June 16th, 2017
Less than two hours ago, I was drowning.
No one was around. I was paddling frantically, and each time my face barely broke above the surface, my mouth filled with dirty lake water as I attempted to scream or draw a quick, panicked breath before I sank back down into darkness.
Now, I’m sitting at a table in Starbucks, surprised to still be moving around in this world, amazed that I’m still a player. The person at the table next to me is eyeing me carefully. My hair is still wet, and I’m openly crying because I have another chance to enjoy something as simple as a cup of coffee. I repeatedly wrap my hands around a ceramic mug (for here, not to go), trying to warm myself from the chill of near-death. As I write this down, I’m still reeling, alternating wildly between infinite gratitude that I’m still allowed to be here, and pure terror that the veil had, yet again, been so thin – that I had been that close to not “being” at all.
It happened at Lake Catherine State Park, not far from the waterfall, at a point where the flowing water merges into the lake proper. I’d already hiked the various trails to get exercise and enjoy nature, as I often do. I wanted a break from the extreme heat, so I found a spot at the water’s edge, then stripped down to my swimsuit and boating shoes. Leaving my towel, backpack, phone, and clothes on land, I slipped into the cool, absinthe-colored lake.
One morning when I was six years old, I stood alone on a street corner waiting for the school bus. I lived in a trailer park — the infamous “Lakeshore”, which would soon be home to the boys who would later become known as the “West Memphis Three”. A van pulled up to the curb, and few minutes later, a man emerged. He began slowly walking around the spot where I was standing, and I noticed – with some alarm – that each time he completed a circle, he was closer. This continued until finally, he was standing right next to me. Just as I felt his hand grab my shoulder, I heard my mother scream my name. She’d been watching from a window in our trailer down the street, and the only thing she could think to do – from a distance – was to yell for me to come back home and get something I’d “forgotten”. He could have easily dragged me to his vehicle before I sprinted away, but realizing that he’d been spotted, he decided to just leave the scene. My mom got his license plate number before he drove away, and she called the police. We were later informed that he was a dangerous criminal on the run, suspected of abducting other children.
Fast forward to 2001. I was a recently divorced young woman, cleaning my apartment on a beautiful spring afternoon. The weather was so nice that I left the back door open. The outer screen door was closed but not locked, as no one senses imminent danger at 3:30 p.m. on a sunny day in a small town. As I began scrubbing the bathroom sink, I heard a sound…the metal jangle-rattle of the screen door, as though someone were trying to come in. I walked down the short hallway and rounded the corner to the kitchen. The screen door was open and a man was stepping inside. I’d seen him in town, mostly at the Subway sandwich store where I worked, but I didn’t actually KNOW him. “Can I have a glass of water?”, he asked. I was stunned. I didn’t know what to say – he was already inside my apartment. I just stood there, frozen. His eyes didn’t look right. He had the appearance of someone who is high on one or more drugs, not right in the head. He was sweaty and seemed agitated. As I was trying to figure out what to do, he reached into his pocket and pulled out a knife. I knew what was going to happen then, and there wasn’t much I could do about it. I had to be extremely careful with how I handled this situation – my three-year-old daughter was in the next room watching television. I did fight back violently at one point during the rape, and even grabbed the knife when he was on top of me and he laid it down for a moment. There was a struggle for control of the knife, which I ultimately lost, and then I was badly bruised and roughed up because he was angry. When he was done with me, he ordered me into the living room, where my daughter stood, scared and confused. He held us hostage at knifepoint as he debated – out loud – whether he should let us live or not. He kept saying, “I just got out of prison on parole. If you tell, if I get caught, I’ll have to go back to prison. I have to kill both of you.” It’s possible that the only thing that saved us that day is my ex-husband — he was due to pick up our daughter that afternoon, and he arrived while my attacker was still there. My rapist fled the scene but was later caught, and he is still in prison to this day (he received a 20-year sentence).
Another incident, also in my 20’s: I was driving down the interstate late one night when I hit a random patch of black ice. My car instantly went into a spin, round and round, so fast that I felt dizzy. All I could do was brace myself and wait to see where and how I would crash. They say time slows down in the moments before possible death. As I waited to land somewhere, I had time to register not only the horror of what might be my unexpected and traumatic end, but also the dark humor of the universe — during those spins, the car radio was blaring and Billy Joel was singing, “Darlin’, only the good die young!”
All I could think is, “You have GOT to be fucking kidding me.”
The landing place happened to be in a ditch, close to some woods – thankfully, not over a bridge, into a deep ravine or river, into another vehicle, etc. After the wreck, I was sore and in shock, but I walked away in one piece.
These are just a few cases of near death that I’ve experienced. I am the girl with nine lives: always — simultaneously — both the unluckiest and luckiest person I know. I seem “marked for death”, but somehow, I just…keep…living.
The Grim Reaper must be getting quite fed up with me. Each time he has orders to come for me and I’m just within his grasp, he receives a command to abort the mission.
Sorry, Angel of Death.
One day. But not yet.
I stood knee-deep in the lake. It was transparent and shallow close to the land, no reason to worry. Two fish — one big and one small, like a mother and her child – swam up close to my right leg. They stayed there for a long time, appearing to be very curious about me. Even though they could never answer back, I talked to them.
I’ve always been the fanciful girl, too whimsical for this world, speaking to every passing animal. Once, when I was younger, I licked the top of my cat’s head, because I thought it was a way of returning her affection. I wanted her to feel loved.
Let other people live selfish and superficial lives…posing too hard in photos, worrying too much what other people think of them, being reckless with the feelings of every living thing, always trying to be “cool”. For all my oddness and folly, I was always trying to be kind. I’ve only ever wanted to marvel at this world and to CARE.
Just a short time before I went into the lake, while I was still out on the hiking trails, I’d stood still in the middle of the forest, holding my phone high above my head. I’d turned the speakers up and played the song “Foolish Errand” by Fleet Foxes for any creatures near enough to hear. Laugh if you want, but everything became still and all the birds in the trees grew silent. They listened.
I remember a date I had last year. I sat with a man on the shore of the Ouachita River in Malvern, and I was telling him of a time in the past when I had almost drowned. I spoke of my terror of deep water, and how that event had scarred me. He told me that I contradicted myself and didn’t make any sense: “You say that you almost died and that you’re terrified of water, but you also talk about how you love this river and the ocean, and how you love to be in the water.”
I was amazed that such an educated and intelligent person could think about this subject in such a black-and-white way. The two sets of emotions regarding swimming are not mutually exclusive – you can both adore and fear something in equal measure. You can be lovingly fascinated by the watery deep, yet also be horrified by its power and possibilities in the same breath. Millions of people are. I am one of these people, and always will be.
After talking with the two fish for a bit (Hello…Oh, how cute you are! etc.), I waded deeper into the lake, so beautiful and cooling. I was staying in an area where my head was well-above water and I could still walk on the rocks and pebbles underneath. I was safe.
Any time I go into a body of water alone, safety is at the forefront of my mind. I know that I am not a strong swimmer. I had not planned on getting into the deeper water.
The universe had other plans.
As I walked along the floor of the lake, I tripped over a large rock. I lost my balance, fell forward in the water, then sort of swam/floated for several feet when I noticed that I seemed to be carried by a sort of current. This wasn’t the ocean, but I was indeed moving…a bit too quickly for my liking.
I tried to stand up and place my feet back on the lake floor again.
Instead of standing, I started to sink.
I tried to tread water, but I kept slipping beneath the surface. I also seemed to still be moving further from shore…very quickly. This went on for some time. What was happening?
Stay calm, I thought. I’ll just let myself sink until I reach the bottom, then push off with great force and spring back to the top.
Except I didn’t touch bottom. I just kept sinking. And sinking.
Jesus, how deep am I?
I was already becoming lightheaded from holding my breath for so long.
Alright. Then I have to get back to the top.
Except I couldn’t quite do that either. I got close, but I could only break surface long enough to quickly inhale both air and lake, gag and cough water back out, then back down I went, as if I was being pulled.
Oh, God. I can’t get to the bottom, and I can’t stay on the top.
The first flicker of panic.
This is the in-between: the space where the weak and bewildered perform the epileptic dance of the desperate, but only for a few minutes. After that, their body softens and gives in to the fluidity of the water, making them seem – for a small time – the most graceful of ballerinas.
This is the space where people die.
I was moving further from shore, not getting enough oxygen, and losing strength. I was becoming disoriented in my panic. When my face rose above the surface for about one second, I managed to get out a blood-curdling scream before gargling a mouth full of water, but no one was around to hear it. Any other time, there would be dozens of people walking along the trail by the shore — annoying me even — not allowing me any privacy if I wanted it. But not a soul. Not now.
Of course not, the universe seemed to laugh.
That dark humor again.
This is your ONE day off work, and look how you get to spend it!
The mysterious unknown, always having to shove a joke in there somewhere.
The way it will make a mockery of a man in his last moments with a cruel, ironic setup:
You’re stranded in a lifeboat and dying of thirst in the middle of a salty sea…
Water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink!
Ha ha ha, always so funny.
Darlin’, only the good die young!
I felt I was close to losing consciousness. If that happened, it was over.
And then it hit me, as it has a few other times in my life: the bone-chilling fact that I might actually die NOW. This might be how my life story ends, right here, in a matter of seconds…barely enough time to process the fact that it’s over, let alone accept it. The sudden shock of it — no preparation, no goodbyes, no way to warn or comfort your loved ones. They won’t even know, until…what? They find my body? They spot my things on the shore, then send out a search party?
My mother has often mentioned a quote from a song called, “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald”: Does anyone know where the love of God goes when the waves turn the minutes to hours?
This lyric might be one of the most eloquent and accurate ways of summarizing that strange phenomenon that happens in the last moments of life – the “bending” of time, all things seemingly taking place in slow-motion. I was experiencing that again in the lake, just as I had in the spinning car years before. I believe it is activated in the brain the moment you have the “I might actually die NOW” realization. Many people report an experience where their “entire life flashes before their eyes” during this snail’s pace interlude. But I didn’t have a flashback — I had a flashforward. I saw the future without me.
I saw the few people whom I love and trust, hearing that I was missing.
I saw their confusion, their agony.
I saw my baby girl — now a young woman — receiving the news that my body had been found, and falling to her knees with the weight of it. She would always question why. She would torture herself contemplating how much I might have suffered and how afraid I must have been in those last moments. She would always wonder what my last thoughts had been.
You, my Lana. I thought of you.
And suddenly, I was pissed off.
It is the natural order for parents to die before their children. But not now.
Not like this.
It sounded as if it had been spoken to me, but it was inside my head.
The Universe, again? I didn’t get the joke this time.
I felt faint.
Roll over onto your back. Now.
I did a sort of barrel roll underneath the water, until my back was facing downward and my body was mostly horizontal to the lake bottom.
And then, instinctively, I began doing what I normally do in shallow water – a sort of float/swim…lying on my back, arms up above my head, then stroking backward and down to my hips, legs lightly kicking. I was just under the surface…but I started to rise.
I kept doing the same stroke until I rose above the surface.
Air. I gasped and coughed.
Stay calm and don’t stop.
I continued the same movements – even though my heart was pounding, I felt dizzy, and I wasn’t sure where I was in relation to the shore. I stayed on my back. I kept stroking the same way.
I was treading water. Barely. But I was mostly staying on the surface, and I was moving.
I remembered my bright yellow towel that I’d left on the shore. I glanced quickly above my head, and there they were, upside down — the shore and the streak of canary yellow. I pointed my head in that direction. It seemed so far away.
I kept stroking and kicking. I kept treading the water.
At this point, I stopped thinking. I was like a machine. Breathe, stroke, kick. Breathe, stroke, kick. It was frenetic, it was sloppy, and any experienced swimmer would laugh at this poor technique, whatever it is.
But it was saving my life.
I checked above my head for the yellow marker. I was getting close.
I stroked like a maniac. I was looking up at the sky. It had been overcast for most of the afternoon, but the clouds suddenly parted and the sun shone through, bright and hopeful. A large bird flew into view and circled overhead. I began to sob.
It was only when I felt stabbing all over my back that I realized I’d tread all the way up and onto the sharp rocks in the shallow water near the shore. From there, I crawled up to the dirt and grass, where I coughed and vomited, then laid my body down and waited for my breathing to stabilize.
It was over.
Sorry, Angel of Death.
One day. But not yet.
But why? What am I still here for? What lies ahead for me?
Will I have several more horrifying near-death experiences?
Will I always feel confused and lost?
Will I always struggle financially on one meager income, never seeing most of my dreams come true – even though I work harder than almost anyone I know?
Will I always wonder what my purpose is, and question whether I’ve made any valuable difference to anyone?
Will I just be treading water my entire life?
But that’s just livin’.
Nothing is guaranteed, and no one ever said it would be fair or make sense.
And it sure could be worse.
I could be floating, face down, swelling and waiting for fish to nibble at my rotting flesh.
Instead, I am still breathing.
“You know what that means, don’t you, Billy Joel?”, I yelled into the trees. “I must be a bad, bad girl!”
Just as I started laughing at this ridiculous joke, a small group of people passed by on the nearby trail.
Of course, I thought. NOW you show up. I bet you’re all Red Cross lifeguards, too.
I laughed harder. They looked at me like I was nuts.
Oh, the absurdity of it all – this thing we call life.
I dressed and packed up my bag, then stepped onto the trail and into the sun.
I turned my face up toward the light and closed my eyes. I stayed that way for several minutes, simply feeling the warmth on my skin, watching the colors change behind my eyelids.
No matter how much pain we meet on our path, there is always something to be thankful for.
Before heading back to my car, I pulled out my phone and looked up my number one reason for gratitude, located under the letter “L” in my contact list.
I selected her name, then proceeded to tell her the only necessary fact: that she will always be loved, more than she could ever know.
rough draft, Starbucks, 6-16-17
Jenn’s Hot Summer Playlist 2017 – Just Keep Livin’
The Artists & Songs:
1. Kevin Morby – “1234”
2. Yeah Yeah Yeahs – “Hysteric”
3. The Police – “Walking on the Moon”
4. The Jimi Hendrix Experience – “All Along the Watchtower”
5. Stevie Nicks – “Rooms On Fire”
6. Fleet Foxes – “Fool’s Errand”
7. The War On Drugs – “Holding On”
8. The Temper Trap – “What If I’m Wrong”
9. Slowdive – “Star Roving”
10. Flor – “Unsaid”
11. First Aid Kit – “My Silver Lining”
12. Grouplove – “Girl”
13. The Ramones – “I Wanna Be Sedated”
14. Gordon Lightfoot – “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald”
15. TV On The Radio – “Wolf Like Me”
16. Lana Del Rey – “Radio”
17. Supertramp – “Dreamer”
18. Billy Joel – “Only the Good Die Young”
LINK TO THE PLAYLIST: