I served in the Peace Corps stationed in Belize, Central America from 1989 to 1991. As part of my training, I traveled to Monterrico, Guatemala for a Spanish immersion program. This is the place where I met death.
My friend Jonno and I had just finished dinner and were walking along the beach. The rise and fall of the ocean tides were hypnotizing and inviting. As we collected sand dollars, one moment the waters were shallow, quiet and soothing, and the next moment the waves were crashing in.
It wasn’t long before we were pulled in deeper. The tide was getting high and the undertow was growing stronger, but we were good swimmers and having fun.
All of the sudden, I realized that there was not a single bit of light to be seen on shore. Surprised by how dark it had become, “Jonno, what happened to the lights?” I asked. Jonno looked around unable to orient himself. “Maybe there was a blackout?” he questioned.
Little did we know as visitors of the area, it was “brownout” time in Monterrico: the scheduled time at night in which the town intentionally dropped the voltage in the electrical power supply to conserve energy. All the lights had been turned off.
The waves were getting stronger and the moon was covered in clouds. It was dark and the black sandy beaches of Monterrico made it impossible to distinguish the shore from water.
“Which way should we swim?” I nervously asked, knowing there were no markers to go by.
“I don’t know,” Jonno answered. “I can’t touch the bottom anymore…Can you?” he wondered.
“No,” I replied. Perhaps we were close to the shore or maybe we were passed the reef. There was no way for us to know.
The waves were becoming more violent and it was increasingly challenging to swim. We quickly decided our best bet was to hang onto each other with one hand and swim in a single direction.
Soon enough, we realized that swimming with one arm was too difficult, especially for me since my hair was in my face and I had a hard time breathing without swallowing a lot of salt water.
After about ten minutes, Jonno stopped and said, “We’re getting nowhere. We’ll never get to shore holding onto one another like this.”
I agreed. I needed both arms to swim and letting go was a better plan. When I released from Jonno, I went under water quickly to move the hair away from my face, but when I came back up about two seconds later, he was already gone. “Jonno?” I called out to him, but the waves had already separated us. There was no response.
Thus began the swim for my life. This challenge was far beyond my swimming skills, but I tried to be methodical in pace and breathing. I struggled to keep hair out of my face and unfortunately I continued to swallow a lot of salt water. “Oh my God,” I thought. “This is really hard.”
I had eye contacts and my sight depended on them, so I kept my eyes closed as I swam. When I did open my eyes for a peek, I couldn’t see a thing. It was still pitch black all around me and the shore was no where in sight. Although I was in good shape as a trained dancer and long-distance runner, I began to grow more and more fatigued.
With each stroke, I lost hope. I questioned my safe return to shore. “This could very well be my last day. Surely, this is not the way my life was meant to end,” I thought in disbelief. “I was not put on this earth and did not overcome all of my life’s challenges, only to go out like this.”
I believed that there was something greater than myself and my life had a higher purpose to fulfill. I was a math and dance teacher. I wanted to help students reach intellectual and artistic potential. I longed to marry my best friend, have children, and teach others how to cherish life. I wanted to experience a life of freedom, especially now that I had a number of health challenges. I had no choice but to survive, so I swam robustly, vowing never to give up. While those thoughts inspired me for a bit, the waves took a toll. I grew more and more weary…to the point where I could swim no more.
I turned over onto my back. I was unable to respond to the painful muscle cramping as my body quit on me. Paralyzed from exhaustion, I didn't panic. My real choice was let go and float, as my arms had no strength to propel. I knew if it was truly my time to go, no amount of effort on my part could change that.
I accepted the inevitable and prayed, "God, I surrender my life to you.”
Closing my eyes, the water covered my face as I struggled to stay afloat. The silence under water felt wonderfully deafening and a great peace overcame me. I recalled brief flashes of quiet moments with my parents, fishing with my siblings, laughing as a college student, living abroad in Japan, and long hours dancing in the studios of Alvin Ailey. In time...I lost consciousness.
I don't know how much time passed after that defining moment. I do remember, however, the feeling of the sandy beach scraping against my back, and the realization that I was alive. I felt an arm reaching for mine, and when I opened my eyes, I saw Jonno pulling me out of the water.
I believe we are never given more than we can handle. There’s always a choice.
In the waters of death, I had a choice. Some people may think I gave up on life, but they are wrong. At death's covering, I finally began to embrace life.