the accident that define my survival as nothing short of miraculous. During a phone conversation with Jeremy Pierce, the Sonoma County paramedic, he explained that the sheriff’s department helicopter crew had been videotaping the coastline that morning. They had just touched down to clean the windshield when the 911 call about my accident was transmitted over the radio.
“We patrol 200 miles of coastline,” Jeremy said, “and when your call came in, we were parked 200 yards down the beach from you.”
While I struggled to register the impact of his statement, Jeremy went on. He explained that the log probably saved my life, because if I hadn’t been pinned, I would likely have been dragged out to sea by the fierce undertow. By the time I hung up the phone, I was filled with a growing sense of awe.
More astonishing facts continued to come to light in the months that followed the accident. While at a party, I overheard a friend comment to Joseph about being my hero and saving my life. He replied that he turned just in time to see the log hit the back of my head, and then I disappeared under water. “A split second later and I never would have seen her,” he continued. Until then, I’d had no idea that my window of salvation had been so very small.
The realization started a slow, subtle process of changing me in ways that I am still discovering.
Surely, I embrace life more fully. I have a renewed appreciation for the people I love, and am grateful for every conversation, every laugh, every precious moment I spend with them. I have discovered, much to my delight, that the little annoyances and disappointments that used to cause me angst now dissolve into insignificance.
Perhaps most important, I have a clear understanding that the sudden surprises offered up by the ocean parallel the sudden surprises offered up by life, and I have learned to value the possibilities. Instead of seeing myself as settled, I realize that opportunities for change, for growth, for learning present themselves at any age – often in completely unexpected ways.
In addition to these lessons, I have gained knowledge about the sea and the secrets it harbors. Instead of leaving me with feelings of fear, I have developed a respect for its utter unpredictability and awesome power. It is a force of brilliant, surging energy. And in all its goodness, it delivered me back to tell this tale.