Summer, Jersey Shore. Our family reunion.
At night we had dinners at homes by the bay. Seafood, pizza, pasta, coolers of beer, laughter.
All day was sand, sunscreen, and the mighty Atlantic.
We only came every four years. Each time the ocean seemed drastically different. There was the year when swarms of jellybean-sized-jellyfish crowded us ankle deep day after day. The year I brought my young children and it was just too cold and rough for them to swim. And I can’t forget the time I was in my late teens and went swimming with my dad.
My dad was disabled my entire life. His progressive, severe rheumatoid arthritis took him from hobbling, to cane-dependent, to wheelchair-bound. His broken body betrayed his wandering, roller-coaster riding spirit many times, but still, he always kept pushing his body as far as it would go.
This day, he had probably taken 20 minutes to carefully shuffle across the scorching sand with the help of a cane and a patient cousin. Slowly, carefully, taking a break every ten yards or so, but he had to get to the water.
Oh, how my dad loved the water. It was the one place he felt free. He could float, glide, swim, and move unencumbered by the lumps, aches, and pains of his joints. In the water, he would float, belly, toes, nose bobbing above the waves, his smile as wide as the unending coastline.
The beach was its usual crowded and the water its usual choppy. If there was a yellow flag warning, we didn’t heed it. Nothing could keep my Dad from his floating freedom in the briny sea. My Dad and I descended the steep wet sand and out we went to swim.
We floated. We talked. We dog paddled. We enjoyed the sun. Minutes passed, or was it hours? Time to head back in for a sandy snack. We looked up and the coastline was distant. Farther away than I had thought it would be. Much farther. So we tried to swim in, but no matter what we got further and further away from the shore.
The waves, once so joyful to float over, became relentless. We were tired. Our arms and legs were no match for the tides dragging us out. I was staying under a bit longer each time than I should have. Panic started to set in. We were running out of solutions. Fear set in. Fear took over our minds.
My Dad was still floating but he knew we were in trouble, too. He was struggling to stay afloat himself. My Dad, a better swimmer than I, was still no match for the undertow. He wanted to help me so much, I am sure, but he could hardly help himself stay up. How could he help me when his own life was in trouble? Both of us were running out of energy. If I grabbed onto him to give my body a break from the effort, even though he was better in the water, we both would surely drown. Our will to live was dwindling by the minute.
Wave to the shore, he said. So many of our family were watching us. So I waved, flailed, used every ounce of strength to try to signal. How can I tell them we are in trouble? I screamed. Crossed my arms, all kinds of signals. My dad doing the same. Nothing worked. They all just waved back, likely figuring we were just having fun with my dad’s swimming skills, well-known in our family ranks. My cries of “help us” got lost in the ocean breezes. Our cries were in plain sight but could anyone hear us? Was anyone even listening? Nobody understood our fear. No one seemed to care.
It seemed like hours but my dad’s cousin Tom finally figured out we were in over our heads. He bravely swam out and somehow dragged us in from the riptide. I still remember an aunt screaming “smile!” and snapping a photo as we slumped out of the water, past exhaustion. No one knew we had been within an inch of drowning.
Fast forward twenty-something years, this story hits me in new ways in my daily life. Am I now the one on the shore? Are people struggling right in front of me that I pass by, unknowing? Are they at the brink of drowning and I miss their signals?
I think of my father. The better swimmer. How much he must have hurt inside, knowing he couldn’t help his daughter without both of us losing the battle against the breakers. How can you help someone who is drowning when you are are not fully afloat yourself? When you are pummeled by the endless waves, just trying to stay afloat? A lesson in this.
I can point and draw attention. Signal to those who might be able to help. But will they hear the silent or distant cries? If I wave my arms will that make a difference? I can keep her company like my Dad did for me… Keep her calm. Try to set her mind at ease in the middle of the fear I know well…the fear of the ocean getting the best of me and dropping into the unknown. Keep paddling. Don’t give up. I know you’re tired. Help is coming.
I can make suggestions, try to guide her toward the shore. Keep working until someone with the strength comes out and meets us, or we find our way back to steady footing. There’s no happy ending if we both drown, so I try to be a lifeguard the best I can, in the literal meaning of that word. Even the best swimmers get in trouble sometimes. Every lifeguard wants to save everyone in distress, but the lifeguard also has to stay afloat herself.
In life we have to swim daily. Sometimes the waters are calm and other times they are dark and stormy.
In life we all need saving at times. Sometimes it’s life saving medical treatment for an ailment. Sometimes it’s saving from a bad relationship. Sometimes it’s saving us from our mind, troubled past, or even financial stresses.
We must all remember life is always worth living. Today, tomorrow, and the next day. If you ever think ending your life is the only choice it’s merely the only perceived solution to an insolvable problem. As somebody who was saved, somebody who is a lifelong helper, I am shouting out to the ocean and the world to say don’t give up. Somebody is coming to save you. Don’t let fear take control. Wait another day. Do the doggie paddle of life. Think of my Dad. He was handicapped, wading in the water and he didn’t give up. I didn’t give up because of his spirit. You don’t need to give up either.
There are always people who care. Some may not see the signs in plain sight. You might need to establish a drowning sign. A key word. A hand signal that is universal. Don’t delay – make sure your tribe knows your drowning symbol whether it’s at the beach or closer to home in daily life.
Suicide is real. It impacts those near and far. It does not discriminate. It’s impacted my life and this is my offering of hope to those I may know in need, those I may never know are struggling and those who already lost the battle. I honor you by sharing my story today.