When I was eleven my mom and I were living in New Zealand, her native country. It was definitely a lot different growing up than growing up in Hawaii, an island chain that didn’t experienced the four seasons like most. Hawaii didn’t change into shades of autumn, there were no piles of fallen leaves in gold, auburn, and burnt orange. The worst winter I experienced was just hard rain that brought on humidity that only those living in the tropics would understand.
When we moved to New Zealand following her finalized divorce to my dad, my mom cautioned it would be colder, but it never felt that cold to me. I bundled up in sweaters for winter, and donned a rain coat in spring, but that was more for comfort than anything. I didn’t realize the temp change until dipping in the ocean for the first time. The South Pacific Ocean was much colder than the tropical climates I was used to. I could never get used to the icy feeling. Those who lived in New Zealand were of course used to it, stating that in the summer it was warm. But their idea of warm was my idea of Hawaii on its coldest winter day, when most wouldn’t jump in.
However, I was a born water baby. I have many photos of me as a small child, and I’m always playing next to a body of water. The Scorpio in me could never get enough, I was a water sign through and through. As soon as I was old enough my mom put me in swim school and I took to it like a fish. I won swim meets left and right, and excelled at anything water related.
So, when I was eleven we visited a famous Auckland region beach called Piha, located on the west coast. Piha was known for its good surfing, even boasting a surf club. It was a black sand beach as well, which I’d only ever experienced one other time before, and loved the novelty of it. Piha was also known for its strong currents and rip tides. So well known in fact that there were safety zones in which you could only swim between two marked flags, and lifeguards on duty to rein in swimmers or surfers who’d been dragged out by the fierce pull of the ocean.
On that fateful day back when I was eleven, we had been driving around with my moms boyfriend at the time and I had brought a friend along with me.
Rae was a schoolmate whom was certainly not my favorite friend, but was the one available to hang out that day. While we got along just fine, I had always sensed a bit of resentment from her (yes even at 12 I could see it). She was an only child as well, from a single parent household, but was raised by a father and not a mother. I often wondered if she envied my close relationship with my mother, and had noticed quite a bit of competitiveness.
We weren’t beach ready, and lacked swimwear, but we did have a couple towels on hand and Rae and I begged to go for a dip. Looking back now, the t-shirt and shorts combination I was wearing was definitely not the best swimwear for a beach like that. However I was eager to be in water again, and despite the chilling cold of the icy South Pacific, I jumped right in.
That day I learned a valuable lesson that has stayed with me for a long time. Rae and I unfortunately got caught in the rip tide that day, and we were pulled quite far out. We knew we were in trouble but started to make the slow and steady swim back in. After what seemed like forever, a lifeguard boat came out looking for people in distress. Rae was closer and I shouted at her to get his attention. Luckily he saw her straight away and picked her up. I waved at her to have him pick me up too, but she did something that has stayed with me for these twenty five years. She looked right at me and then turned her head, and motioned she wanted to go back in, knowing that I needed help but denying it to me. In that moment she couldn’t look past her resentment or whatever she felt deep in her soul, and made the choice to leave me in the sea.
I understand that at eleven perhaps she didn’t know what she was choosing, that she might not have had the capacity to realize my life was in her hands. Though I certainly had the capacity to know and realize if I wanted saving I would have to do it myself.
I don’t know how long it took me, but I slowly and methodically swam in. My water laden shorts and shirt did nothing to help my struggle, and I’d never realized until that moment how very streamlined my swim team uniform was. I thanked the universe that I was a swimmer and that perhaps I’d always trained for this moment, when my skill would be needed most. I finally made it back in and back to my mom, her parter, and Rae. I glared at Rae but said nothing to her, it wasn’t necessary, we both knew what she did. And after that day I didn’t spend any more time with her outside of school. I knew a bad apple when I saw one.
I have thought of that day many times. I’ve mulled it over in my head, picked it apart, tried to understand how and why. But the conclusion I’ve always come to is that we just can’t know what’s in the heads of others. We can’t know their demons, as much as they can’t know ours. Did she want me to drown? Probably not. Did she want me to suffer? Maybe. It’s not worth thinking about too hard.
Last week, I returned to Piha Beach for the first time since I was eleven. Twenty five years of fearing those strong currents, and in a way fearing the death that I could have met had I not been strong enough. I sat and let my feet squish in the black sand, watching the distant waves before me. It was then that everything started to make sense. I had an epiphany.
About a week ago I saw a post I liked on a chronic pain page that I follow on Facebook. It said..
“I often ask myself, why me? Why must everyday be a pain day? But then I ask myself – why not me. I would not wish this on anyone else and perhaps the universe gave me this because I can handle it better.”
Now when I first saw that I scoffed at it. I mean the universe sucks in picking people if that’s the case. I’d prefer a different present thank you very much.
But when I was at the beach, I started to think about it. And then I got back in the water after having being scared of its currents for almost three decades. The currents were really strong and I had to fight to keep between the swimming flags. There were moments where I wondered if I should pick my feet up and see how far it swept me away. It was then that the universe reached down and gave me a revelation that has taken my lifetime to conceive.
On that day, when I was eleven, I could have certainly drowned if I gave up. I was tired, my legs and arms ached at the weight of the water against me. I could have let go and let the sea swallow me. But I didn’t, because I knew I could make it. I knew it would hurt and it would be exhausting, but that I’d make it if I wanted to live.
Since I got sick, and then sicker, and then sicker, I have cursed the world for giving me this when there are healthy serial killers that walk the streets. Cursed the universe for giving me this pain and heartache when there are billions that live without it. But just like that moment in the ocean all those years ago, I was given a choice. There have been so many times that my disease has almost won. I’ve been hospitalized, been in cardiac arrest, I’ve blacked out because the pain almost consumed me. But I’ve always chosen to wake and deal with it. There have been times where I know my body would have given up if I let it. A moment in a hospital bed after I blacked out from arrest, a moment where I saw dark and light and knew I could choose a different path.
I chose to live. And sure, I don’t want to be sick. I hate my disease and the fact that I never get well despite the handfuls of pills they make me take, and the chemicals they pump into my IV. But I’m still alive, and I wouldn’t wish this on anyone, even that girl so long ago that turned her back on me. Maybe the universe did give this to me because it knew I could handle it. That I wouldn’t let it defeat me. Maybe that’s what it means to be alive. Having something to fight for, living for more than just the 9 to 5, and the mortgage payments, and the white picket fence. Sure, a lot of people have it better than me, physically, mentally, and financially. But maybe I’m different because I’ve looked into the darkness and turned away.
I’m alive not because my heart still pumps. I’m alive because I choose to be. I’m severely ill, dying slowly from incurable diseases. But I feel more alive because I know how fragile I am. I’ve looked into the darkness a few times now, and I’ve said no to its painless quiet. I’d rather live with this than not at all.
Now Piha Beach can be a memory of the first time I chose to be stronger than you could ever imagine. And choosing is beautiful.