I remember hearing or reading or hallucinating that death by drowning is a rather peaceful way to go. And based on my own experience of nearly drowning, I believe that assessment is what’s typically referred to as “complete and utter bullshit.” Unless, of course, your definition of “peaceful” includes panicking, grabbing, flailing and gagging. In which case, it was indeed peaceful, in a terrified and desperate sort of way.
I was 12 or 13 and my family and I were visiting my grandparents in Florida, because that’s where grandparents live … there and Arizona. If you have grandparents who don’t live in Florida or Arizona, or at least a place where the summer weather is equally intolerable, keep an eye on them. They’re probably spies. Or aliens.
My older brother and I were splashing and frolicking (not really, but it sounds like what you do at the beach) in the Gulf of Mexico, a body of water that’s often described as being as warm as a bathtub. As a person who’s actually taken baths, I can tell you it’s not nearly that warm. It’s more like being in a pool and realizing the kid next to you just peed. Or that you just peed, which is gross, but infinitely less gross than marinating in a stranger’s urine.
At this particular beach, there was a sandbar about 50 yards out and once you swam to it, the water was only about knee deep. On this day, however, because the tide was high or there was a storm far out in the Gulf or some such other reason, when we got to where the sandbar should have been, there was only more water beneath our feet. That shouldn’t have been a problem as all we had to do was swim back to the beach.
I remember that even though the sandbar wasn’t too far out, when we turned around to swim back it was like looking at the beach through the wrong end of a telescope. Not only that, but the swimming we were doing didn’t seem to be closing the distance.
We’d later learn that the storm out in the Gulf was creating hazardous surf and riptides, and that we weren’t just swimming in place, we were actually being pulled further out. Of course, we didn’t know it at the time, and even if we had it probably wouldn’t have made much difference. We were kids, barely in our teens, and we did what children in such situations tend to do: we freaked the fuck out!
This was the day I learned that being heroic wasn’t likely to ever appear on my personal resume, nor that of my brother. In an effort to keep our heads above water, we both automatically reached for the nearest thing – each other.
Aside from learning that I lacked the bravery gene, I also understood why flight attendants don’t tell you that in the event of a water landing the person sitting next to you can be used as a flotation device. My brother was about as buoyant as a bowling ball.
All of our instinctive attempts to drown one another finally caught the attention of our dad, who thought we were waving and simply waved back before turning away. It was a sinking feeling, literally. We resumed trying to survive at the expense of the other, and were fortunate that another swimmer realized he wasn’t just seeing typical siblings trying to murder each other. He paddled out to us on his inflatable raft, which we clung to like … well, like a drowning person clings to a raft.
In case you didn’t notice, nowhere in recounting this event was there any mention of a sense of peace or serenity coming over me. Maybe if I wasn’t so lacking in courage and stoicism, I would have accepted my fate, said good-bye to my brother and given him a last message for our parents before slipping beneath the surface for the last time, I might have experienced that peaceful feeling.
I would also be dead.
And in my book, being a live coward is far preferable to being a dead hero.