The feeling was one of peace. It was an enticement to follow, like Odysseus’ ship being invited to the rocks, listening to the Sirens sweetly singing. Just relax and go with it. All is well. Did you ever have a lot to do, but just gave in to the desire to spend a few more minutes with your head on the pillow? That’s what it was like.
The day began with a beautiful Aruban dawn. During our many years of holidays on the island, I had seen so many sunsets, the enchanted beauty of which made me want to believe in God. On this day, I sat on a chair by the shore and contemplated as the sun slowly rose behind me bringing the dawn. During those sunsets, I always enjoyed the way the angle of the light uniquely illuminated the landscape. It was my favourite time. Today, I was able to appreciate the dance of light at the beginning of the day.
As I sat, I mediated on life, all that I cherished and all that is lost. I thought how lucky I was to have my family, work that I love, and a life that so many in this world are not so privileged to lead. Invariably, during these times my mind turns to loss. In a Tear and a Smile Kahlil Gibran wrote: ‘A tear to unite me with those of broken heart; A smile to be a sign of my joy in existence.’
He spoke of that two-sided coin of sadness and joy, reflecting on the wonderful times that will never come again. Remembering friends and family that you loved, but have long since passed. I would tease myself with the thoughts of one day seeing a hereafter. I would imagine seeing my dear friend Michael, whose leukaemia took before his 40th birthday. Would this young man want anything to do with me when I encounter him in my eventual aged decrepitude? Do they play basketball or rotisserie baseball in heaven? Would he want to still play with me? I laugh at myself for the childlike thoughts of a 61-year-old psychologist.
It was 19th March, my father’s birthday. For 16 years I’ve felt his loss, like a hole in my soul. Though he was born in Newark, New Jersey, his family moved back to Greece when he was 5. His mother died while giving birth to a younger sibling. When the Great Depression hit, he was put alone on a boat bound back to America at age 12 to sleep on an uncle’s cot in Hell’s Kitchen.
He sold newspapers and shined shoes at times taking a beating for a prime selling spot on 42nd Street. Small and slight in build, this foreign greaseball as they called him knew the adversity of abuse, but met it with resilience. Later, he went down to Whitehall Street during World War II to enlist.
The black and white pictures of him in the jungle of New Guinea holding an M1 rifle that appeared bigger than he was looked almost comical. But, his back was broad enough as were the backs of his comrades for General Douglas MacArthur to walk on to make good his vow of ‘I shall return’ to retake the Philippines from the Japanese. There was no comedy there.
Having essentially raised himself, I have often wondered how he knew to be an exquisite father. He rarely offered direct lessons in the form of didactic. No lectures, just a quiet model of how to live this life. Hard work, dedication to his family, community, church, and country were what he presented. Acceptance of others, selfless service, perseverance and acceptance of adversity was what I saw. Humour was abundant. His overriding focus was on his home, wife, and son. This real life Odysseus returned from the war, but not to a waiting family, instead to create and nurture one.
While I have had a half dozen or so magnificent mentors and life models, I have had two heroes. I already introduced you to my father. The other is my wife. It is not just that she has been a loving, faithful and dedicated wife, a selfless mother who raised two fine children, a partner, backbone to our family and to my professional practice. She is my soulmate and facilitator of my chance to be me. She is also my hero.
She has become these things while overcoming great adversity. The adversity ranged from the challenge of an abusive and soul-smothering childhood to surviving breast cancer as an adult. She has been the inspiration of my life. I have been lucky to have these heroes. I have been smart enough to recognize them and hold them close.
We finished breakfast and as is our way, headed directly for the beach. Despite ample shade provided by our hut, I was feeling warm and decided to take a brief swim to cool off. My wife didn’t look up from her book as I headed toward the water saying, ‘I’ll be right back.’ Usually we go into the water together on floats, but the equatorial sun can be scorching so this time it was a swim. It must have been no more than a dozen strokes when I passed out and that feeling of peace found me. The seduction by the Sirens had begun. Poseidon had his sights set on another Greek and was about to lay claim. I have so often heard that when you are about to die, your life passes before your eyes. Well, no time for that indulgence. An alarm went off in my head announcing, ‘I am going to die!’
Working with the elderly has been an incredible experience. While I have enjoyed being of service to them and sometimes have helped to relieve psychological pain, for many I have felt like their escort to inevitability. I have shared time and borne witness to their life stories as they complete their journey. I must confess, however, the labour was not just one of love or altruism. I have realised that they have been teaching me how to and how not to deal with the ending of life. I have seen wisdom and grace. I have also seen narcissistic bitterness. They continue to teach me.
I regained consciousness with lungs filled with Caribbean Sea. I had swallowed and breathed in a great deal. In a flash, I mobilised, but one problem, which way to go. I was under water and could not see the beach.
I was later asked why I did not surface to gain bearings. I believe the answer is that I felt so far gone that, as I was still in water too deep to stand, I could not call out and felt that I would merely sink again likely for the final time. My decision was to just choose a direction, apply a spastic modified dog paddle and go.
I was quietly drowning close to shore with people not more than 25 feet away, but as the adventure took place under water no one noticed. It felt like I was drowning in a teacup. I had to save myself. I kicked and stroked trying not to breath so as to avoid letting more ocean in. Then, a moment of hope, I felt some sand under a toe. I tried unsuccessfully to stand, but still too deep. The sand at least encouraged me that I might be heading the right way toward the shore. A few more strokes and kicks and now solid sand. Like a fullback hitting the line, I kept my legs churning until, like a wet puppy, I crawled onto the beach. Then, I heard the sweet sounds of a passerby, ‘Sir, are you alright?’, as I expelled foaming salt water from my nose and mouth.
For years we had heard how good the Aruba hospital was, never expecting to test it. I was taken first to the emergency room then transferred to the intensive care unit. Aruba historically was a Dutch colony gaining independence only in the 1970’s. A strong Dutch influence blends with the native Papiamento culture. The Dutch presence in the hospital was evident from the ER to the ICU. A clean orderliness was apparent. The sense that you had better not mess with the rules and procedures or be prepared to face unwavering Germanic rebuke was clear. I kept quiet as the physician repeatedly dug for an artery. Despite the formidable glare of the ICU nurse and her command, ‘You sit over there,’ pointing to a chair in the corridor my wife was able to stretch the limited visiting hours. She is a very determined woman. The Dutch were no match.
While in the ICU, I reflected on how some people think you just get lucky and others think you have help. I have floated between these two positions throughout my life, an altar boy social scientist, not an easy reconciliation. So the question is why when I had a 75% chance of blindly choosing the wrong direction did I pick the path of salvation? Why did I find the beach? Just lucky I guess.
It seems every generation of American youth gets to grow up with a war. Mine was Vietnam. My good fortune at being born on 28th February gave me a high lottery number. So despite being declared A-1 or prime draftable material, I was not drafted. While I exulted in my good fortune, I have long since carried some survivor guilt that so many of my contemporaries were not as lucky. I also wondered how I would have done if faced with death. While, of course, my near drowning is a poor experiment to answer that question, I got some clues. I did not panic, I stayed calm, I mobilised, I saved myself. Interestingly, I also came away with a diminished fear of death. Don’t get me wrong, I hope to die peacefully in bed after a long life. However, if that is not my fate, I feel ready, somehow, better prepared after this adventure. I deeply appreciate the life I have led and when I run out of time, I have no regrets, but only gratitude. I have loved every moment of this life.
My recovery both physically and mentally has been interesting. Once back home, I experienced aspiration pneumonia. After my body slowly got stronger, I started the search for medical clarity as to why I passed out at this most unfortunate time. So far, I have no definitive answers. The mind’s processing of the event has been less mysterious. Two notable dreams stand out and don’t require extensive analytic training to interpret. In the first, I was on a dock talking to Lloyd Bridges who played Mike Nelson in Sea Hunt, a TV adventure series of my childhood. In the dream, I was advising Mike on the dangers of the deep and to take caution. Mike Nelson was always getting out of close calls and making harrowing escapes from sharks or avoiding the bends in a race against using up the last of his oxygen.
The second dream found me lying on my side at night on an outdoor platform area. At the perimeter was every dangerous creature ranging from sharks to wolves with eyes glowing in the dark seemingly ready to pounce. Lying next to me was my father. We were facing each other and positioned in such a way to be looking out over each other’s shoulder keeping watch. We were positioned in such a way as to say we had each other’s back. A PhD. is not necessary for interpretation.
An unexpected result from my sudden adventure appeared almost immediately. That feeling of peace that I defeated at the time of the incident returned. While absolutely necessary to overcome it in order to mobilise the energy to save myself, its return brought a surprising outcome. I no longer feared death. A Zen like sense of well-being, a profound sense of gratitude for what has been and what lies ahead has remained. It sounds strange to say, but I don’t regret that it happened. While I don’t recommend it, I am actually glad that it occurred. Though I’d never want to experience that terror again; in the end, I don’t regret facing death. I look forward to this year’s trip to Aruba. This time I think I will take the float.
Image credit: Freepik
Dr Peter Kanaris is a psychologist and a Fellow of New York State Psychological Association.