The ocean is stunning at all times of day. The fives are my favorite.
5 pm the sun hits and the beach grass glows gold. A warm, watercolored, out of focus light. I plan my summer evenings around it.
5 am the sun yawns awake. Nature’s flow yoga. Long, slow tugs of light on the horizon. Puffs of air across the still, glassy surface of water, creating dips of twinkling light.
“Diamonds on the water”, my mother called it.
Ten days before my mother died I’d woken to a red sunrise and snuck down to the beach. I remembered a sweatshirt but forgot my phone.
The previous day I’d kayaked at dawn with my son. We’d seen a seal, which was alternately utterly surprising or completely expected depending on whom we told.
I clocked a woman walking a puppy along the shore as I tucked myself into a beach chair. My beach chair. An absurdity I have never once, not for one second taken for granted. Access to a beach house so consistent, I get a favorite chair.
I’d left a requiste beach read behind the previous day and was just retrieving it, when something odd bobbed in the fast moving current.
I grabbed a pair of binoculars and never felt more like my father in my life.
Obviously, I expected to see the head of seal, but what I’d taken as a snout revealed itself to be a baseball cap. A man was floating — not quite swimming in the fast-moving current.
A second woman dressed in an incongruously long skirt was taking pictures, it appeared, of the swimmer. With him. Watching him. I breathed air into a constricted chest and reminded myself that I am not responsible for other people’s choices.
The current moved in a deceptively fast sickle shape. Like everyone raised to revere and respect the sea, I’d taught my kids to mind the tide as it went out.
I pulled my arms out of my sweatshirt to warm my skin in the sun and watched a fishing boat ease to the required 15 miles an hour “slow no wake” through the channel. As soon as permitted, the boat sped up and kicked up waves that would land on the shore in a few minutes.
In the whine of the disappearing boat motor, I heard it:
Immediately distinguishable in the stillness.
I popped up like a gopher, my head craning to see through the few mored boats. My body primed for this. I swear I’d expected it.
The hippy-picture taker stood in the same spot, unaffected. Baseball cap non-seal nowhere to be seen.
“Did you hear that? “ I yelled to her. “Did someone yell for help?”
She looked back at me with confusion I immediately understood.
The acoustics of a beach is bizarre. At certain higher points on the land, you can hear every noise in the water. Gulls, boats, quiet parental fights out of earshot of children, declarations of love. Every single marco polo.
Closer to the water you hear nothing.
The bane of my parents’ existence. Teenagers (sometimes their own) laughing past curfew, in clandestine meetups on the beach — intending being so quiet — their conversations of whispered sweet nothings, floated up to my parents’ windows at a decibel akin to being in the same room.
I’d definitely heard it.
And I have a very clear movie in my head of what happened next.
Running and yelling. I was running and yelling.
Yelling: “Call 911! Do it NOW!”
Running: toward a red sea kayak resting in the shrubs where my husband had dragged it safe from the tide the day before.
Though I can’t actually carry the boat myself, I DID carry the boat myself and was paddling by the third HELP. A fourth.
There wasn’t a fifth.
“WHERE IS HE? WHERE IS HE?”
Hippy skirt seemed only interested in taking photos, but I saw arms flailing in the distance down the shoreline. The woman with the puppy.
I paddled with the fast moving current.
I could hear her now. “He’s here! He’s here!”
“Where? WHERE? Can you see his head? Is his head above water? Why can’t I hear him?”
Terror and anger often crash the party together for me.
“Tie up that dog! I’m going to need you in the water! WHERE IS HE? What are you doing? DO SOMETHING!”
Finally, I was parallel to the woman and her dog, but I still couldn’t see our man.
“Oh my GOD WHERE IS HE?”
She pointed directly out. Far out. Deep in the water. A tiny speck. I could barely see his head, never mind see if it was moving.
I’d glided down the length of a triangle, in the same current that had dragged him deep. To get to out him now, I’d have to paddle down the other side of the triangle, against the impossible current. If I’d been able to spot him, I could have gone down the hypotenuse.
“Sir can you hear me? Sir! Can you respond?” Nothing.
Except my own fast moving thoughts.
What am I going to do when I get there and he is unconscious? What if he goes under? Will I jump out of the kayak? What if he drowns. Oh my GOD, what if I watched him float by and then he doesn’t make it. And it’s all my fault. What if I am paddling my boat to mark the place where this guy went under? This is going to be my story. My gut knew and I ignored it.
“Please, please, please, please, please”. I begged a God I’m not sure I believe in.
In ten feet I’m on him.
And his head turns around. He sees me. He hears me.
“OH HI?” I’m out of breath. I can barely move my arms.
“I’m sorry if I scared you. I’m ok.” There’s a tone in his voice I can’t place.
“YOU ARE SORRY IF YOU SCARED ME?” My entire body floods with relief rage.
“I’m okay. I’m just doing some arm exercises. I just had back surgery, but I’m okay.”
Tears leak down my face. My chest is heaving. I’m angrier than I have ever been in my life.
“What’s your name?” I manage to gasp.
“I’m Jim. I have a flotation device.”
I wonder if I am hallucinating.
Jim holds up a small foam barbell the size of a football, he’d had tucked under his arm.
“YOU YELLED HELP! I jumped into a kayak like Pamela Anderson, because you yelled HELP. You scared the shit out of me.”
“Oh, I’m sorry,” Jim said. But he didn’t sound sorry. His tone condescending. Almost mocking. “I was just yelling to that boat. I thought I’d get a tow back in, but I’m fine.”
“Great. Okay. If you’re fine. I’m fine. FUCK YOU. FINE. SWIM IN JIM.”
I’m immediately flooded with embarrassment. I’m embarrassed by my anger, by my terror, by my tears. I’m embarrassed I yelled at the two women in the water like they worked for me, and I’m embarrassed that I care what Jim thinks of me.
Suddenly there’s another body in the water. My help-mate had managed to tie up her puppy — not an easy feat when the only thing to tie it to is a jetty made of large rocks — and gotten in the water as I’d instructed. She swam toward my boat, toward me.
A Policeman waved from the shore.
“Apparently we’re fine.” I yelled back.
“What’s your name hon. I’m sorry I scared you and your friend.” Jim’s voice is warmer.
“I’m Meghan. And that’s not my friend, Jim. That’s the woman who marked you from the shore so I could get out here and rescue you. She’s a hero who decided to try and save you.”
The woman swims up to us — near but not too close.
“My son’s wife’s name is Meghan, they live in West Bridgewater.”
“I’m Kate.” I feel immediate relief in her presence. “And you don’t look so good Jim.”
I’ve been avoiding looking at him, but she’s right.
Jim is gray.
“Take the tow line, Jim. Since we have an audience now, how about you let me feel like a hero and paddle you in?” The policeman is joined by a family roused from their beach house slumber by my yells.
Did you say you just had surgery? How old are you, Jim?”
Jim holds the small rope at the back of the boat. “I’m 63. My doctor said to do my exercises in the water. What’s your name, hon?”
I raise an eyebrow to Kate. I’m Meghan and that’s Kate. Hold on to the line, Jim.”
“I have a son named Meghan. He lives in his wife at Bridgewater.”
Jim is barely holding on.
“Hey, Jim. You don’t look so good. Can you take the rope, please?” Kate’s voice reminds me of an ER nurse I’d worked with years ago. Gentle, but firm.
Suddenly Jim is barking out orders. “You need to paddle on the left. You need to paddle harder or we won’t get anywhere.”
I’m flooded again with embarrassment. I’d let myself fall tremendously out of shape since my dad died. But just as suddenly, my anger is back.
“Jim. You need to shut up. I’ve been kayaking my whole life. Do not tell me how to paddle. We are not friends.”
“I see the fire boat.” Kate stage whispers to me. “Hang on Jim.”
“Oh, I’m fine. I can swim in.”
Kate throws her head back and laughs the confident laugh of help being on the way. “Okay, Jim.”
The rescue boat speeds up alongside us, and the crew speaks firmly to Jim, telling him to climb the ladder into the boat.
“He’s saying he’s fine guys. Just a misunderstanding. But you might as well give him a lift, right?”
Despite myself, I understand Jim’s need to save face. I watch him take a sturdy hand of a crew member and turn my kayak to give him privacy.
We listen as the crew behind us realizes Jim’s arm has seized up. He can’t get himself into the boat. At the sound of men jumping into the water to help, I loudly ask Kate if she is okay to swim in.
Kate takes hold of my tow line and we silently start in on the hard work of paddling/swimming in against the ebbing tide. A voice behind us says they can come back to tow us in.
“Like hell that’s happening. WE’RE the rescuers.” Kate breaths heavily.
Only then do I notice she is fully clothed.
I don’t remember what we talked about as we made our way back to the shore, only that pulling Kate was infinitely easier than Jim. He’d attached himself only as drag, unable to support his weight in any way.
Kate swims. She may have even pushed me in.
We are greeted by the officer and the family who had rushed out with bottles of water, and towels — our makeshift red cross unit. All relieved laughter and smiles.
We spend a minute reliving our experiences.
I describe hearing the cries, seeing Kate waving, Jim’s remarkable attitude.
Kate reports my Baywatch style sprint, with a boat in my arms, and trying to tie up the puppy she’d only had for three days, meant as gift for her eleven-year-old daughter, Lucey (yes hers, not mine…I have one also).
The red cross family relates waking to the confusion of my shouts of not being able to see his “head” and hearing “dead,” and panicking as well.
The officer reports a call he’s just had from the rescue team. They discovered Jim’s shoes miles down the shoreline. Despite being barely six am, he’d been in the water for at least an hour. Clearly disoriented they were taking him to the hospital.
“He didn’t even say thank you.” Kate told the group.
The family peeled off, the officer left. Kate and I reunited with hippy skirt photographer. She’d taken a picture of the rescue. A tiny sliver of red boat on a huge horizon. The swimmers imperceptible.
Soon it was just Kate and me (and Maisy, the puppy). I offered her coffee, but she was expected back home. Playing hostess to an exhausted, soaking wet trauma buddy has unclear etiquette guidelines. It seemed right she go but I felt panicky at her leaving.
“No one is going to believe this,” Kate said. I nodded.
“No, I mean, I’ve always wanted to see the inside of this beach cottage,” She laughed loud and hard.
We exchanged numbers. We hugged.
“That was an incredible thing that just happened to us.” Kate held my hand. She hugged me again. “I’ll text you,” she said and I knew she would.
And then I was alone. Again. The sun was up. The beach was empty. No walkers, no puppies no policemen, no rescue boat.
An hour later my husband and kids showed up. I tried to tell them our story. It seemed the kind my family likes. Surprising. Funny. But when I get to the part where I run for the kayak, instead I ran for the bathroom.
I threw up. I sobbed.
It was an incredible thing that happened to us.
It’s tempting to look at my behavior and call it bravery. I get it. I’ve been brave before. That is not this story.
We have three general responses to traumatic events. Fight, flight, freeze. The message comes from the base of our brainstem and it doesn’t ask for your vote.
When I told my mother the story later that day, asked me, “what in the world made you get in that boat? What were you thinking?”
“I just wasn’t thinking,” I replied.
It’s not completely true. Somewhere in my running and screaming was the daughter of a woman who never quite recovered from having been on the beach the day a beloved teen never got to cry for help.
“Well, at least you know what kind of person you are…”
Ten days later with four kids in a minivan, an hour and seventeen minutes from my mother, my husband called to tell me she had died in her sleep.
I already knew what kind of person I was, and this time I was alone.
I met Kate August 4th. We shared a trauma I expected to be the worst of the summer. We didn’t know she would be sitting ten rows back at my mother’s funeral, an image that still brings me to tears.
There are unexpected gifts the ripped apart rawness of grief can give, alongside its taking. When I recall the events of our beach rescue, Kate is in every scene. Unlike the events that await me just over a week later, in this, I am never alone.
Kate is my gift. She has been in touch every week since we met. She is gentle, and gracious. She sends pictures of our beach where she still walks regularly. Recently she asked if the pictures were okay to send.
“They are like a picture of a beloved old friend, I replied, which wasn’t quite true. It’s more like a photo of a cemetery where a beloved is buried, but it somehow settles me to see them so I don’t say that to her.
Shortly after our rescue (but before my mom died), our story was beautifully misreported in the crappy local paper. Kate sent it to me by text:
“COTUIT — Firefighters rescued a 63-year-old man off Loop Beach early Sunday morning.
Firefighters responded to the beach shortly after 6:30 a.m after getting a call about a swimmer in distress.
“He was out on his morning swim and the outgoing current swept him out,” Cotuit fire Chief Paul Rhude said.
A woman heard the man calling for help and swam out to him. A kayaker showed up on the scene and allowed the swimmers to hold onto his boat until the first responders arrived, which was about eight minutes after the call.”
I’m not even in the story.
An invisible man got all the credit and I got all the trauma .
And Kate. I got Kate.
My gift of trauma.
(And yes, I sent a correction to the paper. Maybe I’ll post it tomorrow).