99: A Call Across the Water

99: A Call Across the Water

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Miracles and More

A Call Across the Water

I believe that tomorrow is another day and I believe in miracles.

~Audrey Hepburn

I zipped up my wetsuit and put my coins in the meter at the Lake Worth Pier. It was December 23, 2010, a gray, bitingly cold afternoon. I was off work, and so I’d driven to the beach to surf. I locked the car, slid the key into my leash pocket, and grabbed my red longboard and some wax before heading down the wooden stairs to the sand. The beach was pretty empty, just a guy ambling by with a metal detector and some kids in hooded sweatshirts. Seven or eight surfers bobbed around in the water.

I stood on the shore and watched the waves rolling in, assessing the conditions. Wind coming from the northeast — the south side of the pier was definitely going to be better. I walked down the sand a few hundred feet, did some yoga stretches, and waxed my board.

In Florida, we wear wetsuits in the winter, but this was one of the coldest years in recent memory, and I shivered as I stepped into the water. I paddled out to the break, which can take several minutes, depending on the length of time between waves. It was a choppy, erratic day, with huge blasts of whitewater sending me back toward the shore. But like a salmon swimming upstream, I soldiered on, breathing hard as I made my way toward the end of the pier.

As the cold liquid seeped through my wetsuit — first at the shoulders, then at the chest and stomach — I thought of my surf buddy Eric’s advice that it was probably time to replace my seven-year-old suit. But since I only need to wear it a few months out of the year, it seemed a pointless expense. When my dad was surfing the icy Pacific in the 1930s, no one had even heard of a wetsuit.

On a typical surf day, many things run through my head as I’m slogging my way through the breaking waves — things I need to buy on the way home, calls I have to make — but on that day, the Gordon Lightfoot song, “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” was playing in my mind in an endless loop. Someone had posted it on Facebook that morning, and I couldn’t get it out of my head — an earworm, it’s called. Thinking of that song under the gray sky made my mood dark, worrisome, and I tried to un-hear it by humming a hip-hop tune.

Finally, I reached the end of the pier and sat upright on my board, breathing easier, the smell of salt and fish filling my nostrils. I thought about how I only had two days of radiation left and I’d be done. My surgery in September had been successful, and I’d gotten back in the water quickly. Now I just had to finish up my daily zaps — a fifteen-minute stop at the cancer center on my way to work — and that would be it.

I waited for a wave, and a generous-sized peeler came. I paddled for it and then promptly lost it, plunging into the water. That’s when I realized how frigid it was, as my breath caught in my chest. I scurried to the surface, wanting to get out of that dark, miserable ice cavern as fast as possible. But just as I broke through the water, CLUNK, my twenty-five-pound board landed on my head. I scrambled up again, thinking, This is why I prefer my 7’6. That board is so light I can hold it between two fingers. The 8’6 really packs a wallop. I climbed back on the board, and that’s when the lights went out.

I’m not sure how long it was. It could have been three minutes, ten minutes, or more. But then came words, young and male. “It’s okay. Just stay on your board.” I wasn’t seeing anything, but I was hearing things — the disembodied voice, the lap of the water. I opened my eyes and found I was lying with my cheek on the board, bobbing along with the movement of the ocean.

And then it became clear what had happened. I’d been knocked on the head and had gotten back on my board just before losing consciousness. Until the boy had shouted to me, I’d been floating on my giant red clunker, waiting to be either woken or plunged back into the sea by an oncoming swell. Just as I began to grasp this, I turned my head and saw a wave coming toward me. On instinct, I paddled for it, got up, and rode it to shore.

A teenage boy with a shortboard under his arm climbed out of the water and walked toward me as I stood on the sand. “Are you okay?”

“I, I…” I couldn’t speak, completely baffled at what had happened, and how I’d seemingly just picked up where I’d left off, taking the next available wave.

“I saw you get hit. You got on your board, but then you must have passed out.”

“But how could I…”

“I paddled over and called out to you. The next thing I see is you’re up and riding the wave.”

I looked at him, then looked around; the world seemed different, not possibly real anymore, not with what had just happened.

“If you hadn’t called to me, I could have fallen in the water and… you know, you saved me.”

He shook his head, his wet blond curls flopping across his face. “It’s nothing,” he said with an embarrassed grin as he edged back into the water.

“Thank you.”

“No problem.” He threw his board in front of him and paddled out to catch another set.

I caught a few more waves that day before realizing I should go to the ER for a CAT scan. I had a head injury, after all. As I sat in the hospital waiting room, thoughts ran through my head. How did I get back on my board before passing out? It was so gusty and rough, how did I not get tipped off the board, fall into the water unconscious, and drown? How did I stay safely floating on my old clunker until a call across the water saved me?

The CAT scan came back clean, and over the next few days I told the story to several people.

“I don’t see how this could have happened,” my friend Eric said at the bagel shop the day after Christmas, his hands splayed on the table.

“It really did happen. I can’t explain it. It’s either an amazing stroke of luck or divine intervention.”

“Sounds more like the second. It wasn’t your time.”

I looked out the window. “I guess not.”

“Radiation’s over?”

“Tomorrow’s the last day.”

Eric smiled and stood up. “Looks like you might be around a while. Let’s get to the beach.”

~Anneke Towne

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