Not a good situation

Sallie Satterthwaite's picture

It was the kind of situation you think could never happen to you.

Believe me, it could.

I had not planned on going swimming in the Gulf last week. Women my age don’t need to show off the veins and bruises of their scrawny bird legs on the beach. But it was the evening before we were due to leave Anna Maria Island, and just dark enough to hide the scars on legs that had 75 years of hard use. There were very few other vacationers on the sugar-fine beach, and no threatening sun.

I grabbed a modest pair of shorts and a t-shirt, and picked my way over the sand and rocks that led to the ramp across the dunes. Vegetation is heavy there and occasionally has to be brushed off the path.

Mary was reading in a beach chair with her feet in the water. There was no one else from our family in sight.

Good. Perfect conditions.

Don’t you know, I was so excited about catching a ride on a wave that I forgot my balance is not what it used to be, and the body not as buoyant as it was before losing 20 pounds.
Because this strip of beach is known for its riptide, I walked about for a few moments, noting that the depth varies quickly from two feet to four feet in depth, and back again, well within anyone’s idea of safety.

So. It was time to turn myself into a graceful creature of the depths, a water sprite, even the manatee we met the day before. Instead I was transformed into a gangling figure more like a giraffe than a sprite.

I tried to roll over into the “jellyfish,” a position taught by swimming instructors as a resting maneuver requiring little effort on the part of the swimmer. One can float almost indefinitely by relaxing completely except to slip the nose out of the water for a gulp of air every 30 seconds or so.

All well and good if one could assume that position. I was thrown around like a stick figure, sometimes upside down in two feet of water. I could distinguish between water and sky: The water looked a little less brown-gray than the sandy bottom.

Nothing I tried seemed to work. No twisting and turning would drive my face into the twilight above.

I gasped for air underwater and my throat spasmed, I suppose, to keep me from inhaling water. Unfortunately, it also kept me from grabbing oxygen when I did break through the surface.
I tried it again – same result. And a third time. Even though I thought I had my nose above the water, I got only that terrible sense of being out of control, helpless and about to drown.
For some reason, I was picturing Dave at a coroner’s inquest in which someone was trying to elicit information that would help determine cause of death.

“Cause of death?” he answers. “It’s pretty obvious – she drowned. That’s what I can’t understand. She was a good swimmer, and never one to panic.”

Good swimmer? I guess I was. Dave and I taught our little girls to swim, and they were so confident we never worried about them.

At one point I was not only a swimming teacher, but was a teacher-trainer myself, for the American Red Cross.

It wasn’t supposed to end like this. I really didn’t want to die, not like this. That’s when two important things happened, unrelated so far as I know. First of all, my chest began to hurt, low and central. Having heard hundreds of descriptions of heart/chest pain, I knew exactly what it meant. My heart was not getting what it needed most of all: Oxygen.

Given the circumstances, I was not surprised, and not overly concerned. I did make a promise to myself that, if paramedics get into the picture, they will not hear about chest pain. Their protocol would absolutely be to stick needles all over me and take me to a hospital. Sudden death by spasming heart muscles would not be a bad way to go.

I don’t mean to sound flippant. This was a terribly serious situation and could have gone either way.

The second thing that happened was the sighting of Hartmut, Rainer Noerenberg’s son, 25, walking toward me through the shallows, holding a can of adult beverage in his hand. His other hand was extended toward me.

“Need some help?” he called cheerfully. I could not even answer him clearly. My voice came out a raw squeak and I felt as though I had just lost a marathon.

“Thank you, thank you, Hartmut. You saved my life,” I gasped. “You really saved my life.”

I said he walked through the water.

Or did he walk on it?