Cape San Blas Lighthouse, Florida – January 13, 2013
Four-foot waves are scarier at night than they are in the light. All you see are glints of white flashing like teeth when they break and all you hear is a roar around you.
I thought I could get past the cape in the dark. I thought the night would slow the wind. I thought the waves would fade and leave the shore unguarded. I was wrong.
Waves have a rhythm beyond the breakers. They rise and fall in a pattern like the ocean is breathing, flowing to shore in long, steady lines. There’s comfort in that rhythm. Even at night when you can’t see, you can feel it underneath you, predictable, lifting and falling like a beat.
Then something changes.
The silhouette of trees disappeared along the point, fading into a spit of sand, and the ocean shifted, the pattern disappeared. Waves rose out of the darkness from all sides, whitecaps flashed around me, nothing made sense.
I drifted in a calm spot surrounded by roaring waves. I felt like a deer must feel standing in a meadow when it first catches the black flash of a wolf’s fur, when it turns its head and sees another and another, eyes gleaming, teeth sharp, when it know that the next moment, the next decision will draw the line between life and death.
You get cocky after 3,000 miles. You think the water is your friend. Then you realize you’re a mile off shore in the dark and the waves don’t make sense anymore. You can’t see them, you only feel them lifting you up and down, you only hear them crashing, tearing away the silence all around you.
Then you feel very, very small.
My face flushed hot. My throat tightened. My eyes floated in their sockets. Panic seized my mind. I wanted to do stupid things like jump out of the boat and swim for the shore because I wanted to feel safe again, safe again or dead quickly. I wanted to be anywhere but in that black, uncertain ocean where nothing made sense.
Thoughts disintegrated, I froze, full of fear, drifting into the waves.
“Paddle,” I heard a voice say. “Paddle now or die. This is bad water. Paddle now. Get out.”
It was my voice, my fractured, rational mind yelling out to me. The words echoed out of my mouth and into my ears. They sounded like orders and I obeyed. I spun the boat around, shouting at myself to paddle, to watch for the wave breaking across my flank, to lean. I yelled and yelled and thought of that story Giulia promised, the one she’d tell someone caught in the waves.
“I could use that story,” I said to the darkness. “I could use that story you promised.”
The story came. Her words, my voice, speaking to the night and waves and myself. Day one, I met Daniel at Captain Lori’s house and we ate pecan pie and put on mermaid tails. Day two, the wind blew waves in Arnica Bay and we climbed a tower and watched the sun paint the sky. Day three…
I told it, one day after the next, low and calm, speaking between shouted orders, the words holding my mind together like a thin wire until I got away from the point and back where the waves made sense again, back where they came in long lines across the shore. Then I stopped and floated in the darkness, listening to the waves break and collecting the pieces of my fear-soaked head, patching them in place, stacking them in a pile because I still had to get to shore, the same shore I’d been too afraid to charge in the daylight, and I needed to think.
I waited and waited, feeling the water, watching the hazy foam lines in the night, trying to figure out where the waves ended and the shore rose, where I had to get to. I went over every step again and again, what I would do, how I would react when the moment came. I tightened straps and held the paddle tight. You have to throw yourself into the waves, I told myself. You can’t hold back, I told myself. Lean into the foam, wait for the set to end, breathe, I told myself.
Then I charged like mad.
I heard a wave crash behind me and roar. I dug with my paddle, felt the water draw back then shove me forward, felt the boat slip sideways, felt the world flip upside down and water swirl around my face. My shoulder caught sand and I pushed up, got slammed back down by a second wave, righted myself, felt the hull catch the shore, surge forward on another wave then stick into the beach. I scrambled out, splashing through thigh-deep water, stumbling, pulling the boat out of the foam and onto the sand where I laughed and laughed and shook and cried and delighted that my footprints glowed green in the darkness.
Then I thought about death and how scary it is, how it will come one day, how we will all die, and how sometimes that makes me sad and makes me think there’s no point, that I might as well quit and die now. But then I thought about how death’s certainty makes time precious and wonderful and cherished, makes me excited for the next moment and adore my glowing footprints in the sand, makes me happy, makes life beautiful. And then I thought death will be the last grand adventure of life and that I hope it comes for me when I’m doing something I love–be it holding a granddaughter’s hand or walking a thin ridge above the clouds or paddling like an idiot in the night–because then I will die full of life and that doesn’t scare me.